the last days of paradise

Written 1990
Revised 2002
Adapted into a play: The Last Days of Paradise 2002

New York Times, Tuesday, March 27, 1990, page 1:
The man who the police say has admitted starting the fire that killed 87 people in a Bronx social club Sunday morning was described as a Cuban Army deserter and street hustler who lost both his job and his girlfriend in recent weeks. The suspect, 36-year-old Julio Gonzalez, was said to have told the Government he had feigned a record of drug-trafficking in Cuba to win expulsion to the United States in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Since then, he had given the authorities no reason to pay him any attention, apparently living in a 10-by-10 rented room devoid of any ornament but for a picture of Jesus. Yesterday, Mr. Gonzalez was arraigned on 87 counts of murder in the largest mass-murder case in New York City history. The authorities said he had admitted setting the fire in revenge after arguing with a former girl-friend who worked at the club. And a neighborhood woman who said she knew the couple said they had recently broken up after living together for eight years. Mr. Gonzalez, she said, wanted to get back together. As a picture of Mr. Gonzalez and his movements last weekend began to emerge, Mayor David N. Dinkins announced a series of new measures to expose and close unlicensed social clubs, which he said represented a menace to neighborhoods throughout the city.

  • You have questions? You’re a reporter, right?
  • Yes. Just free-lance, really.
  • And you want to know about Paradise?
  • That’s the story they’re paying me to do.
  • All right. The facts. That’s what you want. About how it started, ended. Like that?
  • That’s right.
  • I can do that. I can try to be objective for you. Even though I was there. Reporters are supposed to be objective, right?
  • Yes, sure. Are you ready?
  • Yes.
  • Let’s get started.

Okay. It started when the man with the box under his arm, who called himself “assistant inspector of permits,” said we might have to close down Paradise. I asked him to explain. He was all explanations. He said we had no license and with no license we didn’t have no right to operate a club inside the boundaries of New York City.

“And that’s that, lady,” he added, shaking the box so I heard a thump coming from inside it.

I tried to help him get his mind clear: I told him that Paradise is not in the bounds of New York City nor is it in the bounds of any region on this planet.

But he made a snorting sound, I think he was actually laughing at me when he said, “of course it is, lady, and you have five days to apply for a permit or I will personally make sure the City of New York comes and closes down your club.”

As the man with the box (it was a tan box) was turning to leave, with a sourfaced look, I asked him why close down Paradise.

“We’re cracking down. It’s because of what happened in the Bronx,” he said, “87 people died. You know about that?” I did. He said, “It was a bad thing. You should know better than to operate a club with no license. It’s dangerous.”

I asked, “What, a piece of paper makes it safe?” and he snorted, “of course it does, don’t you know anything?”

Then he turned to leave again. I called out to him, “what do you have in the box?” He said over his shoulder, “Roller skates.” He was gone before I could ask him why roller skates.

  • Is this right? News stories are supposed to be objective. Do you need it to be more objective?
  • Whatever you want.
  • It’s no problem. I’d like to be even more objective. I bet it makes things easier to tell. Makes them hurt less.
  • Fine.

Okay. So Elan sat on a table and thought about a permit. She knew it would never happen. Paradise was for the Apart. None of them ever had enough money together to pay for a permit. Otherwise, how could they be the Apart? Even if they got the bread, the clerk people would find some way to beat us out of the permit. Elan knew it was hopeless.

  • My name is Elan. That is me. I’m describing it so you can write it down. Objective. Like I was a reporter. Do you like the way I’m doing it?
  • It’s fine.

So Elan was thinking she would have to close Paradise. She didn’t know what to do, it was sinister is what she thought it was. Why?

Paradise was for the Apart. Where else could they go? Not bars. Most of them couldn’t afford bars or didn’t like to drink. Or else, even if they could afford bars, they wouldn’t get let into one. It’s the way they look, with pins and medallions and tattoos and hair and skin nobody who owns a bar wants to see. It looks dangerous. Especially to people who own bars. People who own bars are afraid of dangerous people. Why is that? If you’re scared of danger, why open a bar, which attracts dangerous people, in the first place? Why not open a Petland or a newsstand? Why a bar? Stupid.

People will miss Paradise.

Elan pictured them all when they saw the label across the jamb on the two front doors, pictured them shaking the doors which wouldn’t open ever again, and leaving their tears there on the stoop.

Some people will miss Paradise.

It was a kind of heaven on earth for the Apart, who have no right to expect a heaven anywhere. We don’t believe in it anywhere, don’t think about it much and if we do believe in one we know for dead fact we’re not going to get into it. We’re used to it. Similar to the bars, the owner of heaven won’t let us in either.

We look too dangerous.

Some people will miss Paradise. Now that it’s gone.

  • It sure is quiet in here. You okay?
  • I’m fine.
  • Hey, get comfortable. Pull up a table. I don’t know what happened to the chairs. I don’t think they burned up. Well it’s a poor neighborhood. Probably some broke family’s got them now, though what they’re going to do with forty-five chairs, you got me. Sit down. It’s a long story. It’ll take a few minutes to get to it. I’d offer you some beer or coffee. But you can see the shape the kitchen is in.
  • It’s okay. I don’t need anything. You can continue.

Where were we? They stuck a label. On the doors. Elan was inside Paradise. She heard someone cutting through the label. It was Delivery, with his lady, Cinder. He cut through it with his packing knife. They called him Delivery because that’s what he always did, delivered. He started out working for a messenger service here in Manhattan and then the shakes got him and he messed up a job and they fired him. It kept happening the same way. Believe it or not in six years he finally managed to go through every messenger company in the City so now he does it free-lance. That’s why he carries the packing knife. He never knows when he’ll get work.

  • What does he deliver?
  • I don’t know. There are lots of things people can deliver. Use your imagination. God, you ask a lot of questions. Does it make you feel safer?
  • Never mind. Listen, I’ve got to go soon, so…
  • Sure. I’ll go on.

Delivery cut through the label the man with the box stuck to the door. Elan was inside, on a table with this dirty rag dangling from the hip pocket of her jeans, crying, all alone. So they came in. Delivery asked, “what’s wrong Elan? Why is there a label across the door?”Elan said, “It’s going away.”

“What?” asked Cinder.

“This,” said Elan, and waved her hand slowly at the walls of Paradise, waved it like this, across the mural of Red Penguins smoking a joint on the South wall and the Sex Pistols posters on the East wall and the original mosaic by that guy who did those lamp-post mosaics all over Astor Place with bits of Coke bottle and tile and pretty shards of varicolored glass in patterns like mandalas on the West wall.

  • What about the North wall?
  • I had a feeling you would ask that question, so I kind of set you up. You like things to come in neat sets, so you can think there’s some order to them. But there’s no order.
  • The North Wall…

Okay, the North wall was white. They kept it painted. When The Fish brought in her 16mm projector she showed films, made in her studios in New Jersey, on the white wall.

The Fish made films that showed ordinary things, but the films had this atmosphere, this quality, that made you really see the things, transformed them, made them unordinary. For example, there was one that showed a big group of men urinating on a wall in SoHo, one-by-one, for sixty-three minutes. In one part of the film, a guy in a suit walks by, sees the man peeing against a wall and the camera catching it. He zips his fly down and stands next to the peeing man, and pees too. In another, shot in Armonk, New York, a paper-boy throws newspapers at one suburban stoop after another and he talks about the Zen of hitting the stoops, how to make it look ordinary but not miss the stoops. Another film shows a woman brushing her hair sitting on a counter in a public bathroom, for forty-two minutes. When she’s done, it’s shiny and smooth, and the camera massages it lovingly. The Fish shot that film at Paradise.

Some people walked out when The Fish came and set up her projector. They knew what was coming. Others stayed on to see her films but left part-way through. Still others, like Elan, Delivery, Cinder, Pale, and many others, stayed because they saw something in those films. They saw themselves, the mutants, the Apart. They loved The Fish for that. And she loved them.

The Fish was making a film all about them, about Paradise and the Apart, as we were. Now the film won’t get done. But it could have been good.

  • Let’s skip to how Paradise got started.

How did it start? How does anything get started? It began as a squat. Delivery knows the whole story. Elan didn’t start it. There was an abandoned building with this great big basement, as you can see. I don’t know who owns the building. If there is an owner, he probably doesn’t even know he owns it. Because Paradise was here for seven years and nobody said a word.

What did they used to do? Lots of things. There were people in and out of there. Some bikers. Some freaks. Some wise men. Some shamans. One guy who sold ice cream. Mister Softee. Everywhere he went smelled like vanilla. It smells good the first time he passes by you. Elan slept with him once. She liked the smell. He got sticky stuff all over the bed. She asked him if he liked ice cream. He said, he used to.
They did have music. There was a band called Skunkweed. They had a Grateful Dead sound. It was pretty good. And this guy who used to be part of Country Joe And The Fish. No relation to The Fish. He had a band called Reef Madness. They had a different sound.

That’s what they did there, listened to music and talked. What you would expect to happen in a club? It wasn’t a front for drug dealers. There were no drug dealers among the Apart. Dealing drugs is too much like a job. Besides, they wouldn’t know what to do with all that bread once they made it. None of them ever made that much money.

Sometimes local artists with no bread walked into Paradise off the street. They approach Elan and ask her if they could do their act, whatever. People always treated Elan like the boss, but there was really no boss. She always let them stand up and do their act. We would pass the hat. Sometimes the Apart gave them enough for dinner or a room in a roach motel near St. Mark’s. The Apart never have a lot of bread, but when they see another Apart, they shared. It was good. There are lots of other stories like that, but they start to sound the same.

  • What about that night…

Right. That night. It wasn’t like Happy Land in the Bronx. It wasn’t an accident. It was an on-purpose. Have you read Of Mice and Men? That’s right, it was a film, too, an old film, I saw it. With Burgess Meredith. He was good in that, then he got all wrinkled and did the Rocky films.

You remember the story? It’s by John Steinbeck. In one scene an old man has a dog. It’s old, senile, smells bad, keeps messing up. His friends get tired of looking at it because they think it’s suffering; they take it out and shoot it. The old man gets very upset. He thought he should shoot it himself. Because it was his dog.

That’s what happened to Paradise. It was old and beat-up; some people thought it was ugly. But it belonged to the Apart.

That night they all gathered there, after Delivery got the label off the door. Lots of the Apart showed up from all over the City. They heard about the label. They called a meeting here about what they should do. I don’t remember who came up with the idea first. But I want it to be very clear in the story you write that it was everybody’s idea. There were no victims. You got that?

People rummaged around. Somebody came up with a can of kerosene. Cinder had a lot of matches, she likes fire, that’s why she’s called Cinder, got it? She gave the matches around; everybody took one. There were about a hundred people. One by one they threw the matches through the door. They all did it together, is that clear? Then they stood around and sang sad songs. It was like the day John Lennon died, when a bunch of the Apart went up to the Dakota—that’s the hotel where he lived and got shot in front of—to sing. Just like on that night ten years ago, they sang “Imagine,” and some other songs, while they watched Paradise burn.

After a while people started to leave. They walked slowly, Delivery, Cinder and Elan. When they got back a block, they looked. There were still people standing around singing and crying, but the crowd was starting to break up because it was arson and nobody wanted to get caught. The fire was yellow. Elan wondered if the murals would burn off the walls. If you look around you can see now what happened to them.

They walked another block and looked. They could still see the fire.

They walked back until they were ten blocks away. They couldn’t see the flames but they could still see the smoke; like a big column holding up heaven.

They walked back until they were twenty blocks away. The column of smoke was thinner, but they could still see.

Then they were right by the Franklin Street number one subway stop. Cinder had an idea then. The three of them got on the train and went to Brooklyn Heights, then walked to Carroll Gardens, where Delivery and Cinder had their apartment. Delivery went upstairs to get a joint and a bottle of Astor Place White Zin that was in the refrig. Cinder and Elan stood outside in front.

“Can you see it from here?” Elan asked.

“You can see Manhattan. It’s that way,” Cinder answered, pointing.

They scanned the glowing skyline toward where Paradise was. But they couldn’t see the smoke or the fire. They drank the wine and smoked the joint. It was very quiet the rest of the night. Elan went back to Manhattan around four. The subway was like a tomb. She could hear the train coming, four stops.

  • I’m out. Nothing more to tell. Better get to your appointment or whatever.
  • Okay, thanks. Bye.
  • Yeah. Bye.

  • Hi.
  • Hi. It’s you. I didn’t think you’d come back. Don’t you have enough material for your story already?
  • Yeah. It’s coming out Tuesday. Just came by to see how you were doing. It’s good to see you.
  • Hell. It’s good to see you again, too. You growing a beard? I like it.
  • Thanks. Want one?
  • Viceroys? Love one. Thanks. Me? Doing? I don’t know. I keep thinking I left something of mine here, that’s why I’m here. I come back and search around, sort through things. I know I should get a job, right? Temping or something. Did I tell you I know word processing?
  • Oh, that’s good.
  • No it’s not, it sucks.
  • I meant the money can be good.
  • I suppose. Hey, guess what? There is more to the story after all.
  • Okay. Let me get my tape recorder. It’s in the bag here. We can do a follow-up thing, maybe.
  • Ready?
  • Yeah.

The man with the box came back this morning. He had the piece of paper in his hand and two cops. One of them was eating an Egg McMuffin. They stood back and talked while the man with the box came up.
He walked around the outside for a minute or two. Elan could see him through the wall, there, where it’s broken. Then he stuck his head in the doorway and saw her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“A fire.”

“What do you think it was? Arson?”

“I don’t know anyone named Arson,” answered Elan.

“Well, couldn’t have been the guy from the Bronx. He’s in jail.”

“Nope. Look, if you’re here to close it down you obviously don’t have to bother, so you can go back to City

Hall or Gracie Mansion or wherever.”

He looked sad. He sighed and unfolded the paper and read it to himself.

“I really don’t like doing this you know,” he said.

“You’re breaking my heart,” answered Elan.

“I just do this to pay the rent. The pay is good. I didn’t realize how hard it was. I’m not a bad man. I used to want to be a musician,” he said.

“Well you’re just the man with the box now,” answered Elan.

He squirreled up his eyes.

“‘The box?’ What do you mean, ‘the box?’”

Then it flashed across his face.

“Oh yeah! That’s right! Last time I came I had a box.”

“What were they for? The roller skates,” she asked him.

He looked sad.

“For my daughter,” he said. From the way he said it Elan knew it was a daughter that he had lost.

“My wife and I are divorced,” he added, because Elan looked so sympathetic. “Three months ago. My daughter is five. Just started kindergarten.”

Elan looked up at the man slowly. She reached to him and took him in her arms. She didn’t know what else to do. It seemed like the right thing. He hugged her tight. The paper crunched against her back.

They cried for a long time. Elan looked over the man’s shoulder and saw the two cops, standing by the kerb. They were still talking. They weren’t paying any attention. The one with the sandwich finished it and threw the paper on the street. After a few minutes the cops and the man left.

  • That’s really all there is to tell.