Two blocks east of the river, beside the Williamsburg Bridge, stands a white factory building, seven stories tall, whose windows look onto the bridge and across the river to Manhattan and over the neighborhood’s low rooftops and famous water towers. It is 2011, but this building hasn’t yet been cubed up into condos. Inside, it still looks like 1994, each floor a maze of ad hoc lofts, studios, galleries, and workshops, the stained hallways thick with strange smells and years of dust. A couple of years ago during a party a kid from some band jammed the freight elevator between floors, tried to jump out, fell, and died; the elevator still isn’t working. So to get into the building, you climb steep factory flights of gray stairs up away from the basement, where a giant machine rumbles. By the fifth or sixth floor, it is hard to breathe. It is winter, and the rumbling is a steam heater. Every few hours, it blows scalding-hot, wet air up through clanking pipes into the lofts. All over the building tenants open windows, and long white curtains flutter in the hissing steam. Outside, people are climbing up the steep slope of the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, on foot or skateboard or bicycle. Only a few look at the building, and even fewer try to glimpse inside. I am in here, watching the bridge and chain-smoking.
The sun sinks down behind the bridge, filling this big white room with warm red light. When a J, M, or Z train passes, the room darkens and then flushes red again. The sky turns red, then orange, then indigo, then starless, like every Brooklyn night. It’s happy hour. Half the neighborhood is already drunk on two-for-one drafts or shot-and-PBR deals. All week, the kids in lofts and storefronts who do under-the-radar marketing for creative agencies in other lofts and storefronts have been chasing Oxy with Adderall and Adderall with Oxy. Now they’re pulling bottles of tequila from their desk drawers and texting their dealers. A country band is carrying banjos into the Rod and Gun Club. They’re sound-checking at Trash Bar and lighting the fire at Union Pool. The Shabbos siren sounds across the south side. It’s almost time to go out.
Snow came on Halloween weekend this year, fat slow flakes falling on the bridge, turning the scene outside the windows all industrial Courier and Ives, the Gretsch Building just a wide gray ghost beyond the trains. There was a cold wind blowing the slush around, and I watched people breaking their umbrellas against it and struggling to walk, sliding carefully on the sidewalk. This was the day the heat turned on. First, a clanking from below and up through the walls, then the sound of rushing water, and then, in the large sculptor’s studio that I’ve turned into my writing room, a sound like a teapot ready to blow. Steam shot upward from the end of one of the pipes, and water poured and pooled on the floor. I braced for an explosion but it turns out this happens every time the building warms up. It only sounds catastrophic.
That afternoon a guitar player on a dead-mother bender was walking over from Bushwick in the snow to fuck me, his feet wrapped in plastic bags inside his Converse because he’s too broke to buy boots. I walked down six flights to let him in. I hadn’t seen him sober before, which was why I’d requested the afternoon appointment, but I’d stashed a fresh liter of Jack Daniels above the fridge. The lighting in the stairway was pulsing and dim. Snow from the roof was melting down the yellowed walls and pooling on the landings. We didn’t kiss in the entryway. We made small talk as we wound our way up around the puddles, through the industrial waterfall. A few minutes later I was on my knees. The next week I bought new boots myself — short black boots that lace up, boots from the time of coal and steam, but with heels so high they are always sexual.