Alley Between Bay Street and Forsyth (Between Nick Dunkenstein and the Newnan Street Sphinx)

by Tim Gilmore, 3/20/2014

Nick Dunkenstein stood in front of the brick wall and faced the audience, the bar behind them. Nick’s black-and-white stripes cut this way and that, her black ring stared like an eye, her white bodice cut itself out from her ribcage, the black and white stripes of her hose cut other stripes at right angles.

Alley 1

Her zippered and buttoned black-and-white high-heeled costume shoes lifted her from the beautifully aged wooden floor.

I’ve never seen anyone else so natural a showman. Her showmanship doesn’t put you off, it welcomes you. She writes. She paints. She dresses and walks and holds her head that certain way. She is.

Nick Dunkenstein is.

Alley 2

She hosts Wandering Wednesdays, nights of poetry and fiction and music and art, at the Northstar Substation on Bay Street, downtown. Next door at the Underbelly, bands like Suitcase Junket and Roadkill Ghost Choir, with Antique Animals, play night after night.

I take a cue from Nick Dunkenstein and slip out quietly into the dark. I round the old brick offices of The Financial News and Daily Record and walk upright into the alley. At first I pretend I’m Benedict Cumberbatch pretending to be Sherlock Holmes. Then I’m Charles Dickens when he walked miles across London at night. Then I’m Charles Baudelaire, shadowed by old wet and musty Paris brick walls, and that sticks.

The backs of buildings are so much more honest than their fronts. The alley between the backs of the buildings that front Bay and Forsyth Streets tells me the truth. I ask it. It’s far less embarrassed than I am.

Alley 3

The alley has depths to descend. Green lights above chain-link fences that extend at strange upward diagonals from brick walls above my head grow brighter as a driving dance beat from the back of a club grows louder.

Alley 4

I’m ready to see anything—a rat, a migraine aura, the Northern Lights, Sherlock Holmes.

I hear Nick Dunkenstein speak to me from earlier tonight. She first took the name years ago as pseudonym for her graphic novels. The pseudonym became her real name as she grew into it. I say “she.” She’s shaved the Salvidor Dali mustache.

We’d joked before, not entirely jokingly, about the wedding chapel she’d open. She wants to marry people. She wants to be ordained. Tonight we talked about how she wants to be taxidermied after she dies, and thinking of Jeremy Bentham who still presides over meetings at the University College of London almost 200 years after his death, Nick wants her preserved body to greet children at her future theme park. She wants them to enjoy her presence after she’s dead. She laughs about it and smiles. She’s so kind and so sweet.

Alley 8

Walking through the green lights on puddles between brick walls, I look up at fire escapes and wonder what infinitesimal history I add to the past of this ground and these walls and windows. I love it for making me small. I thank it for sharing its whole long life with me.

When I come back out from the alley, an old black man rhythmically ducking his head down into his chest in his long leather coat sounds like he’s preaching to himself.

Alley 6

I come up close.

His face angles down to the street, crowds exit the Florida Theatre, and his eyes look up toward me. I listen.

“You don’t think I see the toxin / on your face / on your hands / on your coat. / You don’t think I see the toxin / on your face / on your hands / on your coat.”

He’s got my attention. I feel for this moment that it’s just him and me among the couples and families spilling from the Florida Theater into the streets. So I lean closer, and he paces the street corner back and forth, quickly.

“I see the toxin / on your face / on your hands / on your coat. / I see the toxin / on your face / on your hands / on your coat.” He keeps his face down, but he keeps his eyes on me.

Because I want to know about this toxin, I try, at an angle, my face open to him, to step toward him, to ask him what he sees.

But he scurries through the patches of light, face down in his coat, and says, “I don’t need you to come close to me. I need you to stay away. You keep away from me.” He says it three times, exact wording. “I don’t need you to come close to me. I need you to stay away. You keep away from me.”

Alley 5

So I do. I don’t want to threaten him, wish I could convey my respect to him, in whatever world he feels us interact.

He tucks his face beneath his coat collar, and I think, “Now who’s playing Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes?”

After I’ve decided to leave him alone, that my attempt to interact has been an accidental threat, he says, “Talk to the man with the red beard.”

So I do. But I didn’t mean to.

I didn’t think his instruction meant a thing. Then I find myself walking north on Newnan Street, standing in front of the century-old “Morocco Temple” Building.

Alley 7

Fronted with tall colorful leaded-glass windows, sculptures of snakes fanned from behind by images of radiating sun, thick pillars and wide steps guarded by two sphinx-link sculptures, the Morocco Temple remains an odd occult remnant of Masonic power, this building dedicated particularly to the “Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.”

That there was nothing ancient or Arabic or noble or mystic about it is irrelevant.

Especially tonight.

Because I’ve received orders.

Which means I stare into the false and ghostly Pharaonic face of this sphinx. Its beard is a long plaster postiche. Its headdress shines black in the streetlights. Its eyes look out-of-focus, wild, sad, afraid.

I say, “Hello.”

I want this golem to say something. He says nothing.

So I pretend he paraphrases what the homeless man who told me, “Talk to the man with the red beard” said, and I hear him say, “Talk to Nick Dunkenstein.”

I nod sagely. I make him this promise. I walk across downtown. I try to feel what night does to brick, especially when it’s humid and shy and urgent and brilliant.