Pepé told us about The Sponge Factory before we moved to Philadelphia. I made the call, and we met the building manager at the door. She had a parrot on her shoulder, and wasn’t wearing a bra.
We got in a freight elevator and rode to the top floor, to the space. A woman who was hoarding cats lived there before and they were working on getting the smell out, but otherwise it was alright. An artist loft with 19′ ceilings, creaky old floors, large windows with chicken-wire screens looking out over the city. Ripe for art.
The area of town was edgy. North Philly starts around Spring Garden and extends for what seems like forever, to Temple University.
The neighborhoods in the mid-90s felt hostile and rough. You couldn’t pump gas without being accosted for money. You couldn’t shop the insides of the gas stations for chips or anti-freeze either, because everything was behind bulletproof glass. You talked to an attendant and gestured to what you wanted, he got it, and slid it out to you through a window.
We were young and in love with the idea of art, in the big city. I bought an ’84 Toyota Celica for $500 and parked it across the street, in front of the drug-dealers’ place. They smoked joints on the front doorstep and I sat in my car waiting for them to finish, so I could pick up the roaches and save them in the ashtray of my car, for later.
Melanie was our building manager, and Shana quickly diagnosed her as Borderline Personality Disorder. Shana said they were the hardest to manage: stable enough they didn’t require meds and could fit in easily, but often very manipulative.
Melanie had keys to all our units, and lived right next to us on the fourth floor. She had taken a liking to us and was starting to get clingy, but Shana and I balked, and one day she decided that was enough with us. She looked away when we passed in the halls, her voice shaking, and then started playing a Bjork song really loud around 7 every morning.
She was also on the outs with Phil and Joe, who lived at the end of the hall. Phil was a bonafide artist; Joe worked the dispatch for a trucking company. They were the first gay couple I ever knew.
But Melanie had started putting rusty nails in their laundry, and was probably behind the dead crow they found on their windshield one morning. By the position of its wings, it looked like someone had placed it there as an omen. Phil said the landlords wouldn’t fire her because they were afraid she would torch the place if they did.
I opened a coffee shop on 4th and South, but wasn’t much of a manager. I checked voicemail 24/7 from home, didn’t know how to read my P&L, and had a crush on one of my baristas. Having left all of my friends behind in Pittsburgh, it was a rough go in Philadelphia: Shana didn’t drink or smoke, and didn’t like me to, either.
The morning it snowed, I had a dream I was getting high. The dream was so vivid, I woke with the actual sensation of being stoned, but it disappeared once I realized it was just a dream.
It was my day off, and since we didn’t have Internet then, didn’t own a TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, we were caught by surprise with a foot of snow. The otherwise ugly roads below were covered in white, and there was no traffic. The plows hadn’t made it over our way yet, and likely wouldn’t.
I made some coffee and started to fiddle in the apartment. Shana was stuck at home too. We decided maybe it was time to take the Christmas tree out and dump it in the back, since we were half-way through January already.
I dragged it through the halls, leaving a trail of needles, and found the back entrance, leading to an alley behind The Sponge Factory. I threw open the door and propped it with a brick that was left there for that purpose.
In the middle of the alley was a figure bundled in a bright, Mexican blanket, smoking. I could tell by the rhythm of his tokes he was getting high. He was like some ghost-vision from a Castaneda novel, a dream manifestation? I thought of a discreet way to approach him, but there was no discreet way, and so I tossed the tree beside the dumpster in the snow, and trudged my way in his direction.
He studied me as I drew nearer, and smiled: a friendly-looking Puerto Rican with a thin mustache.
I said Hey, do you mind? He offered it to me and said in a thick accent, there’s more where that come from, and pulled out another skinny joint.
He said he told his wife he was just going for a walk, and she said, yeah I BET you going for a walk…
Just then, Shana appeared in the doorway behind us, about 20 yards from the alley. We looked at her and she looked at us, shook her head, and turned back inside.
I made my way back upstairs and put on a Reggae tape. Shana glared at me from the other side of the loft.
Don’t you think you should check in with work? she said.
Just then the phone rang, and I jumped. I let it go to the answering machine and sure enough, it was my boss. His voice filled the loft space: so-in-so hadn’t made it in, the store was unusually busy for a Tuesday morning following a blizzard…could I either call somebody in to help, or go in myself?
I got my work clothes on and walked the half-mile to the El, straight down the road where they had plowed. Because the El is an elevated, above-ground subway, it occurred to me it might not be safe riding the rails, with the snow. I asked the attendant, was it going to shut down? He said we can get you down there, but we may not be able to get you back.
I made my decision, and returned home. The high was long-gone, the rest of the day forgotten, our lease up in a few months. We moved across the country, thinking things would get better if we just changed cities, but they didn’t.