Opinion

The Con Man: In the summer, heat gets trapped in the city and just sits there all night, immutable and mean

By April 21, 2020 April 23rd, 2020 No Comments
Max Kuhn

Matthew Wallenstein, photo by Katie Krulock

By Matthew Wallenstein
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

My friend is a mostly-reformed con man. He and I spoke today, he was buying a drawing from me. He is out west and settled into a job that seems to be keeping him happy, though because of the quarantine he spends his time hiking through the desert and cooking himself meals, the way he used to.

A ways back I lived above a paint factory in an industrial area of Brooklyn. It had been converted into illegal housing. I lived with ten people and we built the place up with tools we stole from Home Depot and wood from the lumber store down the street. We would compete, see who could carry the most two-by-fours back to our place. Some mornings I would wake up with these awful headaches from the paint fumes. My room didn’t have walls which the girl I was seeing didn’t like, but it was cheap and we could do anything we wanted there, and did.

The con man was in town. He had this car he had taken from a guy who owed him money, who had taken it from someone else. He had driven it to New York from the other side of the country. 

He asked me if I wanted to take the car out for a ride. I followed him down to the street. It was night, summer, hot. Sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back. We went around the side of the building. 

The car was parked on the corner of what we had all come to call “Poop Street.” There was some sort of facility that ran the length of that block, it packed meat or did something with meat. There were always these thick, oily puddles along the sidewalk that smelled like rot. Often there was blood. It smelled awful year-round but summer was the worst. 

For a reason that I never understood, “Poop Street” was a popular spot for sex workers to go with men. I had witnessed their activities more than a few times  on my way back from the subway or walking around late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Once I had heard noises coming from under a semi-truck parked next to the building. They must have heard me walking and got scared because a man rolled out from under it and took off hopping down the street pulling up his pants, the streetlights illuminating his bare ass. The woman crawled out second and just stood next to me and watched him go. All I could think about after that was how bad it must have smelled laying next to those puddles.

The con man and I opened the doors of the car and got in. You had to start the thing with a screwdriver. He explained this to me as he did it. It groaned and turned on. He started driving. In the summer, heat gets trapped in the city and just sits there all night, immutable and mean. I rolled the window down, but the air coming in was hot and it stunk. 

“Where should we go?” Asked the con man.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Let’s just crash it.”

“Okay,” He said.

It was sometime after midnight, I remember that. We drove a few blocks past the train tracks where A. had thrown that Molotov cocktail a few weeks before. It was dark. You had to go into Queens to see stars. There was only one streetlight on either end of the street. Potholes were everywhere, some deep enough to swallow half your legs if you stood in them.

First, he drove it into a stop sign. The impact was harder than I thought it would be. He reversed it, there were all these dragging squealing sounds of metal pulling itself off of metal. 

This kept on with me pointing out walls or signs or trash cans and him seeing how fast he could hit them. After a few minutes, I was surprised the car was still going. 

For some reason, there was a tractor tire on the side of the street leaning at about a 45-degree angle against some rolled-up fence and broken pallets. With effort, we stood it up and rolled it into the middle of the street. We hit it hard. A few guys working the night shift came out of one of the buildings and started yelling at us. The con man slammed into another stop sign, bending it over. We took off and headed back to “Poop Street.” He pulled into a spot. The sound of sirens was getting louder. We bent down behind the row of cars parked there and jogged back to my building and up the stairs.

A few days later the con man and A. drove the car down to Richmond where another group of friends of ours were living in a large warehouse. They took turns shooting the car with handguns before using an angle grinder to cut the top off turning it into a convertible. I have no idea what happened to the car after Richmond. 

I remember one morning coming down and finding an ice cream truck wrapped around a telephone pole on the corner of “Poop Street.” It had been set on fire. Its paint was charred and bubbled, and its inside was black. It was there two weeks before it disappeared.

But a few months after that I went outside and saw that the city had planted trees on the sidewalk. I knew then that the neighborhood was done. That was over a decade ago. People still live in that factory building. Only one knows who I am. All of us who used to live there moved on. Now there are coffee shops and condos where all that mess used to be, where all those fights and fireworks and car wrecks used to be. They probably don’t even have potholes anymore. 

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