Drunk bartenders, Das Racist, and the creeping gentrification of Kings County.
Smoke: haziness, uncertainty, sinister bits of business being transacted underneath. Something is hidden or made deliberately ambiguous. Something we are not meant to see.
Walking along the streets, people too pass unseen. In Brooklyn, many people remain unseen.
We walk into the bar and the smoke machine is already blowing. We do not know why this should be. It is a Wednesday night and there are only ten people in the bar, but the smoke continues to blow. (Only in retrospect do we take it as a (clumsy) metaphor.)
We go up to the bar and order drinks. The bartender cannot hear us or she cannot understand us. He orders a cocktail of some complexity and the bartender does not know what he is talking about. In her frustration, she picks up a plastic pitcher and throws it across the room. So he orders a beer and she pours it for him.
He hands the bartender a twenty. She goes over to the register and it soon becomes clear that she is too intoxicated to open it up and make change. She walks away in defeat, moves out from behind the bar, and settles onto a stool. Her head hangs down. Then she gets up and inches slowly toward the bathroom.
“Charity is a great thing,” opines one of the bar’s reviewers on Yelp. “However, I don’t believe I should be giving these people my money for nothing, because I don’t think it’s a good cause. This place offers the same product as other spots in the neighborhood, but charges more money.”
In her fragmented motion, the woman is unseen. Or people are simply pretending not to notice.
“With an origin going back to their time spent living in a ‘Students of Color for Social Justice’-themed dorm, Das Racist’s meeting seemed like destiny. While MCs Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.) and Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) met years earlier, 2008 would be the year that they would come to the attention of the music world after their oddly catchy song ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ became a YouTube hit. Teamed up with their hype man, Dapwell (aka Ashok Kondabolu), the Brooklyn group had a style that both satirized and revered hip-hop, combining druggy nonsense, social commentary, and obscure pop culture references into one boldly self-aware package.”
They disbanded in 2012.
Since the breakup of Das Racist, Kondabolu keeps busy with various writing and radio projects, including his popular weekly show “Chillin Island.” He also DJs regularly at various venues in New York City.
Before we came here, we had dined up the street. We had eaten expensive pizzas among other people who liked to eat expensive pizzas. We ate them in a space designed for people who like to eat expensive pizzas. The restaurant was in a row of other restaurants that had all opened within the last three years, many within the last year.
After that, we went directly to the bar. The bar was not in a row of other bars, but isolated on an otherwise desolate block in a neutral zone between two neighborhoods, both expanding rapidly. The area in between, by contrast, looked like it hadn’t undergone any change in decades.
She goes in the bathroom and we know that she is not coming out because someone who goes into the bathroom in that state does not come out. Nobody seems to notice, though it is unclear whether this is through ignorance or design.
The bar is new but it is supposed to look old. Most of the new places in the neighborhood are designed to look new. They share the same generic template: polished wood bar, exposed brick walls, tastefully-sized television screens. But this bar does not; it is constructed on a different model, the old school dive. And yet it resembles that model in appearance only. Quoting the fondly remembered past to haze over the diminished possibilities of the present.
Of course, with the smoke machine blowing so aggressively, it is hard to tell what exactly we are dealing with here.
We do not know what to do because she has been in the bathroom for five minutes, then ten minutes. We knock on the door, but there is no response. We look around for someone else who might be affiliated with the establishment. There is a man sitting at the bar intently working on his laptop using what appears to be sophisticated DJ software, likely in preparation for a set he will be performing later.
We talk about what we should do and he decides to go over to the DJ.
“Do you work here?” he says.
“Well, I’m DJing here,” the DJ says.
“The bartender’s in the bathroom and I’m pretty sure she’s passed out,” he says.
“Okay, well let’s give it five minutes and if she’s not out, I’ll find the owner,” the DJ says.
“Okay, but she was in really bad shape, so I think she may need help,” I say.
I relate the incident to a friend later and she tells me that someone from the group Das Racist was scheduled to DJ at that bar on that night and that was whom I was likely talking to. I am not familiar with the group and so I don’t know what any of the members look like, but I go to the bar’s website and see that it is Dapwell that was playing on that night and so it was probably him that we were speaking with.
Weighing in on Das Racist’s breakthrough hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” back in 2009, the Village Voice’s Rob Harvilla concluded that the song “deftly locates the fine line between stupid and clever and snorts it,” adding that it is “either very, very meaningful or completely meaningless.”
Much of the group’s work seems designed to confuse boundaries which is why they’re often dismissed as joke rappers. But in between the yuks and general weirdness, they often get at some caustic truths. At the end of the otherwise snottily unserious “Rainbow in the Dark,” rapper Kool A.D. turns up the heat without abandoning the group’s signature style or penchant for wide-ranging pop culture references: “No trust them white face man like Geronimo/Tried to go to Amsterdam they threw us in Guantánamo.”
Ethnic and geographic origins of Das Racist members:
Himanshu Suri (Heems) – Born and raised in Flushing, Queens. Of Indian-Punjabi descent.
Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) – Grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Of Afro-Cuban and Italian descent.
Ashok Kondabolu (Dapwell) – From Queens. Born to Indian immigrant parents.
Dapwell, or the man I believe in retrospect to be Dapwell, leaves and returns with the owner, a blond man in his mid-30s with pointy-toed loafers and a generalized air of unconcern. He approaches us.
In his book I is an Other, James Geary makes a convincing case for viewing what many dismiss as little more than a clever literary device as one of the central means by which we experience the world. “Metaphor is intensely yet inconspicuously present in everything from ordinary conversation and commercial messaging to news reports and political speeches,” he writes. “Metaphor is always breathing down our necks.”
Geary’s point is that far from being a mere a decorative flourish, metaphor allows us to grasp the unknown, to understand those things that are foreign to us by using the familiar as a point of comparison. We have relied upon it throughout human history. The world turns on metaphor.
A locked door: desire, fear, sinister bits of business being transacted beyond. Something is hidden that prompts, at the least, our curiosity. A challenge, then. We cannot tolerate this absolute denial of access.
Most hip hop songs, of course, also turn on the language of comparison. Those of Das Racist double down on the technique, even if, in many cases, the point seems to be less to bring understanding to the unknown and more to indulge in the simple pleasures of language:
“Frat dudes is like Juggalos/Underrated in the game like Mark Ruffalo/I rock well like Sam and people love it, yo/At the crib, I steady stack bills like buffalo.” And so forth.
“What’s going on?” the owner asks us.
“She’s passed out in the bathroom,” he says, “the bartender is.”
“Oh,” says the owner.
“Yeah,” I say. “She was going to give us change, but then she wandered into the bathroom.”
“Did you not get your change?” says the owner.
“No. But, I’m more concerned about the bartender right now,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” says the owner. “I’ll take care of that. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “I just think the woman needs help.”
“I’ll take care of that,” says the owner. “How much money did you give her?”
“Well, we gave her a twenty and the drinks cost twelve,” I say.
So the owner goes around behind the bar and opens the register and takes out a twenty and hands it to me. Then he lines up two shot glasses and starts to pour us shots, but we refuse and then he takes the shot glasses away and goes back behind the bar and fiddles around with papers and tries to look busy.
Dapwell or whoever the DJ is, is back at work on his computer, preparing for the set. A fresh round of smoke is released from the small device located next to him.
“Historically, metaphor has often been considered a devious use of language,” notes Geary, “an imprecise and vaguely suspicious linguistic trick employed chiefly by charlatans, faith healers, snake oil salesmen, and poets.” Needless to say, this view is not endorsed by the author.
We stand on the other side of the bar and watch the owner. He sees us watching him and when he cannot reasonably remain still any longer, he moves out from behind the bar and consults with a woman who may or may not work at the bar, but whom he seems to know. They go down to the basement and come up with what looks like a screwdriver and try to work the lock on the bathroom door, but it does not move.
“This is like the fifth time this has happened,” explains the owner, turning toward us, the only people in the bar who are watching him at work. “If I have to break in the door, I will, but I really don’t want to. It’s expensive.”
He goes back into the basement with the woman and they are gone for a long time.
“The booze ain’t the problem,” raps Heems. “The other shit it lead to.”
The unlit street: people lurking, bad people, people who are there to hurt you or who at the very least will hurt you if you get in their way. Walk quickly, head up, eyes forward. Don’t ever stop moving.
In this neighborhood, darkness is a loaded concept. In this neighborhood, whites move in and blacks get pushed ever eastward. In this neighborhood, fear and distrust are the dominant modes. But so is ignorance. The notion of darkness abets the ignorance. What is dark is sinister and untamed and therefore we must introduce the light of civilization and make it better for everyone which is to say for ourselves.
In our thoughts, then, we live under the cover of darkness. (But this too is one more easy metaphor.)
Out of the almost total blackness of the street and into the semi-blackness of the bar (where everyone except Maybe-Dapwell is white), we wait by the bathroom door. There is no movement. Then the basement door opens and the owner and the woman return with a new set of tools which look just like the old set, a pair of screwdriver-like gadgets. They try the lock again, but again it doesn’t work. Then they go back down to the basement and are gone for even longer than they were the first time.
“Metaphors are not merely symbolic,” writes Geary. “They have implications for—and impacts on—the ‘real’ world.”
The door must be breached and so when they return from the basement, there are no more tools in their hands. The owner grabs the knob, turns his body sideways, and rams his shoulder into the door. It opens and we catch a glimpse of the bartender, her pants at her ankles, passed out on the toilet. The woman shoos us away and we walk off. The owner seems glad to be relieved of his duty and goes back behind the bar.
Excerpt of an interview with Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.):
“From laws against interracial fraternization and marriages in the early years of this country, to the ‘internal racism’ amongst black people… to Jim Crow, to the current de-facto segregation of America’s schools and neighborhoods today (walk around the poorest neighborhoods in any American city and count how many white people you see), racism has been instrumental in perpetuating the economic disparity between the very rich and everyone else.”
In this neighborhood, white people stay indoors or if they are out, they move hurriedly. The space, the communal space of the street, is something to be traversed as quickly and as safely as possible until you get to the bar, apartment, or restaurant to which you are headed.
We want to return to the street and then to our homes, but we wait to see what will happen with the woman. She cannot be ignored, now that she has been revealed in all her abject debasement, but what is to be done about her? She is being marginally attended to, it seems, but still no one is really doing anything. She does not emerge from the bathroom and the rest of the room carries on as if nothing is happening.
The owner talks to some people sitting at the bar and then comes over to us.
“Thanks so much for being on top of this,” he says to us.
“Can you believe it?” he says to us. “The people at the bar are supposed to be her friends, but when I asked them if they could take her home, they said, well, they’re not really very good friends, so no. I mean, I can’t leave the bar because I’m the owner, right? But they can and they’re supposed to be her friends and they won’t.”
“Uh-huh,” we say.
“Can I get you anything, a shot, a free beer?”
“Well, I guess I’d have a free beer,” I say.
He goes back behind the bar where he does not seem to be pouring any beers. We wait ten minutes, both for the free drinks and to find out what is happening with the bartender, but the drinks don’t come and the woman does not emerge and so we decide to leave, to head out into the dark street which we try desperately not to think of as dark, but as simply a street where people walk, work, live.
From the Village Voice:
“As Brooklyn’s borough-wide gentrification sweeps farther and farther east, it’s crystal clear that _______ is under the hazy glow of kale-and-yoga tinted spotlights. Long known for its abundance of West Indian specialties, in recent years the bustling neighborhood has experienced a surge in nouveau New American eateries, a Carob Spring if you will, that’s helped solidify its place among the desirable Brooklyn enclaves.”
And then we are out into the night, walking home through blocks that are first deserted, then strangely populated, and then deserted again. We do not pay attention to what is going on, we do not linger. This is not a conscious decision, but simply a long ingrained habit.
We do not notice anything until suddenly we cannot look away. We pass a bodega and there is a twentysomething blond woman in front talking with an older Middle Eastern man. She asks him to pose with her and then she is snapping a picture of the two of them standing in front of what we have good reason to assume is his store.
We walk along and we suddenly don’t know how to process what we are seeing or what we are consciously not seeing. The familiar streets seem charged with added hazard—or at the very least an unexpected dose of absurdity. The usual signposts are absent.
On their 2010 track “All Tan Everything,” Das Racist riffs on a phrase made popular a year earlier by Jay-Z. Whereas Jay raps about “all black everything,” Heems and Kool A.D. adapt the premise to their own racial circumstances, indulging in a song’s worth of comic wordplay that makes nonsense of the typical black/white dichotomy that is as prevalent in hip-hop as it is in the neighborhood we are now moving rapidly across.
We come to an intersection we have passed through a thousand times before and this too suddenly looks different. A police surveillance tower is looming over the crosswalk, its presence registering as ominously as if it were an alien module suspended by robotic legs.
Among the official listed features of the SkyWatch mobile observation unit—constructed by defense contractor ICX for use in Iraq and Afghanistan—are cameras, radar, a public address system, and “ballistic resistance options.” Of the last item, the official literature informs us that it “adds capabilities for use with forward deployed military forces as well as specific needs of local law enforcement agencies” and is designed to “resist everything from small arms fire to armor piercing rounds.”
The presence of the tower is especially startling at this moment, when the tensions between police and community have entered decisively into the public consciousness thanks to the racially-charged choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the grand jury’s refusal to indict the responsible cop, the subsequent assassination of two officers in their squad car, and the police force’s highly dubious decision to repeatedly turn their back on the mayor at public events.
“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately [Eric] Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”
We arrive at home and the evening is over. The woman has, in all likelihood, been helped grudgingly back to her apartment and is currently engaged in heavy, if uneasy sleep. The owner is probably still behind the bar or he is back in his office or at the edge of the incipient dance floor, bopping his head to Dapwell’s beats. We swear off the place for good, vow never to return, and we settle into our separate beds, thinking about the bar crowd, trapped in its ethical stupor, and both the contrast and continuity between the smoky insides of the place and the hazy world outside.
James Geary’s point is that metaphor is not only an intrinsic part of the way we think, the way we learn, the way we live, but that it is a positive force, a means of bringing both delight and understanding. But what if the device were as equally available for negative usage? Unless we are constantly refreshing our metaphors, they tend to pass into cliché and mortify our thinking, a fact that Geary dutifully acknowledges. When we walk out onto the street and think of darkness, when we see individuals as stock characters within a neighborhood’s unfolding narrative, when we take people and places to be either a nuisance or a danger based on misleading visual clues, then metaphor becomes a snare.
That woman is a drunkard so she doesn’t deserve our assistance. That man is a threat, so we will walk away from him. That bar is filled with smoke so we can lose ourselves in a moral fog. That street is unlit so it is, quite obviously, unsafe.
Featured image: Brooklyn railroad map, 1874, via Ditmas Park Corner.