By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
You have to do it running – The National
It was supposed to be a foolproof and lucrative plan. Easy, too.
It all started after it was decided that my band, High Pony, would move from one rehearsal space that we shared with several other bands into our own room in a facility a few blocks away. Since no one could find another band willing to take our slot before the lease ran out, we were left with the unenviable task of having to clean out the entire room. This was no easy task. Though we had only been there for a few years, the lease for the room had traded hands between perhaps a dozen bands over more than a decade. It was a fucking disaster.
Buried beneath the detritus of splintered drum sticks, broken strings and abandoned miscellany, however, I had found two boxes. One contained over one hundred singles of “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National (“Blank Slate” occupies the B-side). The 45s were wrapped in a jacket celebrating a string of Bowery Ballroom appearances from more than a decade ago. These were collectors' items. The second box contained ninety-two “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” shirts of varying sizes and designs. Both bands had been former occupants of the practice room, and both bands had been repeatedly asked to come pick up their shit. They had failed to comply.
This was found money.
After taking all of our gear to our new rehearsal space a few blocks away, I took the find home, and began devising a plan that would allow me to quickly get all of this stuff into the hands of someone who would then do the difficult task of selling each individual item at a much higher price than the bulk rate that I would give the seller. This plan was based on an assumption that went something like this: It will be relatively easy to find someone who will give me money for these items. This assumption contained within it two other assumptions. The first is that these items are inherently valuable. The second is that people are willing to exchange their money for valuable items. This is supposed to be how capitalism works.
It was not to be that simple. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. If there is anything that I can tell you about being a musician in New York City it's this: Nothing is easy. Ever. Even selling the salvaged leftovers from the merch table of two bands far larger than you, far larger than your band will probably ever be, isn't easy. I guess I should correct that. It hasn't been easy yet.
So, here's what I figured would be the easiest way to go about selling these items of inherent value. eBay advertises a service that they call eBay Valet. It's pretty straightforward. You bring your items to a group of professionals, they take photographs of all of them, list them on eBay, ship them out when someone orders them, and then take a small cut of the proceeds. All you have to do is get whatever you want to sell to these professionals. Curiously, I found that these professionals only work out of FedEx.
I didn't think much of it, and soon found that the closest one was just a few miles south of me in Bay Ridge. I really didn't want to deal with the messy work of shipping out approximately two hundred individual parcels containing a single item of inherent value. This is supposed to be another one of those great things about capitalism: People will do labor that you don't want to do, and then you can give them money for their work.
My eyes were green on the cab ride down. I normally would have taken the bus, but the two boxes probably weighed close to 30 pounds. Plus I was about to hit it big. By my calculation, the box of 45s and the shirts were probably worth several thousand dollars. I could shell out $20 for a cab.
There was one slight issue: The eBay Valet service doesn't take anything under $25. This is true even if you are trying to give them more than one hundred identical things that are collectively worth well over $25 or even $250. This is not information that is in the promotional material for the service, though it is there in the fine print. This is where one learns that the business model for eBay Valet is essentially this: Bring us things that are worth a lot of money and easily cataloged, and we will take some photographs of them, ship them out, and then take an exorbitant fee for the service. If you bring in a single item valued at less than $50, but more than $25, you will take away less than half of what the item is sold for. Another thing that seems obvious in hindsight is that the professionals are FedEx workers.
In other words, eBay will offer to have an employee of FedEx (a professional) perform a task when it is not difficult and when it is lucrative for eBay. To put it more bluntly: eBay makes a huge profit off of people who don't have the time or means to ship out their valuables (those who have to work, those who are old or infirm), they share some of the proceeds with FedEx as stipulated by a profit-sharing agreement between the two entities, and FedEx shares nothing with their employees, even though these are the people who do literally all of the actual work involved in the transaction. Welcome to capitalism in the 21st century. It is precisely fucking ludicrous.
Defeatism plagued the cab as we took the BQE north, speeding past Sunset Park—the Irish Haven and one of my old apartments and the new and booming Industry City and the rounded church tower that is perhaps the neighborhood's most iconic and certainly its most phallic symbol. The records and the shirts sat in the trunk. Zhuo, the cab driver, had the radio tuned to a classical station and “Moonlight Sonata” was playing. As we sat at the light at the corner of 4th Avenue and 38th Street I noticed a billboard for a law firm that had recently announced their public and very messy divorce—their jingle and its many eights are familiar to all New Yorkers.
After getting home with the records, I called the record shop down the block. The owner wasn't interested in buying the vinyl or the shirts. They were brand new, I told her. She didn't carry new stuff and she didn't sell shirts. Maybe she could take one or two, though this defeated my plan of getting rid of all the items at once. She told me to maybe go up to Greenpoint because there are maybe half a dozen record stores up there who may want to take a few of the 45s off my hands—another plan that resulted in a lot of labor and time on my part, but not a lot of gain. Then again, she wasn't sure. There were too many record stores up there now, which was part of the reason why she had left her old space, which happened to be across the street from an illegal loft I had lived in over a decade ago. Of course, she didn't know the building as an illegal loft. She knew it had been a condo before it had become a hotel. Conversely, I knew the space she had occupied. However, at the time I lived there, on Franklin Street, it had been a record shop owned by a couple who had lived in the back illegally. Someone from the neighborhood called 311 about it—possible our neighbor Jimmy, the drug dealing drunk who would invite us upstairs for shots of gin, and then would proceed to rant about how the neighborhood was falling apart, even though he was undoubtedly the worst piece of shit on the block, if not all of that part of Greenpoint, and that anything bad that happened in the neighborhood had his fingerprints all over it. “Tell me how it goes,” she said about the records and the shirts.
I cracked open a 24-ounce can of Coors Original that I had purchased for $1.75 from the bodega down the street, which is currently up for sale. It was virtually all that was left, since the place had already been picked clean. Even my footsteps' echo followed me out the door. Perhaps it will soon become like the bodega further down the street, which is now a gallery that sells bodega-related art. I stared at the box of records and the shirts sitting in my living room, taking up space.
I finished the beer, and made my way toward my band's new rehearsal space.
This new space is also in Gowanus, which is a neighborhood that, for a long time, didn't really need a name to identify it because no one really wanted to be there. It had always just fallen in as part of South Brooklyn, though this designation had become obsolete because people stopped calling the larger area South Brooklyn and started referring to smaller neighborhoods contained within it (Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, etc.). Gowanus had been given its contours because of omission.
South of 9th Street most of the area that is now called Gowanus is home to tire shops and facilities for other kinds of automotive services that may or may not be legal. At least two biker gangs have clubhouses here. The Department of Transportation has a substantial presence in the area. The Department of Sanitation houses a lot of its garbage trucks on 14th, 13th and 12th streets. To say that it is an assault on the senses would be an understatement. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, it either smells like freshly baked asphalt or the sweet stink of garbage. This is where our original space had been.
North of 9th Street, which is to where we have now moved, is more light industry. A lot of tour buses sleep in the area. There are a lot of old factories, too. Some have been converted into venues or recording studios or art studios or rehearsal spaces. Traditionally, not a lot of people lived in the area simply because there weren't that many residential buildings. The few bars, consequently, have become home to extremely loyal locals, and a close-knit community of barflies has most certainly formed. This is especially true among those who are both residents in the neighborhood and musicians who practice nearby.
As I was on the early side to practice, I decided to stop in for a beer at one such place. It is probably the most utilitarian of Gowanus' many places to drink, in that it serves as much as a community space as it does as a bar: Halyard's (406 3rd Avenue, Gowanus). There's food, cocktails, good beer and cheap beer that is actually sold for cheap. The back hosts sketch classes, baby showers and poetry readings. They have music downstairs every so often.
|Halyards - Gowanus|
On this particular night, the back room was occupied by a group of comedians testing out new material via an open mic. I hesitated as I thought about taking in someone's set, but decided to go outside with my High Life. As I sat there with the beer, I tried to contrive some other means of selling the records and the shirts, but found myself, instead, remembering that the Morbid Anatomy Museum had been just a few blocks away, and that it was kind of strange that I was now overhearing laughs from the open mic in this neighborhood. Gowanus had been a perfect fit for that museum, I thought. There is something that is still funereal about Gowanus: its poisoned canal that is apparently home to bacteria that have mutated so much that they are now impervious to cancer, its largely vacant streets, its structures meant to house industries that have either died or been outsourced.
However, it has become post-apocalyptic chic. And perhaps this is why the laughter fit, as well. It's frankly odd that Gowanus, which smells like hot garbage even in the dead of winter, has become a cool city. It has long-been post-apocalyptic in its aesthetic; this is what made it affordable. This is supposed to be the reason why things are affordable.
However, such an era is history. Condos that sell for over a million dollars are popping up along the Gowanus' poisoned canal and its streets are becoming home to work spaces and boutiques. One of its most iconic structures was preserved so that it could become a wine store that is connected to the adjacent Whole Foods. A developer recently hired out a PR firm who has been planting stories in the city's real estate journals that refer to the neighborhood as the Venice of Brooklyn.
Those who have moved in want the former aesthetic, but not the life that comes with it. They want to occupy a space that is grungy and alive with art and music, but they want the comforts of the suburbs, too. The problem is you can't have both. The presence of Whole Foods drives out the bodegas. The condos that only the rich can afford drive out the struggling artists and the struggling musicians and the eccentric aspects of the neighborhood like the Morbid Anatomy Museum.
There are always spaces that open up for a few years between the bad old days and the time when the art galleries assume the spaces that once provided the community with goods of utility—in fact, one could map gentrification simply by following where the bodegas are closing and where the galleries are opening. Gowanus is experiencing such a time now. This is the time when bars in the area will become like institutions that define the neighborhood. Halyard's has already become one such place, and I feel like it will remain a hub for artists, musicians, comedians and writers who currently call Gowanus home.
However, the cynic in me is worried. I worry that, eventually, these people will get forced out because of rising rents or because their building gets demolished to make way for yet another 50-unit monstrosity of green glass and brushed nickel. The people who come to Halyard's to participate in open mics or drawing classes will have to leave the neighborhood. The bar will have to compete with establishments that open to cater to the new residents living in the condo towers: Coffee houses with names that focus groups have determined sound homey and authentic; obnoxious cocktail joints where there is an unspoken dress code; and the type of restaurants where your waiter or waitress asks, “Have you dined with us before?” because their style of serving food is so unique that you need to be walked through the process of ordering it. The art galleries will come next—the harbingers of maximum entropy.
I don't know if it can survive.
Of course, this is the cynic speaking. This is the person who's feeling a little downcast and annoyed and maybe thinking about getting another High Life even though I run the risk of being late to band practice. The other me is thinking that I've got to get to practice, make the best music that I possibly can, go to work in the morning, and then get home to figure out how the fuck I'm going to sell of all those records and shirts sitting in the middle of my living room.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.