This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Jim Boraas

Andre Zucker: Pop Music
Illustration: Jim Boraas

 
 

           The morning of that day, Amos took a dozen roses and placed them on his cutting board. He held them tight so they wouldn’t wiggle free from his hand. He cut the bottom of the stems at a diagonal, wrapped them in paper and received a 20-dollar bill from a customer in a blue suit. Amos handed him the flowers and was reaching for change when the customer stopped him, indicating that the bill was a tip.

          It was 10:30 a.m. on another one of those hot August mornings. By midmorning the concrete was already boiling, fewer birds were in the sky and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was falling faster than the day before, which was to be expected.

          Six months of New York City living had Amos selling flowers on Wall Street in front of the #2 and #3 subway lines. He had moved up from Maryland looking to fulfill his dreams of being on Broadway. Singing and dancing in huge theater productions had been his dream since he took his first music lesson. It never happened. The mass financial hysteria of the summer made the theaters go dark and actors lined up at unemployment offices. His role of selling flowers was supposed to keep him funded, clothed and fed for a long hot summer.

           The man in the blue suit looked at Amos with a face of regret. He loosened his tie and spoke. “I’m buying these because… because… I believed in the algorithms!” Amos didn’t know how to handle this display of hysteria. He stared at the man, who turned his back and returned to the pits of Wall Street.

           Yesterday that same man bought flowers on three occasions. Time and again, the same people in business clothes purchased flowers. All of Amos' clients were coming from the financial district.

          Amos had showed up to work at the stand at nine that day, with the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. He drank coffee from a blue paper cup. His hair was a mess. His eyes were bloodshot. He had commuted over an hour from the outskirts of Queens. Irises, roses and carnations moved like a commodities market. Amos scanned the morning paper for auditions. He passed time listening to a radio while looking over the gray concrete. The sky was a little less blue and the city got hotter with each passing day. His only relief was Rita Lee, downtown’s ice crème truck driver.

           Another man came and asked for flowers; it wasn’t even 11:00. The radio next to Amos played beautiful pop music while Amos waited for noon, the end of this crisis, and a better world.

           Another bird fell dead from the sky in front of his flowers while the customer was paying. The man took his flowers and looked at the dead bird on the pavement. “Poor bastard,” Amos said as he approached the carcass. The banker placed his flowers beside its corpse and walked away. Amos picked the dead bird off the hot concrete. He placed it unceremoniously in a trashcan. It was the third time this week it happened. As he walked back to the flowers for a brief second, Amos saw himself as a child throwing a football back and forth with his dad. He blinked and the memory was gone. Amos picked the flowers off the pavement and placed them back in his stand.

           The economy was in a mid-nosedive when Amos first learned how to properly name, cut and wrap all the flowers. That was in May. These were not connoisseur flowers; they were for people buying gifts on their way to somewhere else.

           Some had bought flowers on their way to the nearby hospital; others were bought by couples visiting in-laws, and, of course, there were birthday flowers. Mother’s Day had been a good day for Amos’ business; Father’s Day was not. With the economy and mass unemployment sweeping the city, most people couldn’t afford to bring flowers into the hospitals or share them with loved ones anymore. By the end of June, only stockbrokers, bankers and hedge-fund managers could buy flowers.

           Strangely, in the beginning of July Amos sold more flowers than he did in both May and June. The clientèle kept dropping but the same people kept buying flowers over and over again, eventually more than once a day. At first Amos didn’t notice, but as the market was shrinking, faces repeated in the heat.

           Noon of that day came and Rita Lee’s ice crème truck turned the corner. The vehicle seemed to have ridden in from Brazilian Carnival. The truck was radiating “Os Mutantes” music, which could be heard up and down the block. Black and white moving images of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Brasilia covered the entire exterior while green Amazon vegetation wallpapered the interior. During these moments the sky brightened to the blue it was intended to be, the pavement would have a new greenish tint, and Amos would literally be about three inches taller. He never figured out how this could happen, but he went with it.

           Amos approached the truck. With each step, New York faded away and the world became brighter and more vivid. A step and then another until everything looked like it was made of overexposed film. Rita Lee waited for him inside the green interior, which was also moving. All was motion and colors bleeding into each other.

           Rita Lee’s hair was wrapped in colorful fabric. She wore sunglasses and a white tanktop that had “Teologia da Libertação” written across it. She was dancing to the music without a regard for Amos, ice crème customers or the universe as a whole.

          New York City did not exist anymore. There were only beautiful colors, sounds that came from Brazil, Rita Lee, and perhaps a griffin or a sphinx flying by. Amos wasn’t sure. With the city gone from view, he started dancing.

           The music was fun and fast. Its rapid rhythms mixed with fast guitars, samba hand-claps, psychedelic electrics and harmony. The music was everything New York wasn't.

           Amos suddenly realized that New York City had returned and he was standing in front of his flower stand holding vanilla ice crème. “It always ends without warning,” he said and watched another bird die while Rita Lee’s truck turned onto Broad Street.

           The dead birds had started to appear after three banks folded in two weeks. There was no pattern; they would just fall from the sky anywhere. It was disturbing to the newly unemployed and to the families facing foreclosure. At first people pretended it was nature regulating itself, as if the life of birds was a privilege. But the heat of August grew stronger and the bird carcasses were dispensing a pungent odor that started to eat at New York City’s sanity.

           People began acting strangely that summer. The insanity intensified around the financial district. The hysterical purchasing of flowers was one of the symptoms of the season. The markets fell indiscriminately; people around the world were starving to death. Poverty like a war was rolled through the streets of all towns and villages.

           Amos again picked up the dead bird and placed it next to his fallen brother in the garbage can. His mind drifted and he saw himself again as a child in Maryland throwing a football. He saw a euphoric smile on his face each time he threw and caught the football. He stared at this vision trying to figure out why he was seeing it. But again, the vision suddenly disappeared.

           Selling universal apologies crushed his soul. He was meant to sing and dance on a stage, not clean up dead birds. The summer kept getting hotter.

           At 3:15 on that same day, a stock broker came to Amos holding three dead pigeons and said, “How did this happen? We believed in the algorithms! Please give me $50 worth of any flowers you have.” He gave Amos the money and walked away without taking his flowers.

           Amos looked up from the bill and saw that the street looked like it hadn’t slept in weeks, disheveled and lost. They needed more flowers, more atonement. They needed Rita Lee.

           Amos needed Rita Lee.

          He said out loud at 4:45, “Give me a world without money; give me colours, pop music and birds. I’ll pay for it all with this street.”

           At the stroke of noon on the next day, he heard the pop music of Os Mutantes. Rita Lee’s ice crème truck was approaching, the colors were changing. He saw her and started to take slow steps, savouring the feeling of New York disappearing.

           “Take me with you,” he said.

           “This truck will travel throughout the cosmos delivering color and music,” Rita Lee replied. “Pop music.” Dead birds sprung to life and flew out of the corner trashcan.

           “Get me out of here! I don’t want to ever sell flowers again! Please…wherever you come from… wherever you are going… take me there! They cheated on us!” Amos grabbed the side of the truck and he felt the energy of the truck course through his body. He fell onto the pavement, only to find it had turned into grass. He looked at the sky and saw himself as a six-year-old boy throwing a football.

           “Everything you need to know is behind you,” Rita Lee said.

           “I don’t want to be a part of them.”

           “Pay attention to him,” Rita Lee said, pointing at the little boy throwing the football. “What is he saying?” He put his hand on the ice crème truck. Rita Lee nodded and Amos climbed into the green interior. He was standing in the middle of the jungle; he felt its humidity. Standing eye-to-eye with her, Amos realized he didn’t know if her name was really Rita Lee. It just fit.

           The sound of the pop music became overwhelmingly clear, the truck started to move and Rita Lee was more human than she had seemed before. He saw New York City move outside the window like a kaleidoscope. He passed through each of the boroughs; he passed the East and West side, the lost dreams of Broadway and the evil of Wall Street. He heard chants. “We believed in the algorithms!” But those voices faded. The truck started to speed up and the pop music became faster.

           And in that final moment as the truck sped up and the colors blurred into beauty and the music played for the sake of inter-planetary grace, Amos saw himself as a little boy playing catch with a football once again. He saw his father throwing it to him and he saw his six-year-old self throwing the ball back. The music became clearer, each chord more divine than the one before it. The colors unified with Amos’ soul, and he realized the one thing – that one thing – that they had all missed; the financial markets missed it, New York City didn’t understand it, all the flowers in the world would not clarify that one idea that six-year-old Amos understood so clearly throwing that football in Maryland. It was always more fun – it has always been better – to the throw it away and catch it again. It was never worth holding onto.
 

 
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