ou’re here on an auspicious day ” Max said, punching a worn elevator button. “Today is the Dakota’s 95th birthday.” Ann rolled her eyes and groaned, anticipating a lecture, while I hung on his every word. “The building was built by Edward Clark, founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Construction on the building began in October 25th of 1880 and was finished four years later, almost to the day on October 27th, 1884.”
Max was tall, Sephardic and ridiculously foxy. He had gone to our boarding school, but had been kicked out for drugs before I got there. Ann, his younger stepsister was my roommate. Ann barely tolerated Max, but to me, he was something of a legend.
The elevator arrived, operated by a wizened black man who had the look of a burnished newel post. “Clive, my man,” Max said, high-fiving the guy.
“Max-a-Million,” the elevator guy said warmly.
“Take us to the top, Clive.”
Clive gyrated a brass handle that sent the elevator smoothly skyward. Ann and I lounged on a velvet bench beneath a smoked mirror and watched the floors shutter past.
“The building was designed by the same architectural firm that did the Plaza Hotel,” Max continued, as Clive slowed the car to a stop so expertly we didn’t even feel the slightest jerk.
“Penthouse, Mr. Cantor.”
The penthouse apartment had enormous double doors and deep carpeting in the hallway. “This is where Edward Clark lived. It’s said the floors of the apartment are inlaid with sterling silver. I am trying to get visual confirmation on that.”
Max led us over to a small service door, which opened to a warren of narrow, whitewashed hallways, like you’d find in steerage on an ocean liner. “These passageways were for the servants so they could circulate through the building, bring up food from the huge kitchen in the basement, without bothering the residents,” Max explained, pushing open a metal door. We stepped out into the frigid October night.
I had been on a lot of New York City rooftops. I had danced on sizzling hot tarpaper, swum in pools, seen pigeon coops and Zen gardens, but I had never seen, or imagined, a rooftop like The Dakota’s.
It was a city unto itself — a riot of vents and spires. The famous pointed dormers loomed like small houses up close, each sporting its own terra cotta spandrel. Max led us over to a filigreed balustrade that lay like widow’s lace against the rising Halloween moon. Central Park spread before us like dirty burlap, its lights blinked up at us through naked trees.
Max took us over to the windbreak of a dormer and pulled a Sucrets tin out of his pocket. It held a number of pre-rolled joints. He lit one and took a deep drag, speaking as he held his hit. “They named it The Dakota because it was as remote as the Dakotas, nothing else was this far north when it was built.”
I almost couldn’t bear how attractive I found him. Max was exactly the kind of boy I liked: obsessive and over-read in arcane subjects. I didn’t like handsome jocks, I liked the misfits—the Dungeon Masters and conspiracy-theorists with keen, encyclopedic intelligences, low GPA’s, and deep brown eyes — boys so burdened by their own brilliant complexity that they dedicated their days to killing as many brain cells as possible in a misguided attempt to suffer less. I alone understood their pain and shared their interests; I met them on the field of their dreams to enact their dark fantasies with them.
“Max, I’m freezing my ass off,” Ann said, hopping in place, flicking her cigarette butt over the edge of the railing.
“The joint was just mood enhancement, ladies. It’s not what we really came for. Follow me.” Max led us around a long, winding path that described the U of the building, and over to inner balustrade, which offered a gut-churning view of the courtyard far below.
“See where that gutter runs?” Max pointed over my shoulder, across the courtyard to a vertical pipe that ran down the inside of the building. I felt the heat of him down my spine and every inch of my skin burst into goose bumps. “Count one window down from the roof and three windows left from the gutter.”
I could smell him, a bouquet of Sensimillia and Camel straights, Shetland sweater and boy funk. I tried to keep my heavy breathing from becoming audible. I counted over and down to a kitchen window where a female figure stood at the sink, looking down. I couldn’t see her hands or face, as her long, dark hair was in the way, but clearly she was rinsing dishes and couldn’t push it back. A shadowy figure moved around in the dimly lit room next to her, but I couldn’t make out who it was or why it mattered.
“Max,” Ann moaned, “this is stupid, you’re already in trouble with the building for this.” Max handed me a small pair of binoculars.
“Here, take a look.”
I pressed the cold oculars to my eyes. The person in the dining room had shoulder-length hair, but I couldn’t read the gender, until he walked, flat-bodied and lithe, into the kitchen, carrying some dishes.
“There!” Max said. “Do you see?” I dialed in the focus. He put down the dishes on the counter beside the sink, reached over and pushed the woman’s hair out of her face, letting his hand linger against her neck. It was a tender gesture and I could feel its intimacy even at that distance. Max was standing behind me, his breath in my ear. The man stood behind the woman and put his arms around her, stepping into the light over the sink and when I saw his round glasses the details suddenly rearranged themselves into iconography, and I understood I was looking at John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
I gasped and Max put his hand on my waist. There it was; love.
December 8, 1980
I was down in the library for study hall, procrastinating over the November issue of Rolling Stone when I came across a full-page ad for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s new album, Double Fantasy. The ad was simply the album cover — a black and white photo of John and Yoko kissing.
It framed them from the shoulders up. Yoko’s face was tilted up to his, her eyes closed, her skin glowing in grayscale. John’s face was turned slightly away from the camera, toward the kiss and there was such intimacy in that angle, such gentleness in his lips as they gingerly touched Yoko’s. The kiss itself was almost chaste, the sex was in John’s hand, which was at the back of her neck, not so much pulling her into the kiss, for she was already there, but clearly relishing her neck, her hair, her scent, just as I had seen that night as I spied, like a thief, from the roof of the Dakota.
I had stolen a moment of their love and kept it for myself. I pulled it out of the secret drawer in my mind where I kept such trophies—the signs and clues that I was collecting and collaging into a worldview. I could smell Max’s sweater, even though I hadn’t seen him since.
I tore the page out of the magazine and took it back to the dorm and showed it to Ann. “That’s cool,” she lisped at me through her retainer, and I could see she was completely over the whole thing. I climbed into my bunk bed and taped the picture to the wall beside my pillow. I stared at it in the half-light as I drifted off to sleep.
That night I dreamt crazily and deeply about John and Yoko, we were all chasing each other, but I don’t remember much else because Ann shook me out of the dream. She was in her nightgown and had her contacts out. She blinked at me like a frightened possum in the dirty light of dawn.
“Erika, Erika, Max just called from the Dakota. Somebody shot John Lennon out in front of the building. He’s dead.”
December 14, 1980
Central park was full of stricken people. There were no marimbas playing, no drum circles that day. Vendors hawked hastily silkscreened t-shirts with John’s image, that said, “Imagine”— a verb that would now forever be in search of a noun. Imagine what? That the world might someday be a place where apostles of love weren’t gunned down in the street? Too late.
The park was hard and slippery with the first real frost of the season. Mourners staggered like zombies across the Sheep’s’ Meadow, toward a space just inside of the West 72nd street entrance, which was now being called Strawberry Field. It stood in the shadow of The Dakota.
I brought my camera and photographed the stricken faces around me in black and white: faces swollen with tears, or locked up behind aviator shades. Couples held onto each other, gloved fingers dug into each other’s parka sleeves. Little children carried John’s picture as their parents wept. Black-coated mourners climbed the bare trees and perched like giant crows, above Strawberry Field.
By 1:55 the park was jammed and people flowed out onto Central Park West. Someone got on a loudspeaker and explained that at exactly 2pm we, along with millions of people around the world, would observe ten minutes of silence in Lennon’s honor. The countdown began and there was a great rustle as everyone settled in and then a gong sounded and the park was filled with a deep, blanketing silence.
I bent my head as I had seen mourners do in movies. I had never lost anyone, other than my grandfather, who was remote and leaden, and whose death happened far away in Wisconsin. I thought about Grandpa, stuck in our beanbag chair, yelling at us to be hoist him out of it. Wait, I wasn’t thinking about John. How many minutes had it been?
I stared up at the Dakota. I wondered if Yoko were watching us from her window. Maybe Max was a couple of floors above her, spying on us from the roof through his binoculars. Maybe even John himself was watching us all, from somewhere higher than that. I could not imagine where, but the feeling of being watched comforted me as usual.
How could I possibly know which parts of the universe could see which? My own view was so limited. I knew I could not, for instance, see into the future and know that brilliant, beautiful Max would be dead in ten years from a heroine overdose in Alphabet City. I could not know that the Reagan era was dawning and Lennon’s tender message of love would be drowned out by an endless a rotation of material girls and gold-toothed boys rapping about bling.
All I knew was that Yoko would never feel John’s hand in her hair again and with that, I toppled into the mouth of grief.
I barked out a sob, startling myself. I was crying! Was I actually feeling something? My sobs joined the sad chorus around me and I felt connected to everyone around me by something deep and powerful that vibrated through us all. It frightened me and leaped outside myself and I observed my own grief through binoculars.
I’d seen a film on an all-school trip to the Smithsonian Museum called The Power of Ten. It showed a woman sunbathing on a picnic blanket in a park and zoomed away from by powers of ten out into the macrocosm, then zoomed inward through the salt flats of her skin, into her body, down to the nuclei in her cells.
I imagined the power of ten camera on me, backing out into a wide shot, my blue parka becoming just a dot in the pointillist crowd, the roof of the Dakota, its turrets frosted in snow, turning cake-sized as the powers of ten clicked past. The park melted into the grid and bustle of Manhattan, which grew tiny, and floated like a dinghy full of crazy people off the coast of America, which itself was sinking under our collective grief and increasing burden of hatred. The earth itself was a mute speck spinning in infinite space, where our prayers for John and Yoko were a tiny squeak, unheard by God because of course there was no God and prayer was ridiculous.
I turned the power of ten in the other direction, reversing from the macro into the micro to see if maybe God was somewhere inside of me, like everybody said. I placed the camera on my parka and went inward. There was down, and derma, veins that ran like a subway map under a grocery bag of skin. Beneath that, my skeleton was a suspension bridge, my skull, an abandoned building on the Major Deegan, with its windows punched out. Buried deep inside my rusting ribcage was a dumpsite of Ring Ding wrappers and used condoms, cigarette butts and dirty snow. If I had dumped it all onto the Central Park grass, the junk of me, it would have made a mess that nobody would ever want to touch. I knew I would never be Yoko.
The first sweet, simple chords of “Imagine” broke the silence, signaling the end of the ten minutes, but nobody moved, we all just stood there listening to John’s anthem of love and hope float through the air as we tried to imagine what was next. I shivered as the notes of the song blew through the interstices of my ribs.