I'm not an idiot. I don't leave the house without at least one set of juiced-up double-As, two if I remember when I'm putting my purse together. A minute is enough time for a spell to fall apart, and if you think you can find a bodega and buy a pack of batteries and swap them in and get your tape running again in less than five, you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.
And that Saturday I'd been so good! I'd been a real responsibility champion, one set in my bag and another in the pocket of my coat, just in case I was mugged, though come to think of it a mugger would probably be enough of an asshole to take my walkman, too, so I'd be in kind of a tight spot either way.
Anyway I'm not an idiot, but I can't really pay attention to more than a couple of things at once, either. I've got no problem with keeping one ear open to make sure the cloak Song's running while I'm on the train or at the store or you know . . . doing normal things like an adult is supposed to. I can leave my apartment, I'm not one of those people.
But sometimes it's three or four things. Sometimes a punk-ass kid wants to haggle with you over an unopened ten-pack of Type Two BASF Chrome Maximas and you're on the phone with your goddamn choir director and your walkman runs down while both your earbuds are out. And you don't notice right away. And then the Noise comes swooping down on you like a summer storm, and you've got problems a whole truckload of responsibility batteries isn't gonna fish you out of.
I was late to choir, and look, I get why Lucille—she's the director, been there for-fucking-ever, I think she remembers when the Gaslight was still open—anyway, I get why Lucille was so pissed at me for being late. She specifically asked me to join because they needed a contralto for the new antiviral arrangement, and now they were sitting there at church with a couple dozen kids who'd been dragged out of bed to come, waiting on me to scramble across town, and yes I kept a church full of sick children waiting, I'm awful, I know, sometimes a lady takes a few minutes to finish putting her face on and she misses the F train.
I took an earbud out as soon as I got above ground at Delancey and called Lucille to say I was only a few blocks away, because again, I'm an adult, the least I can do is let the woman know where my tardy ass is.
And she's all like, "Cheryl, this is the kind of nonsense that got you dumped from the last choir," and "Don't think a big voice is a first class ticket to the All About Me train!" and something about "community spirit," which I gotta say is pretty fair, I mean, it's not like this was the first time I'd pulled this kind of bullshit and you know how things get around. Like, there's more of us Musical folk than there used to be, sure, but we're still pretty fucking few and far between and all up in each other's business, and it's not like you can blow off basic civic duties without everyone else hearing about it, not even if you move from Philly to New York. Me and Lucille, we met three days after I got off the bus at Port Authority, and she already knew my whole sorry-ass story in all the dissonant details.
Anyway. She was letting me have it, I was pretty much letting it slide right over me, and the cloak Song was still playing nice and smooth. Pretty standard Saturday, and if it'd stayed that way I wouldn't be telling you any of this now.
That's about when I saw this kid sitting on a pink grandma blanket at 7th and B, right outside Tompkins Square Park and maybe an hour or two out from emptying some poor yuppie's apartment. You know the type—white-boy dreads, shirt for a band that broke up before his ass was even born, probably hasn't showered in a year, and by the look of him I figured he'd either gone off his meds or got stoned out of his mind or both. He's cross-legged in the middle of the usual crap—a coffee maker, sweaters, an iron, couple pairs of sneakers, whatever he'd been able to cram into his backpack and couldn't swap for cash at a pawn shop. He looked maybe fifteen, and I was thinking he's probably some kid from Long Island whose parents finally kicked him out for being a little shit.
On a normal day, I might've called him in and given a description, just in case the cops took a break from hassling brown folks to do their fucking jobs. But Lucille was nag-nattering on about sheet music and church was still a couple more avenues away, and I am telling you now, I swear I was gonna keep walking.
But then I spotted those fucking tapes on the blanket and I just could not help myself.
So I guess now's the time for the urban Musician everyday-carry rundown, huh? We're getting that out of the way?
Okay, look. I'll make due with whatever Type One TDKs I can find for cheap on eBay in a pinch, you know, for ticky-tack household stuff. I've left a pest-control loop playing overnight on cheap tapes and it's worked well enough. But for my cloak Song? Type Two BASF ferrochromes, from before they moved production to Korea when I can find them. AC biasing is fine, but no Dolby noise reduction, I don't care if you think I'm crazy, the preemphasis weakens the range of the spell, everyone knows it, sometimes we're snobs for a reason. I think I've laid down maybe ten, twelve different ward Songs on quarter-inch ATR master tape, you know, different variations for different seasons, a couple specialty tracks for when I'm gonna fly somewhere, all pretty standard stuff. Dub off a new copy whenever a cassette wears out.
So it's not like I'm tearing through tapes but shit, they don't make the Chrome Maximas anymore and this kid was selling brand new unopened tapes with the early nineties formulation and I'm not one of those superstitious audiophile assholes but like I keep saying, I'm not an idiot, either, and those tapes are amazing.
Of course there weren't price tags on anything in this kid's sidewalk felony sale, so I had to ask how much he wanted for the tapes. And he must've seen a hint of "oh fuck must have these" on my face, because he got this kind of desperate, hungry look and tells me they're ten bucks each.
I just about kicked him in the head right then because seriously, he's selling this shit off a blanket in the East Village, I should've been able to hand him a five and walk off with the tapes and a couple of Cosby sweaters, right?
I'm pretty far into the red on my dick-around-time at this point, and Lucille's all like, “Lord, Cheryl, are you shopping?” and my '83 Walkman-DD's still cranking through cloak Song smooth as you please, so I yank out the other ear bud, cold drop Lucille in my purse and I tell this kid I don't care if he built a time machine and brought these fuckers straight here from nineteen ninety-four, it's twenty for all of them or nothing and he's lucky I'm still standing there.
And that's how I ended up haggling over tapes while my batteries ran out and my Song stuttered and stopped.
So look, I don't know about your grandma, but mine loves to gripe about the old days, back when we had to keep a choir going up on the wall every damn second no matter the time and whatever the weather. Back when you'd either be stuck at home with the same jokers you've known since you were born, or out with the Tonedeaf Singing under your breath like a crazy person and hoping no one called the cops on you.
Hell, even if they did, you'd damn well keep Singing in jail, too. Keep that shit going every second, every day, or the Noise is gonna find your ass. And then your family gets to decide how long they're gonna keep feeding what's left over.
Kinda garbage situation, really, but that's just how things are for the Musical, right? Even nowadays everything we do is all tangled up in the Noise. A whole auditory ecosystem of aging analog equipment and chrome tape hoards, all of it so we can snug up in our safe little Song blankets and hope the Noise doesn't notice us. And normally it doesn't. That's civilization for you, right? That's progress.
But it sure as shit noticed me that Saturday.
It came screaming down St. Marks like an angry cloud of every sound that sets your teeth on edge, the frothy boiling mess of it poured between the buildings in a raucous slop of toothpaste foam. It sloshed neck-deep around the normal folk out doing their weekend brunch crawl, and fuck is that creepy to see, their little heads sticking up above the mess, their sunny faces grinning through a sudsy swarm of murderous intentions.
Lucky them the Noise doesn't give a shit about the Tonedeaf. But ooooh yes it cares about the Musical; cares about chewing you up and swallowing down your Songs forever.
By now that milkshake churn of soul-munching trash is about half a block away, I'm in heels and not really much up for running on a good day, and even if I could swap in new batteries and get the tape running again it's a little late to keep the Noise from finding me, isn't it? So I hunkered right down, back up against the kid's ripoff miniature flea market, and belted out the first defensive bass line that came to mind, one of the catchier ones Mom taught me before she'd let me walk home from school on my own. I got the last measure out just in time to snap a wall up over my head, and the Noise pancaked about ten feet off the ground, a kind of shaving cream slop that poured down the arc of my hasty Tone wall and snarled like glass in a garbage disposal.
And look, I'm real good. There's a reason Lucille puts up with my crap, and there's a reason it took my old choir in Philly so long to kick me out, even with all the drama I pulled. I'm a stone cold diva badass and I can hold back a yowling tsunami of whipped death all on my own, please and thanks.
But you know, like . . . actually canceling it out? That's something else. And there's only so long I can get away with battle-serenading on the sidewalk. The Tonedeaf can't really hear the Noise, but they can sure hear you just fine, hollering at an empty sky like a lunatic.
If I'd had a chance to really stop and think about it, I would've slammed my phone against my fool head and told Lucille to come bail me out. She was a couple blocks away, she had a whole choir with her, they could've saved my ass without breaking a sweat and Lucille would've loved every second of told-you-so superiority over my irresponsible behind.
But I wasn't exactly in the pocket, logic-wise, at that particular moment. And let's be honest, I'm not a huge fan of told-you-sos from folks in general and Lucille most especially in particular.
Sunlight shines right through Noise—it's all part of the weird there-not-thereness of Auditory creatures—so I could see the kid's face just fine when I turned back around. And I was like, "Hey, jackass. You sing at all?" I mean hell, he liked music enough to know the shit on his blanket was worth stealing, I figured he should make himself useful.
And for a sec he just stared at me like I was a total whack job, which hey, was about what I'd've expected. But then he kinda cocked his head and said, “You can see that Cool Whip shit in the sky? You can hear this?”
Right? Right? Whaaaaaaaat the hell?
So I picked my fucking jaw up and I'm like, uh sure, yeah I can see it, and of course I'm wondering what's up with him because he shouldn't be able to see squat, and it's not like I'd ever run into this punk at the Musician coop meetings if you know what I mean.
But hey, time was kind of tight, just then, and every second I wasn't Singing the shield above me thinned out. So I'm like, "Kid, you gonna help me out or what?" And he kind of blinked those dishwater eyes and said, "Sure, why not." Seriously, just like that. Crazy lady wants to teach me to sing while a shrieking taffy-cloud's trying to eat us? Sure, why not?
So I belted out another verse of barriers before launching into the quickest, dirtiest Tone lesson of my life.
Looked like I was right about the secret Musicality of that kid, too. He listened all crazy tight-jawed intense while I looped back through another round of my shore-it-up Song, his eyes right on me even as the Noise churned around us, even as the dingy brownstones and the scraggly park and the gawping brunchers were all drowned out by the shook-up-soda white of the Noise trying to punch through the wall I'd made.
Then that fucking kid opened up his pimple-ringed mouth and a sweet, clean tenor soared right out of it. Perfect pitch and every syllable just so, even though you know, it's Tonal, he couldn't have had even half an idea what the hell he was singing.
By now we must've been drawing a crowd, but the Noise was bubbling and boiling and kicking up a racket like a bucket of parrots, so I threw back my shoulders and raised my chin and belted out the rolling rich tones of kicking ass, the most powerful Song I knew, the kind that makes you feel like your throat is on fire. The kid was keeping my Tone wall in place, so I dug down deep into the Song in my stomach an threw my full voice into tearing that bastard apart.
Have you ever been in a fight with Noise? Not a full choir, they basically pulverize the thing in a measure. I mean a real brawl, where it has a chance to squirm a little? No?
The only thing I can think of is . . . well, picture a volcano erupting down out of the sky, only the lava is made of white-hot marshmallow fluff and the sound of it's worse than anything, like a whole percussion section being crushed in a dump truck while a pack of cats are fucking on top of it. It's unreal, but you gotta hold on to your melody like the lifeline it is, your one and only way back out of this lobster pot of shrieking screaming fury.
The kid choked on his own Song, then, and the Tone wall shimmered around us. I looked back at him, half-thinking I'd catch him trying to sell the damn tapes to someone else while I was busy. But he wasn't looking at me, or at the tapes, and his hands were shaking, and he stared at the sky looking fit to piss himself and run.
So I'm thinking to myself, I don't have any idea what the hell's going on with this kid, but with this much angry Noise piling up on top of me I can't stop Singing for more than a phrase. I snapped my fingers in front of his nose, not a real high-content way to talk to someone but enough to get him to look at me anyway. I met his eyes and stopped my Song long enough to say, "Don't leave me hanging."
And I swear, he just swallowed his freakout right down and sang out even louder than before, so hard that he ripped a kind of raw ragged edge to that bell-clear baby voice.
You know that moment when a little kid Sings for the first time? When it's like you can see their Song flowing into them? When they go from being some poor little Tone-sensitive critter to a real Musician, with a Voice that'll let 'em make a place for themselves in the world? Like sure, being all full up of Song is what lets the Noise find you, but it's worth it because you're like . . . finally all the way you?
I tell you, it's one thing with the kids, but watching that happen to this almost-man who's maybe had kind of a hard time of it . . . like I was watching it all kind of click together, everything he'd been through, all the shit he'd seen when no one else could, a decade and change of being some kind of feral Musician with no one to help him make sense of it. All of that sliding into place right there behind his eyes.
Fuck me, that was something else.
I sang, and he sang, and the Noise stretched and swelled like a spongey ceiling above us. Our voices were a boxer's fists, one knocking back the beast and the other punching it full of wet gaping holes as it wailed and fought like a fox in a bag. I shifted my Song a little, wrapping the Tone wall up and around it, hugging that fucker nice and close before I lay in with all the fight and fierceness I had left in my gut.
And then, soap-bubble sudden, it burst and fell.
A snowfall of shed sound settled on the barrier above us. The kid and I finished our stanzas and stopped. The city sounds of cars and pigeons and window ACs rose up and filled the sudden silence.
I looked around at the crowd we'd gathered, maybe a dozen or so curious folks with nowhere urgent to be. A few of them applauded. I think an old man tossed a dollar onto the blanket. Within a minute or so, they'd all wandered back to whatever they'd been doing before.
I mean hey, this is New York. Mostly people just want to keep their heads down and deal with their own shit.
As the sidewalk emptied, the Tone wall over our heads broke apart. And the kid and I kind of sized each other up while tiny flakes of Noise settled in drifts on the sidewalk, clung to the hair and necks and faces of the Toneless all around us, all set to become little fragments of shit music lodged in their heads for the next few days.
I popped in a couple of fresh batteries and got my cloak Song spinning again. The Kid just kind of stood there watching me, like some poor nerd at a middle school dance, standing and waiting for someone to tell him what to do with himself.
Then I heard Lucille's tinny voice calling my name. I'd forgotten to hang up the damn phone.
I lifted it back to my ear, already apologizing, but she shouted me right down.
She wanted to know who'd been Singing with me. She wondered if maybe I'd bring him to choir.
"Hey kid," I said. "You got anywhere to be?"
He grunted something that I took for a "No."
"Any chance you read sheet music?"
He didn't, but that was fine, too. He was obviously a fast learner.
"Leave this shit here, you won't need it," I said. "Except the tapes. You grab those motherfuckers right now."
I mean, it's like I said. I'm not an idiot.