Proving Your Metal

I lose my way twice in the industrial warren of chain-link fences, dead-end roads, and warehouses to which I have been directed on Saturday night. But as promised, there is a cozy little bar amid the desolation of the south Brooklyn neighborhood.

I had come across the posting on Nonsense NYC, the quintessential list for anyone seeking independent art, weird events, and what is cheerfully designated as "senseless culture" in New York City. It was a short, understated write-up inviting 40 people to a cooperative banquet in an abandoned building. The organizers of the self-proclaimed "Mistake Dinner" requested a note, to weed out those lacking "good intentions." They also warned that only every other message would be considered. I had sent in a brief petition. Surprisingly, a reply arrived the following day, demanding secrecy and with an address and instructions to dress in formal attire with hiking shoes and to bring a flashlight, picnic blanket, and Italian cookies for 10.

I slide into a table at the back of the bar and watch as other guests arrive in a comely throng of sequins, silk, dress shirts, and hiking boots. As if accustomed to such activities, the bar staff smiles and ignores us as we affix red gels to flashlights and headlamps to reduce their brightness.

Event organizer "Tom Frost" chuckles when he sees me. He is a tall, slender man in a vintage suit, with broad-rimmed glasses and a calm, confident air. As it turns out, we've known each other for years. Frost directs me and six other guests to an old surfer van parked outside. From the front seat, he reviews guidelines inspired by Dark Passage, a New York–based group dedicated to the discovery, exploration, and celebration of architectural decay: Be aware of your surroundings at all times; keep your voices and lights low; if the cops come, stay together, don't run (unless legal position requires), plead art.

We pile out of the van and move quickly to a far corner of a chain-link fence that surrounds the object of our exploit: a slowly eroding monster of industry. Slipping through a hole in the fence, we press ourselves into the shadow of a concrete wall. As we have been warned, the security in the neighboring lot is active, and the floodlights are bright enough to create false day. One by one, we climb an unwieldy fire escape chain ladder and hoist ourselves over the lip of the rough wall. Erica Freas, nymph-like with pink, yellow, and brown hair and a pierced septum, greets us all on the other side, and we follow her through a maze of scrap and along a canal, into the shadow of the industrial necropolis. Picking her way through rubble, Freas perches on a low window ledge.

"Just through here," she says sweetly, indicating one of the many corroded and unpaned window frames on the ground floor.

As our eyes adjust to the darkness, things in the room begin to take shape. People spread out, deeper shades of gloom guided by soft red lamps. Moonlight streams through an opening in the wall where part of the building has crumbled into the East River.

"It's like being on a phantom ship," whispers a specter.

While some of us explore a short stairway, 27-year-old photographer Tod Seelie sets up a tripod to capture a passageway lined with massive pillars. By the time we return, he has moved on. The rest of us wait for the other guests to arrive; they had been waylaid by cops outside the wall.

"There we were, dressed to the nines, behind the chain-link fence," Denu Fermintenti-Arropongisi later explains, "with one person on the ladder and three of us on the ground holding 30 pounds of lasagna. I told them we were having a picnic. . . . One of the police officers came over to the fence but he couldn't figure out what we were doing. It was like those stories you hear about early explorers arriving on an island, and finding natives that can't even see the ships because they haven't imagined anything like that before. They let us go with a warning."

Freas guides us to another stairway, and our dinner party begins a slow, cautious climb up to the 12th floor.

"Don't look up," warns Marc Scrivo over his priest collar. "The rust will fall in your eyes."

We peer between our feet though the metal grilles of the steps at the dark shapes moving up the stairs below. The wind carries the smell of the river and howls through the empty windows at the head of every landing. No one talks, except to caution the people below. At the final landing, we are warned by a faceless silhouette: "There are holes all across this floor. They drop all the way down, 12 flights. Pay attention."

The room is vast and lined by windows offering enough light to illuminate a floor broken up by inky holes, some round, some square, all perfectly machined and abysmal. Our reddish lights fan out slowly as we acclimate to the sinister game board before us. By the time the rest of our party has arrived, we have grown accustomed to the small shafts; some of us have even spread out blankets between the holes to rest.

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