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.

"We will have our picnic here," says Frost, indicating the center of the room. The shadows gather, spreading blankets, pulling out homemade pies, salad, casseroles, wine, olives, and bruschetta. A portable stereo materializes.

A search party is sent for photographer Seelie—he has the plates. People begin eating with their fingers. After a long while, Frost, Seelie, and the search party return.

"A buddy system is now in effect," says Frost.

Plates are passed, and soft laughter fills the air.

"I thought I could come up with the second group, but I never saw them," says Seelie. "After an hour passed, I started to get worried. I couldn't hear anyone. It was so unbelievably silent."

Thoughts of cops and missing people dissipate slowly, but we feast and talk; wine is passed around, and lovers snuggle. Garbage bags will appear, and our presence will be is erased.

"Are you feeling relaxed?" asks Julia Solis, founder of Dark Passage.

"Not exactly," I say, moving between two holes.

"Good," she says as we walk to the far end of the building.

We find Freas, with her guitar, beneath a big window. Her delicate voice, joining the wind, wafts through the room.

Everyone claps softly, and sound designer Sxip Shirey rises from the crowd. "My father used to work in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana," he says, navigating the floor. "The number one cause of deaths in a grain elevator is suffocation; the second is due to explosions caused by dust raised by the grain. Danger was a part of people's daily lives, but their stories had meaning."

Shirey's meter changes slightly as he begins a tale about a boy and his mother: "A tube twines from underneath her dress through the table legs, snaking up to a conveniently placed portal next to the basement door. The tube is made from thin iron rings connected to what seems to be red canvas. It opens and closes slightly, like a concertina. Apparently, his mother is some sort of steam mother . . . "

We clap and snap our fingers appreciatively before Frost leads us up a short flight of stairs, to the "guts of the operation," and back down to the perforated floor below.

Scrivo emerges from the shadows wearing a harness attached to a belaying rope that is anchored by a column and manned by a person named Cramp. Scrivo kneels by a hole and slowly lowers himself until the white of his collar is swallowed by the darkness. A voice uncoils beneath our feet, growing in intensity, until we are all on our knees peering through the holes. We illuminate the yawning space where Scrivo hangs. He's confronting his fear of heights while he sings. Shadows bend in the reddish light, stretching along the curves of the walls. He sings, "There comes a time in the life of a boy . . . "

As he twists gently down into the chasm, his improvisation takes on the quality of a Gregorian chant: "Can you stare into the abyss. Listen to the sound of the angels falling from the sky . . . "

Even when Scrivo has passed from sight, we remain prone, watching the light playing across the walls, listening for his voice.

"It is finished now," sings Scrivo as he emerges from the hole 11 floors below.

Silently, the shadows on the top floor begin to gather their belongings. It is finished now.

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