By Steve Weinstein
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In the west wing of Bellevue Hospital, Yoni David sits dazed in a hospital bed. His shattered left arm is in what the doctor calls an elevation dressing, a cheesecloth-like tube that keeps his hand raised. He's been here since he was shot at the Bushwick DIY arts venue he co-managed, Big Snow Buffalo Lodge, on July 17. He'll spend his 24th birthday in this bed. The hospital staff just transitioned him off morphine to dilantin.
As a result of the shooting, David and his partners at Big Snow Buffalo Lodge—Jeremy Aquilino, RJ Gordon, and Daniel Arnes—have decided to end their run as one of Brooklyn's DIY venues, this one known for everything from grungy rock to borderline acid-house, girded by an unpretentious, welcoming air. The team announced Big Snow's closure via Twitter last week. Concerns over heightened security, the safety of Big Snow patrons, and the stigma of the shooting all led to the decision.
"I don't think anybody can have the same affinity for that place now," David says from his bed. "Had somebody been walking to the door to buy admission at that moment, they could have lost their lives."
One of the leaseholders and the doorman of the nearly two-year-old venue, David says doctors tell him that, had the bullet gone another inch into his abdomen, he would certainly be dead from internal bleeding.
On July 17, around 10 p.m., Big Snow's hired security guard, Edwin Walker, alerted David to a disturbance outside the venue. David went to check it out, which is standard practice for the space, he says. Before he was able to even get outside, a shot—fired during a dispute apparently unrelated to the venue—struck him. It was one of at least two reported shootings in the neighborhood that evening, police told David's father. The shooter fled on foot.
After he was hit, David ran past his post at the door, past the soundboard and couches, and past the stage Aquilino built, and toward the bathroom. His eyes bugged slightly, visibly in shock. He looked for a place to collapse while trying to maintain his composure. A trail of blood ran from the front door, past the psychedelic mural-painted walls.
Many shouted in confusion. I was there and called an ambulance. Many others called 911. David's friend Lydia Velichkovski applied pressure to the wound, leaned her head against David's shoulder, and offered comfort. Aquilino started mopping up the blood. The EMTs arrived within 10 minutes and carted David away; the police arrived within 15. They locked down the street. The lights in the room came up. The music stopped. Chatter idled. Walker tried to keep patrons calm. Someone doled out Poland Spring water from gallon jugs into small plastic cups. Detectives and officers stalked in and out of the space. Arnes mopped up a second time.
"The instant I cleaned up my best friend's blood off the floor I made the decision to close," Arnes says. "Nothing is worth that. We built something that was important and dear to us and hopefully to other people. But anything else in my mind evaporated the second my friend was in danger. It was a shock. Surreal. Extremely unpleasant. We never thought we'd have to deal with something like this."
Since Big Snow Buffalo Lodge opened its doors to the public on October 27, 2011, at 89 Varet Street, the crew had not faced a notable security issue. You can triangulate the place from the roofs of public housing towers in the area: the Bushwick and Williamsburg houses, and the Marcy Projects down the block. A smattering of repurposed buildings dot the area: the McKibben Lofts, the Opera House Lofts, 3rd Ward. The neighborhood is characterized as on the brink of gentrification, perhaps due in part to the crowds and music Big Snow helped bring to the area.
"We were all at the point of trying to figure out what's next for us," Aquilino says. "It's just shitty that it all had to come down to this."
Big Snow favored smaller rock, pop, soul, psychedelic, and experimental acts, and was a frequent stop of Brooklyn bands like Ava Luna, Bueno, Guardian Alien, Beef, Zula, Celestial Shore, and The So So Glos. Baked, Leapling, and Lost Boy? were considered house bands. Many out-of-towners, like Grass Is Green and Speedy Ortiz, shredded their fair share of the stage. Once, Yo La Tenga bassist James McNew strolled in with a guitar strapped to his back to play with Kid Millions of Oneida and Greg Fox of Guardian Alien. Key friends, band members, and volunteers helped run the space. No one on staff, save the security personnel, ever got paid. They did pay every band that ever played Big Snow, says Gordon.
"It had a family sense, and that's what we really liked about it," Aquilino says. "Being part of a family; no judgment, just fun. Good times and good experiences. That's all we were shooting for."
"We were all into doing shows," Arnes says, "but Yoni was the one who spearheaded things. He was the mastermind. I remember, even years ago, we were driving around, probably on the way to band practice, and he said to me with so much conviction: 'I'm going to open a venue and call it Big Snow.'"
"Yoni definitely had a vision and persevered through it," Gordon says. "We all book shows here and there, but 80 or 90 percent of the shows at Big Snow were booked through Yoni. And everyone knew him for that, and from his working at the door. You could always rely on him being over there, unless he was onstage playing some music. He was definitely that driving force that kept us driving toward what we all wanted."
David met Aquilino, Gordon, and Arnes while attending SUNY Purchase. The four, having spent substantial time in the Brooklyn DIY community, particularly as staff at Shea Stadium and as patrons at Silent Barn, hoped to create a similar kind of space, but serving slightly different needs. It could function as a recording studio or an art gallery, a theater, a hangout, a hideaway—really, whatever anyone wanted.
"When we all graduated college and we were all living on our own in New York City," Aquilino says, "we decided instead of working for other spaces, we'd figure out how to do it ourselves."
"There weren't enough places out there that were just small," David says. "Small enough to where you could go play your first show and it wouldn't feel awkward, but also small like we could pack it out and make a 100-person show feel like the craziest night of your life. We didn't need a space to show what we were capable of doing. We needed a space so that what we were capable of doing could cater to everyone else's needs."
David dropped out of college on the first day of shows at Big Snow to fully commit to the work; everyone else graduated. The venue was coalescing at the same time the original Silent Barn was crumbling: First it was robbed, then raided by police, and finally shut down. The first Silent Barn, before they "went legit," as David says with respect, was a venue that meant a lot to all the Big Snow crew. Having learned the bare bones of operation from Shea Stadium and seeing the far-out potential of Silent Barn, the Big Snow crew were ready, too.
"It was logically our turn to step up," David says, "and so we did it. We did it our way."
"I've grown to love that place so much over the past two years," Aquilino says. "It's so surreal to me knowing that I'm not going to ever play there again. It's mind-blowing because I built that stage."
"Big Snow had a really distinct vibe and a part of that died with that accident," Gordon continues. "That place will never feel the same. No one wants to be there anymore."
"But everything is trumped by the fact that Yoni's alive and that was my primary concern since the moment this happened," Arnes says.
"I'm just grateful that everyone's okay," says Aquilino. "At the end of the day we can all look at each other and be like, 'Well, shit, man, at least we're all alive.'"
David is genuinely grateful he was the one who was shot. "I'd take 10 more bullets if I knew that everyone else was going to be okay," he says. "I could never forgive myself if something like this happened to someone who comes out to see a show, or to RJ or Dan or Jeremy. Or anyone. These guys come and hold my hand and walk me down the hall."
His nurse Deanna changes his IV. He eyes a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos that have just arrived in a care package. He offers them to me. "I haven't had much of an appetite since this happened," he says.