As I sit down to write this, I am battered and bruised. My limbs are covered in bug bites and scratches, and all the Icy Hot in the world cannot soothe my aching muscles. My beloved iPhone is gone, replaced by a $15 burner until I can replace it. I am (barely) living proof of the very physical dangers of taking on too many freelance writing assignments.
Let’s back up a few days and explain. I have the chance to hang out with Speedy Ortiz, the fast-rising college rock (subcategory: loud rock) band that’s been burning up the indie world with a Best New Music from Pitchfork, a sardonic attitude straight out of the ’90s, and a general refusal to be boring. For an activity, we’ve selected The Hole, a dilapidated hinterland between East New York and Howard Beach where the mafia used to dump bodies, where wild dogs run free and the Federation of Black Cowboys stable their horses. It is billed as a “modern day ghost town,” a sunken swamp no one can build on, not even shady NYC developers, a land that time (and Bloomberg) forgot, full of boarded up houses and weird garbage.
I’m burning the candle at both ends lately, so when I have an hour in between finishing my day job and our appointed meeting time, I decide to do research on the band rather than The Hole, because I like this band and want to have good conversations with them. The Hole seems self-explanatory. The band’s irregular rhythms and delectable, brain-twisting lyrics, not so much. I take a closer listen to their excellent debut full-length Major Arcana and find out some basic facts about them, like how Sadie worked at the Barnard College radio station at the same time I would have been listening to it and is now getting her MFA in poetry. She’s funny and a little bit shy in interviews, and seems like someone I might be friends with.
When the band pulls up to my house in their van, I throw on a dress without thinking and jump in. Despite their grueling touring schedule, Mike, Darl, Sadie and Matt seem chipper. They tell me they’re coming from a house show in West Philly, where they played in a gutted kitchen with balconies all around it, and they’re going to record a live session with BreakThru Radio later in the evening before returning home to Massachusetts and Connecticut. Everyone’s stoked to explore The Hole, especially Sadie, who’s driving. “I grew up in New York and I’ve always wanted to go,” she says. In the front window of the van dangles Seb, a plastic crab given to them by a buddy who lives in Baltimore. I hope he brings good luck to our journey.
We park near where we think the entrance to The Hole is, beside a baseball field where a game is going on. Everyone but me and Darl leaves their phones and wallets in the car, as they’ve been told it’s a “dangerous area.” I need mine to take pictures, so I bring my whole purse.
As we approach a fenced in area we think is The Hole, we see the neighborhood around it isn’t looking so hot either, with flooded streets, abandoned buildings, rusted-out cars, and blocks with just a few houses on them. It looks more like parts of post-Katrina New Orleans than New York. We even see a collarless dog limping around that may or may not be wild. But the place is clearly inhabited, with people walking their dogs and hanging out on their porches.
Despite various signs to the contrary, we think this couldn’t possibly be The Hole, as that would just be way too mean a name to call an actual neighborhood where people live. I mean, might as well call the streets “Disgusting Drive” and “Cesspool Circle” while you’re at it. I will later find out that of course this is The Hole and they actually do have cesspools here, which as it turns out are a legitimate, if flawed, form of sewage disposal.
The fence is festooned with signs saying “WANT OUT? I BUY HOUSES” and “NO TRESPASSING, VIDEO SURVEILLANCE,” but we find the camera the sign is referring to dangling impotently from some frayed wires. After taking a picture in front of a “SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA” sign, we climb through a weak point in the fence one by one.
About 10 feet from the fence, we have to traverse a hill covered in thick vegetation, and I realize neither Sadie nor I have dressed at all properly for the occasion. Even with each other’s help, we get scratched by various unfriendly plants, and when we finally clamber down the other side, we’re out of breath. We find ourselves in what looks like an abandoned construction site complete with old piles of rubble and rusty bulldozer. I go to take a picture and realize my phone is missing.
“Do you need help looking for it?” asks Darl. I do, so I put my remaining things down and climb back through the fucking brambles to look for it. There’s only about a 10-foot radius where it could have dropped, but I can’t even hear it ringing. It must have fallen down deep. “The Hole is mean,” says Mike, and we all nod.
Darl climbs back up to help me look around for about 10 minutes more, but alas, it seems The Hole has taken my phone as a sacrifice. Legs covered in mosquito bites, I climb back over the hill with D’s help, only to find Sadie, Mike, Matt and my purse have all gone missing. What the fuck?
“Hey guys!” we begin to yell. “Hey-o!” No response. Because I am neurotic, horror movie scenarios begin flashing through my mind in which someone is picking us off one by one until we were all just heads on some murderer’s mantlepiece. Am I going to be responsible for the violent deaths of one of 2013’s most promising new acts? Think of the Brooklyn Vegan comments. “I don’t know why they would just go off without telling us,” says Darl, which doesn’t help.
We walk towards another, more passable weak spot in the fence, passing what looks like an old stage of sorts with lots of random debris under it, including a few children’s toys. Saw city. Simultaneously freaked out and embarrassed to be so, we exit the construction site and find ourselves on the precipice of some sort of highway on-ramp. We are not in agreement as to which way the car is. After what feels like forever but is probably just a few minutes, his phone rings. It’s Sadie.
“We went back to the car to swing around and get you guys,” she says, and I hope it’s really her and not some demon who has stolen her voice and will soon eat us all. “We’ll come meet you.”
Darl turns out to be right about where the car is and I breathe a sigh of relief as we approach the familiar baseball field. After further miscommunication, we find them back on flooded out Ruby street, where we first entered, and I try not to sound too crazy as I tell them how glad I am that they’re okay. We look down at our legs to find myriad itchy bumps erupting. “Your bug bites will be a reminder of your battle with nature,” says Mike.
Giving up on what we still, against all common sense, think is The Hole, we explore a little bit around the area, finding person-height weeds and a spooky abandoned house that is unfortunately (or fortunately, considering our luck thus far) hidden behind a tougher fence than the construction site. We’re able to take a picture through a hole in the fence, but we are all too tired at this point to figure out a way over. Another house looks abandoned but, on closer inspection, shows signs of inhabitants through its doorless orifices. I don’t take a picture because then I’d be the asshole going “look at this person’s shitty house, LOL.” This was never my intention. We do, however, photograph a pickup truck with a creepy doll tied to the front, and the biggest insect any of us has encountered within city limits.
I asked a passerby what’s going on with the large empty lot and she looks at me like I’m daft. “Nothing goin’ on there besides raccoons at night time,” she says, and continues on her way.
We want to explore further, but the band has to get to their recording session and Manhattan isn’t close, so we reluctantly get back in the van and drive back towards 2013. You win this time, Hole.
On the way back to the main road, we ford a giant puddle and pass by some crumbling housing projects as well as an awesome looking place run by the Federation of Black Cowboys called Debbie’s Western Boutique, but we don’t have time to stop.
As we come out of our Hole-induced daze, talk turns back to normal things like touring, fashion (“You have to have something to dream about on tour, and my dream is for Mike to wear shorts,” Sadie says), and literature. I admit I’ve given up on finishing Infinite Jest for the time being, and Sadie says she has too, which makes me feel a little better. “The joke is people who wanna bring Infinite Jest on tour,” she says, “and never read it … I didn’t bring it because I didn’t want to be my own joke.” This is a common thing. Who knew sludge-punk bands to be so erudite?
As a lifelong Tracy Bonham fan, I have to ask Sadie if she’s aware she is voice twins with the grunge-era one-hit wonder, and she laughs and says she’d never heard of Tracy Bonham until someone told her the same thing (she’s 25, so this is understandable). But actually, they’ve both recorded with the same guy, Paul Q. Kolderie, whose credits also include the Pixies and Hole (which should really have figured into a joke by now, all things considered). She likes her, although Speedy Ortiz’s sensibilities are way less radio-friendly. This leads us to discover that Mike and I went to the exact same concert in high school: Ben Folds with special guest Tracy Bonham at the University of Hartford. Small world. We also talk about how we all hate the National, and really should have gone to their house to fight them instead of to The Hole’s house to fight it. Next time.
Half an hour later, we cross the bridge into Chinatown and marvel at how The Hole can exist in such close proximity to Manhattan, international yuppie playground. Sadie and I are both vegan, so I’m eager to take her to my favorite “hole”-in-the-wall, where we scarf down vegetarian lemongrass chicken banh mis and slowly become human again. I’m fascinated by anyone who grew up in Manhattan and came out semi-normal (or maybe the better descriptor is “semi-tolerable,” as it can be a good thing to be weird), and ask Sadie if she went to a lot of cool shows back in the day. “I’ve never been a party person,” she replies. “I was more of a stay in and read kid.”
The band has to go to their session now, so they drop me off near the AT&T store, gift me a pack of sour Twizzlers, hug me one by one, and are gone. Helpless without my precious iPhone (or “my precious” for short), it’s not until later that I Google The Hole again and find out how woefully ill-informed we were. D’oh.
Still, our battle with the bugs and the weeds and the debris and The Hole taught us lessons and brought us closer together, and isn’t that what counts? In the immortal words of Tracy Bonham, “everything’s fine.”