Jody Azzouni

Excerpt 1 from "The Short Life of Colors."



So shoot. That’s what he says. And I’m a little worried, a little worried about his use of the word game. It feels pointed, just a little pointed. But he doesn’t seem to tip his hand any further. I’m sitting there thinking, and I’m thinking about taxicabs first. In New York, in the New York of nineteen or so years ago. And then I start thinking about public transportation. Buses and subways. That sort of thing. In New York. So I bring them up, I talk about them a little. It was the metrocard in my day. That’s what I tell him. That you used to get into the subways, that you used to get a ride. But I heard that once upon a time it used to be tokens instead. Tokens, he says. Yeah, I say, metal coins. That you dropped into slots. So what are subways like now? Have they changed much?


Okay, he says to me, there are no more subways. That’s the first thing. Okay, I say, I guess that makes sense. Yeah, he says, it sure does. And there’s nothing much being done with the tunnels either. The subway tunnels. Okay, I say again. But I’m just a little puzzled by what he’s just told me. Why would he think that I would think that something would be done with the tunnels? And there used to be the police the fire department stuff like that, that’s what he says next. Yes, I say. Of course, I add. And they still exist, he tells me. But they don’t do as much. They don’t do as much as they used to, as much as I remember them doing. They can’t handle it all. They can handle some neighborhoods, they can take care of some neighborhoods pretty good but they have to ignore other neighborhoods. Unofficially I mean. That’s the way it is now. No choice. Not enough of them to go around and too much to do. And then he sort of looks at me as he says this, as if he’s getting into what he’s saying, maybe for the first time. I don’t know how they pulled it off before, how they kept it going. All that infrastructure, all those systems. Back in your day, he says. Because New York was always so big. I nod when he says this. But they can’t pull it off anymore, we can’t quite pull it off anymore. Okay, I say. Even though it isn’t as big, even though there isn’t as many people. That’s what he adds.


Does that mean that there are a lot of fires? That’s what I ask him next. That no one puts out? He stares at me a moment, he takes his eyes off the road off the screen to do that, to turn his head towards me. And then he laughs. Yeah, he says, you could say that. You could say that there are a lot of fires that no one puts out. Even though there’s a lot of water all over the place. And he laughs again. I realize that I must have said something dumb. Which isn’t hard for me to do, not hard at all. Even though I haven’t been in a coma for nineteen years for almost twenty years.


Of course there are a lot of fires that they do put out. That’s what he adds. Because it all depends on what neighborhood you’re living in. That’s what he tells me. That the appropriate unit to think about things now isn’t the whole city, that you can’t think in terms of the whole city, you’ve got to think in terms of neighborhoods. That each neighborhood is sort of like its own town now. Um, I say. Which strikes me as a good idea about now. To say um.


It’s like we’re driving nonstop through a forest. A road through the forest. That’s pretty big actually, that looks like a main road that even looks kind of like a highway. And from which other little roads branch off. Leading from the main road that we’re driving along up into the forest. Winding up into the forest. Because the floor of the forest seems to slant upwards from the highway, the highway has forest flanking it, as if it’s been cut deep into the ground of the forest. Trees towering above us. That’s what it’s like for most of the trip. And it’s raining too. Almost all the time, pretty much the whole trip. I ask him about that at one point. Yep, he says, it’s always raining up here. It’s always kind of raining in New York too, in the city. Not as much as up here but a lot, an awful lot.


Cars pass us. But only occasionally. Some of them look like the car we’re in, they look low to the ground. Even though they’re not. But some of them look like the foreshortened cars I saw in Texas. I see trucks go by too. More trucks than cars actually. A lot of trucks, I realize. It’s mostly trucks I see on the road. And there are bikes too, a lot of bikes. Especially as we get closer to the city. Two seaters and one seaters. With storage containers. Most of them I mean. In addition to the big-box motors they’ve all got. Storage containers that they’re pulling along behind them. Or pushing in front of them. With stuff in the containers, sticking out of the containers. Most of the cars look weird. In one way or another. And the bikes too. But the trucks, they look the way they’ve always looked. And nothing is moving very fast. The vehicles are all moving between forty and thirty miles an hour. Like in Texas. Like everywhere I’m beginning to suspect. In the United States anyway. Maybe everywhere I’m thinking. Because if fuel is expensive here then it’s expensive everywhere. That’s what I’m thinking.


Not a lot of food. That’s what the driver tells me later, not a lot of food gets into New York. Not the way it used to. Because I’ve just finished talking about all the restaurants that there used to be. In Manhattan. And in all the other boroughs too. And he responds by telling me that there aren’t any restaurants any more. Not really, not like there used to be. And that if something looks like a restaurant, then it’s really a private club. For some organization or other, that there’s nothing for the general public anymore. But that’s okay, you know? That’s what he says right after he tells me that not a lot of food gets to New York anymore. It is? That’s what I ask. Yeah because there aren’t that many people in New York nowadays. Not like there were before. That’s what he adds. There’s a whole lot less people now. Maybe a couple of million, maybe only a couple of million are left. Maybe even less than that. Or slightly more.


To be honest, I’m not really sure. That’s what he says finally. Because no one’s organized enough to carry out a real census, to actually count all the heads that are left. Not for a while, no one’s been able to do that for a while. And so these are just some estimates that I’ve heard. I have no idea how good any of them are. That’s what he adds.


The food. People have it delivered. If they can afford to do that. Water too. If they need water delivered. Some people do. And they go to the big malls if they can’t. Except for the people living in the water. That’s what he tells me. It’s really tough if you’re living in the water. Because delivery is tough, because delivery is almost impossible. Some of those people eat fish, they just eat fish all the time. That they grow themselves. Probably not many do that. If the neighborhood is well off, if the neighborhood is competent, they organize outings. They cook in common, they eat in common. In those neighborhoods. How big’s a neighborhood? That’s what I ask him. It varies, he tells me. Sometimes a couple of buildings, sometimes it’s a whole block. Rarely more than a block. Sometimes it can be just a single building. If it’s one of the new big luxury buildings. It depends, it really depends. That’s what he adds. It totally depends on how wealthy the people are, what organizations the people in the neighborhood are hooked into. And where they’re located. In relation to the malls, in relation to the trucking routes. That sort of thing. How many storage refrigerators they have. Things like that matter. To the neighborhood, to how big it can be.


Some of the new buildings. That are really big, that are luxury buildings. For the really rich. A single one of those buildings is a block association. And they’re kind of self-contained. They do as much as they can for themselves. And they make good deals with other organizations when they need to. Some of them even have their own hospitals, they’ve got their own police. To guard them from what’s outside, and they’ve even got their own firepatrols. For inside the building. If a fire starts inside the building. Or outside but near the buildings. So they don’t rely on the external resources. Or as little as possible. Except for water and electricity I guess. Sanitation maybe. That’s what the driver says me.


We pass some of those buildings later. When he’s driving me to Brooklyn, as we’re going downtown. I can tell that these are the buildings that the driver was talking about. Earlier in our trip. Because it’s easy to recognize them, because there’s a giant new building standing in its own space. And around it, but at a distance are a lot of other obviously deserted buildings. Deserted skyscrapers even, there are a lot of clearly deserted skyscrapers. With holes where the glass used to be. Dead buildings. That’s a good way to describe them. A lot of the buildings in New York are dead now. Maybe most of them. I’m not sure about this. And then suddenly we drive past a living building. More than once I mean. Quite a few times. On land that’s been cleared around it of dead buildings. The block I mean, that the new building is on, that it’s centered on. So that the dead buildings and the rubble around the dead buildings are on adjoining blocks. To the living building. And all these new living buildings, none of them have windows, none of them have any glass in them. None at all. So they look really weird. Big stone-looking monoliths, that’s what they look like. It’s not even obvious how you’re supposed to get into them. As we drive by, anyway. I don’t see any entrances. And I don’t ask the driver about this. At this stage of our trip. Because at this stage of our trip he’s not talking to me very much. This is much later, this is after we leave the hotel, this is after I tell him I want to go to Brooklyn.


The neighborhood associations, they’re usually called block associations. That’s what the driver is telling me now. While we’re still upstate. Before we reach New York, before I see any of this. They’re called block associations even if they’re bigger than a block. That’s what he adds. And even if they’re smaller than a block.


And then he tells me that he likes this game, that it’s a lot of fun. That it’s helping him to get the big picture. Of how things have changed. That it’s good to have the big picture once in a while. And somehow I realize when he says that that he doesn’t believe me, that he doesn’t really believe the coma thing. I’m not sure why. Because he must surely be able to tell that I really don’t know a lot, that I’m not faking my ignorance.


And later I think about what he’s said. About the big picture. That I’m not really a big picture person. That I’m always trying to fit pieces together but that I usually don’t have an image of the whole thing, that it usually doesn’t come together for me in that way. That it almost never comes together in that way for me. And then I’m thinking that maybe that’s not a liability. Because all the big pictures that people have are probably wrong. That things don’t have to fit together in a big picture. They just have to look like they do. To the big picture people I mean, so that the big picture people don’t get too uncomfortable.


A lot of crime, there’s a lot of crime? That’s what I ask next. And he laughs at me. Everyone is always asking me that, he says. Like I’m going to know. Even people who have kept up on things ask me that, he adds. So I don’t know, that’s what he says. Compared to what, anyway? That’s what he adds. The way it was before. That’s what I say. Like twenty years ago. Sure, he says. Lots more crime compared to the way it was before. I guess. Maybe. Proportionately to there being fewer people of course. All sorts of murders and other stuff. Mostly murders I guess. When people disagree. Or when they’re fighting over territory. Like neighborhoods. Because the police can’t handle everything. Or at least not consistently. So people gang up on one another I guess. Everyone has weapons, everyone carries a weapon. Of one sort or another.


What kind of weapons? That’s what I ask next. Knives mostly, he says. Some guns. Nothing that unusual. Because there’s not that much stealing, there’s not that much thievery. Because it’s hard to get stuff into New York, to truck it in. Food’s more valuable than anything else I guess. Most of the trucking involves food. And because by now all the valuable stuff’s pretty much gone. Stolen? I ask. Maybe a little, he says, maybe some of it was. I’m guessing here. That’s what he adds. But mostly it just moved away. That’s what I think. Mostly it just went off with the people who owned it. Or it got destroyed. One way or another. That’s what he adds.


A lot of people died. That’s what he tells me. That’s how he explains the big drop in population, why there are so few people still left in New York. Comparatively. Why so many buildings are dead now. Even in the neighborhoods where there’s been no flooding. Which is most of New York, which is the vast majority of New York. That’s part of the explanation anyway. That not everyone left, that some of them didn’t get to leave that some of them didn’t try to leave. And that then they died. From the water, that they died from what the water brought. A lot of them. That’s what the guy adds, that’s what José adds. That they didn’t drown, that they died from all the diseases that the water brought. Because it was warm water. Which strikes me as an odd thing to say. Until he adds, and there was sewage in it, a lot of sewage in it. Still is. And he tells me about the mutated cholera. Which I’ve heard about already. Typhoid fever, he mentions that too. And the pet flu. Which still sounds funny to me. Do people still have pets? That’s what I ask him. And he looks at me funny. Not all pets carry pet flu, right? That’s what he says. Tilapia, for example. Tilapia doesn’t carry any flu. That’s what he explains to me.


People didn’t so much steal stuff as just take it. That’s what he says at one point. From the dead people, from their homes. If those homes were still intact, if they hadn’t collapsed. Looting. Less looting than you’d think. Because what were you going to do with the stuff? That’s how he puts it.


A lot went online. Sales, I mean. That’s what he tells me at one point. That there are still stores, but they stick together now. In malls, in these megamalls. Because of the delivery problems. And so when you buy stuff, sometimes you have to go to a mall to pick it up. Like fresh meat. Or eggs. You often have no choice. Because delivery is so expensive. And so hard to do. In New York anyway. Unless your block association is rich. Or your neighborhood is conveniently on a trucking route. So if you’re in a place where it’s easy to deliver to or it’s safe to deliver or you’re willing to pay enough insurance up front before it’s delivered or your block association is big enough, like it’s a really big luxury building, then you can get stuff. Otherwise you can’t. And then you have to pick it up yourself, or your block organization has to organize ways of getting stuff. Or you have to leave. Or die. That’s just the way it is.


They used to talk about a safety net, a social safety net. Now there isn’t one, not really. Not a big one. There are all these little ones. Like neighborhood block associations. And other organizations too. Or cults. Block association cults. He looks at me. There were cults back in your day. I’m pretty sure of that. Yes, I say, religious organizations. Right, he says. And other sorts of organizations too. So now there are lots of organizations now that are locally based. Or professionally based. Unions of people. And some of them are pretty good, pretty strong I mean. Their members work together well, they protect one another. You’ve got to be part of an organization, some organization or other. More than one really, you’ve got to belong to more than one. If you’re going to survive, if you’re going to flourish. That’s just the way it is. People are bonding together in small groups. Because that’s where the protection is. Religion, he says. It’s not for me, not really. But they protect their people, they really do. Religious cults. They’re comfort societies, mutual-support organizations. Nowadays, I mean. And I’ve got nothing against that, nothing at all. That’s what he tells me.


If you live on certain blocks, in certain neighborhoods then you’d better have certain beliefs, certain religious beliefs for example. Or you’d better move out fast. That’s just the way it is. I live in the water. On the water. That’s what he tells me. I notice this, that he’s telling me something personal. For the first time. There aren’t many neighborhoods like that. That’s what he adds. Because it’s hard to make that work, to get services. Electricity. And clean water. For example. Maintenance is harder too. Because the buildings weren’t originally designed to stand in water. Or the new construction doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. We’re mostly engineers. In my neighborhood. Con Edison people. Well placed Con Edison people. In the Con Edison organization, I mean. Some renegade Department of Environmental Protection people too, a couple of those. And a lot of drivers. Like me.


He looks at me. And we’re atheists, we’re all atheists. We’re all science people. In our neighborhood block association. That’s cool, I say right away. Because it strikes me that that’s totally the right thing to say to this guy. Right now, anyway. While I’m still in his car. Besides, maybe I’m an atheist, that’s what I’m thinking next. Why shouldn’t I be an atheist? But probably I’m an agnostic. That’s what I think next. Depending on what an agnostic is. If someone doesn’t think about God one way or the other, if he just never thinks about God. Not ever. Is that what an agnostic is like? Am I an agnostic? Or am I something else?


Oversight. There used to be a lot of oversight. Legal oversight. Organizational oversight. That’s what the driver tells me. From the government, from the states. From consumer groups. From watchdog groups. That sort of thing. That’s how I remember it being, anyway. Way back when. There were phone numbers you could call. 311. To complain if your garbage hadn’t been picked up. If it looked like your neighbors were abusing their kids again. If people were partying really loud. Again. There was a better business bureau, there were complaint boards to call about medical malpractice or identity theft or whatever. You could call a lawyer. You could sue people. Or corporations. Even your lawyer, you could sue your lawyer if you wanted to. There was a judicial system, there was accountability, there was what they called accountability. There was a department of public health. Really. There were public health inspectors and agencies. There was environmental surveillance, a lot of it. There were social services.


He looks at me a second, he takes his eyes off the road off the screen to look at me. That stuff still exists of course, it still kind of exists. You can still contact these services, you can still hear real human voices if you listen real hard. But they can’t do too much, or if they can it takes a really long time. Like years and years and years. Or never. Because you’ve died in the meantime. They function piecemeal nowadays. These services. They can sometimes do something. If you’re lucky. Or if you’re well-connected. If you’re living in the right place at the right time. But usually it’s just better to forget about it, to just move on. Whatever’s happened to you. So you get a little tighter with your neighborhood cult or your block association. Your business organization. Whatever. You let them take care of you, let them settle scores for you if they can, get you some justice. And you forget about it otherwise. You keep your head down, you do your job. Whatever it is.


You do stuff for your block organization. Like everyone else in the organization does. In the cult. If it’s a tight one, if it’s a healthy one. So that everyone in your organization likes you, so that everyone in the organization takes you seriously, so they keep liking having you as a member. So that you belong somewhere safe.


José strikes me as alert, as thoughtful. No bullshit, I’m not hearing any bullshit. Just the facts. That’s what I’m thinking I’m hearing as I listen to this. And then I think, be careful, be very careful. This is a charming guy. He smiles a lot, he makes you feel comfortable. And he talks a lot, he’s very glib he’s very informative sounding. Maybe what he’s saying is true, maybe it isn’t. And anyway, it’s his slant, it’s just his slant. There are other slants, no doubt about that. Different slants. Somehow what’s true is located at the intersection of everyone’s slant. Or something like that.


And then José starts to talk about organized crime. Which is natural I guess. Because he obviously likes to talk. And given that he’s just finished talking about organizations and cult block associations. And about how important it is to belong to a powerful group. About how difficult it is to join certain cults and block associations. Because they’ve all become more picky now. About who’s in and who’s out. So now he’s telling me how much organized crime there is. About how in the open it is now. He talks about organized crime so much that I get the impression again that he’s trying to scare me away, that he’s trying to scare me into going right back to where I came from, that he’s trying to scare me all the way back to Texas. He talks about how organized crime has always been around. In nooks and crannies. That’s the actual phrase he uses, nooks and crannies. And under rocks too. And how it’s started to spread out. Because people needed help. And because so much of the infrastructure is weak now. That’s another word he uses a lot, infrastructure. I ask him the first time he uses it, infrastructure? And he means things like health inspectors and departments that oversee things. As well as police and fire. Local police, but not just local police. Federal and state too. And sanitation and sewage. He means all this stuff. You keep this bubble tightly closed when you’re boating it. That’s what he tells me. Because of the sewage because all the water in New York is pretty much sewage. Because of the way things smell. The way they smell almost anywhere there’s water. When it rains for example. You need to keep what’s out out and what’s in in.


And it’s better than it used to be, a lot better. Than even a couple of years ago. That’s what he adds.


And so because so much of the infrastructure got weakened, those crime people that were already around, that were already in nooks and crannies, they started to try to take advantage of things. They were already brutal you know like in the movies but now they fit into the environment a lot better. The new environment, I mean. That’s what he says. This makes you uncomfortable? That’s what I ask him. He laughs. Me? No way, he tells me. And then he’s looking sideways. At me again. As he’s talking. Checks and balances, you ever hear of that? I guess, I say. Now different organizations act as checks and balances for one another. Keeping one another in check. Like powerful neighborhood block associations.


And us. That’s what he adds. We’ve pretty much got the monopoly on travel. In and around New York anyway. Us, the New York City taxi and limousine commission. Who? That’s what I ask. He repeats the name. Proudly, he says it proudly. Really? That’s what I say. That’s you? That’s what I add. I think I’ve heard of them. Weren’t they around before the floods? Aren’t they a city agency? Aren’t they one of the departments you used to call if you wanted to complain about something, complain about about being ripped off by a taxi for example? And he laughs again, yeah, the name’s a joke. There’s no city agency like that anymore. No point to it. Or if there is no one hears from them. No, we’re an organization, a union, a guild. That sort of thing. See this in my ear? He’s showing me what looks like a GPS earbug. Which I’ve noticed already. Earlier, I noticed it much earlier. Okay, I say, that’s a GPS earbug. No, he says, no it’s not. It’s my pipeline to us, to the taxi and limousine commission, our organization. It’s encapsulated, totally encapsulated. How we communicate electronically to one another. Nobody gets in unless you’re in our union. Nobody gets out either. Has to be that way. So we’re tight, we’re really a tight organization. And he smiles at me.


No trains no buses no public transportation. Energy costing a fortune. So these guys have something of a monopoly. That’s what I realize. And so they have some clout. So I get it. Checks and balances. The taxi and limousine commission. And they’re all connected tightly. With one another. That’s power, that’s a lot of power. That’s what I realize. And I’m thinking about how little debris I saw on the roads. When I was on roads. How little debris there still is. On the roads. And now it makes sense, it’s starting to make sense. Where there are roads at all, where there are still roads you’ve got these organizations keeping them in shape. And when there aren’t any, where an organization of this sort doesn’t exist or doesn’t have enough power to reach an area, there probably aren’t any roads left either. Because it’s not worth it to anyone to try to protect them. Or it’s too expensive. So then you’ve got to fly to get around. In small planes. Like I did. Because there aren’t any big ones anymore. Or you have to walk. So it’s beginning to make sense. A little sense I mean. Why Tucker had to organize my trip the way he did. Why I had to zigzag my way to New York. Ride in a car then fly then ride in a car then fly. And so on. Because there are weird things going on with airlines too. And airports. I realize that now.


And he tells me some more about the block associations. That some of them have their own protection. Of course. The wealthier ones, the ones that are well-connected. More checks and balances. On the local level. And he talks about the Department of Environmental Protection. How powerful they are. They protect the environment? That’s what I ask. He laughs. No, he says. They keep the clean water clean. And running. For most neighborhoods anyway. The ones that have made good deals with them. They’re bastards, the Department of Environmental Protection. That’s what he says. And then he talks about Consolidated Edison, he talks about how powerful that organization is too. That’s it’s maybe the most powerful cartel in the whole city. Second to the Department of Environmental Protection. Because everyone wants electricity, even really poor people want electricity. That most of our worth goes into paying for electricity. Whatever’s left after we’ve paid for water. And that everyone behaves really well towards Con Ed people. No one messes with them. Polite, you’re really polite when Con Ed’s around. Especially the meter people, especially the Con Ed people who read the meters. You really don’t want to mess with them.


These are city agencies. That he’s telling me about. That’s what they’re called. Con Edison. Department of Sanitation. Department of Environmental Protection. And he explains something else to me. That some city agencies have become independent, they’ve emancipated themselves from the city, they’re not controlled from above anymore. Or not really. They’ve gotten really powerful all on their own. Con Edison, that’s a city agency? That’s what I ask at one point. I interrupt him to ask him that. Because I’m puzzled, because I don’t remember it ever being a city agency. Oh right, the driver says, as if he’s remembering something. It is now, it’s a city agency now. Not in your day I guess. That’s what he says. But being a city agency doesn’t quite mean what it used to mean, that it doesn’t mean anything like what it used to mean. Because city agencies that still exist or that have gotten powerful are independent institutions now, because the city hierarchy has fragmented too, along with the city itself. So that some agencies are really together, really tight, really powerful. And other ones have just disappeared. Or just about disappeared, become really weak. Conflict of interest. Ever hear of that one? That’s what the driver asks me that at one point. No, I say. It used to be a city agency, really. That’s what he tells me. Not anymore. That’s one that’s totally disappeared. It doesn’t even have a website anymore. I think it’s interesting that he knows that, that the driver knows these things about city agencies. I’m wondering if he studies this. On the side, I mean. Or if this is just the sort of thing that all drivers know.


De facto privatization. That’s what Bickley calls it. The sociologist Bickley. Who I meet later. And who tells me a little about how New York City works now, how its agencies work now. And the agencies in other cities too. Like Chicago. Cities that were too big to keep functioning the way they had functioned in the past but which still had too many resources left to just die off the map altogether, to turn into deserted ghost-towns.