Hang on, we have to jump lines, I totally need to take communion in the Space Truck.
One of the best things about living in New York City is that there is never any end to the wonderful and odd things that can be found right next door. Things you didn't know existed; things that have been sharing your city with you, so close that you'd swear you occupied the same space, separated by the gossamer wing of a dimensional shift. And: it's true. You do. You can be separated from an entire universe of wonder and entertainment by the mere tick of a clock, or the choice of which of a subway station's five exits you choose to leave from, or even by the shadow of a light that prevents you from seeing a small understated sign taped to a wall.
But once in a while - more often, if you look hard enough and diligently enough, or even better meet the right people and listen when they talk to you - once in a while, you get to turn a dark and empty corner in a shut and empty neighborhood and find...
It's not even clear to me what I found, honestly.
A recent acquaintance had told me idly about several of the myriad activities she is involved in as participant or (frequently) organizer. One sounded awesome, and I said so: A night market? In New York City? Yep, she said. But not just a market. It's an Art Thing.
So one evening I found myself leaving my house to meet her for soup dumplings in Chinatown before taking the R Train to a borough I've only been to thrice since moving here four years ago, and two of those trips were to Shakespeare plays involving the likes of Patrick Stewart and Derek Jacobi. And here I was again.
We got off the train in a nondescript neighborhood and walked away from the avenue, into the cold wind that was blowing, and towards the darkness. We passed under a busy elevated highway and kept going, into a realm of light industrial zoning that was all firmly shut for the weekend. The temperature was around freezing, and the wind was blowing into our faces as we made our way towards the darkness of New York Harbor's waterfront.
A few blocks later we reached the intersection that had been distributed out on electronic wings a few scant hours earlier. Go here, the message said. And we did. We reached the intersection, and it looked just as empty as everything else. I inquired with a glance, but she looked unconcerned. It's never where they say. It's within a block or two. Look for a sign. So we did. And found a small paper sign taped to a lamppost with an arrow and some familiar words on it. Following it the final block towards the water, we turned left along a railway siding and found...
Box trucks, to be precise - completely unassuming, normal-looking, slightly shabby rental box trucks ranging from 24 or 26-footers to small 12-footers built on pickup frames. They were all parked along the side of the empty street, and a few people were wandering around the sidewalk from truck to truck. Some had costumes on. Some were laughing. Some were passing flasks. Some were huddled around each other for warmth. "What the hell?" was my general reaction, so she laughed and pulled me over to the nearest truck. The rear door was up, but a blackout curtain had been hung across the gap. We poked our heads through and climbed in.
"Hi and welcome to the Peekaboo Lounge!" said a friendly voice. I looked up from where I'd crawled into the truck, and a smiling woman invited me to sign the Guest Register and remove my shoes. I did so, and then was bid crawl beneath a low wooden platform (sort of like crawling under a bed) and I came out in a space, broken up, three different lofted platforms with wooden stairs and one open quarter. There were cushions everywhere, and groups of people lying packed into the small areas. Some had table games like Connect 4. Some had Boggle. Everything was glowing intensely in the only illumination available, which was black light. I looked at my friend, looked around, and laughed. We crawled back out and put our shoes on, and wandered down the row of trucks.
One truck was the THUNDERCUBE. A ring had been put in near the front end of the truck, and two participants from the audience were goaded into donning one of a small stock of costumes, choosing a pillow from a selection, and then squaring off in the ring to whack the holy bejeezus out of each other in a pillow fight with a professional-sounding fight announcer calling the action via a megaphone as the crowd - packed into the back of a box truck, remember, some of us in there because huddled humans were warmer than the 25-degree biting wind outside - screamed and shouted and cheered. "BACON VERSUS PENGUIN!" thundered the announcer. "LET'S HEAR IT FOR BACON!" as a young woman, dressed as a large rasher of bacon, pounded on a squat penguin with a one-handed feather pillow.
The next truck wasn't ready, but a young man in a white 1950s style food service hat and white uniform (but black leather jacket over that, for the cold) assured us that THE CUPCAKE MACHINE would be ready to AMAZE US in a few minutes. We continued on.
There was a pierogi truck, so popular that raffle tickets had to be given out to determine who got pierogi. The WikiLeaks truck was there, turned into Grandma's Attic, where you could rummage through mementoes. Many folks came out of that truck clutching an actual LP.
The last truck in the line was actually two trucks, back to back. They were hooked into a fire hydrant and there was an amazingly complex system of butane tanks and hoses outside. I poked my head in at my friend's urging, and found out why. The small truck was a changing area. The big truck? The entire back had been turned into a 2,000 gallon hot tub. I shit you not.
One truck was the Fairy Godmother's Tea. Entering in groups of 8 or so, you would cluster around a counter at the front end of the truck where a nice young woman (your fairy Godmother) interrogated a volunteer as to what they were looking for in life, and proceeded to cast a fairy godmother spell via the making of a complex and relevant sandwich. Members of the group would then be handed wedges of said sandwich and you were thanked for visiting.
One of the coolest trucks was one of the simplest. A projector at the rear shone onto a screen mounted against the front of the box. A fog machine made sure the projection was visible. A bright outline of a circle glowed on the screen - which meant a glowing cone of light filled the center of the truck as we all lined up along the walls and, at the urging of the truck runner, used our hands to distort the lightcone. Then each of us walked to the front of the truck to stand against the screen, our heads inside the circle, staring at the projector - and the sight of all of those hands interfering with the cone, and the resulting shadows, was cool as hell as you walked into the light of the projector and back out of the truck.
"How would you explain this to somebody?" my friend asked, grinning. She's worked trucks here before on prior Night Market events.
"I know. That's why you just have to bring people."
The trucks are supported by donations from their patrons and by the whims of the artists running them. One truck (THE FUTURE!) was brilliantly lit inside, and as you were allowed into THE FUTURE by attendants wearing white bodysuits you found yourself in a space lit by hundreds of bright flourescent tubes hanging from the ceiling, lower ends swinging free. Laughing you'd push your way into the jungle of light, only to find that the tubes were tied together in a complex scheme that resulted in a maze, which had to be solved to exit the truck.
Whitney Houston's dead? What'd she die of? -Wear and tear, man, wear and tear.
One ambitious crew, in elaborate costumes of the Grim reaper, devils and angels and general pimpology, had taken over an alley leading off the street - and a brightly lit-up scissor lift was taking 'dead souls' up to Heaven (the roof of the low warehouse) to meet God, and lowering them down to Hell to meet the devil.
We wandered the trucks for a couple of hours. In addition to the THUNDERCUBE, there was an actual boxing truck where pairs of audience members with grudges were encouraged to don huge padded masks and big soft boxing gloves - and whale the tar out of each other in the ring while the crowd screamed approval and the truck rocked furiously. The CUPCAKE MACHINE finally became operational, as the barker explained to us how Eli Steiner (an immigrant!) had brought twentieth-century sensibility to the gastronomic tradition of the world and produced the CUPCAKE MACHINE, where NO INGREDIENT WAS TOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS! We entered the truck to find two uniformed attendents frantically 'calibrating' control panels of lights, and after determining our preferred cupcake flavors then entreated us to help them hold down the buttons to keep the proper lights lit - and the 'cupcake machine' indeed produced our cupcakes. We left the truck, triumphantly holding up our frosted prizes to the envy of those still on line and proclaimed the superiority of the AUTOMATIC CUPCAKE MACHINE.
Walking the street was surreal - as part of the Night Market ethos, all the action must take place inside the trucks; folks must not stand in the street, only on the sidewalk, and nothing should be left behind. So other than the oddity of several hundred people wandering between boring-looking box trucks in an empty industrial area around midnight, it was quiet. But from inside the trucks you could hear the roar of the crowds, or the sharp patter of the expert barkers calling audiences in, and you could see some of the trucks rocking as their attendees eagerly joined into the games.
The final truck of the night was the most civilized - a tea house truck, accepting sixteen patrons per seating (they were working strictly via reservations, first-come-first-served handed out for later in the evening). A long table down the middle of the truck, seats on each side, and dozens of tea-light lanterns on the table and hanging from the ceiling. 19th century art was hung on both sides of the truck, where the walls had been tastefully covered. We were offered the choice of green tea with toasted rice (genmaicha) or black tea with blood orange. In addition to our tea, served in china, there was white and dark chocolate fondue simmering on the table, and skewers and fruit were brought out for our delectation. A twenty-minute seating engendered conversation with our seat neighbors and tablemates, warmed us ("More tea, dear?") against the chill outside, and settled the psyche.
Then we walked the several blocks back inland, away from the magic of the box trucks. As we left, so did some of the trucks, passing us on the empty streets, their doors shut and the magic banked, on their way to being returned to rental agencies and a life of drudgery. We made it to the subway and descended into the earth, into the banal, and back into the womb of our everyday city, and wound our ways home, grinning here and there (especially when someone turned to someone else and just said "CUPCAKE!") and thinking madly of what the hell we could do to a 24-foot box truck to ensure people went home several months from now thinking our truck was the coolest one out there.
The Lost Horizon Night Market is not totally underground, although it's not that easy to find in time to attend. The New York Times published an article on one last year - safely after the event of course. Wired Magazine did a story on it as well. Maybe that means it's played, now.