Phantom Overload is modeled after those old Dashiell Hammett stories where some shadowy organization tosses their weary operative into a local political schism that brings about 18 quabillion different entities, power lines, emotional trajectories and beautiful women into an escalating conflict (Red Harvest is a great exemple). Besides being masterful in their voicings and plot structure, these old noir stories have a lot to say about economy of prose. All those different elements balance out and crash against each other throughout the work but these pieces are usually fairly short. They get right to the point but without shedding emotional or social depth. The underlying meanings simmer just beneath the prose; they’re not necessarily subtle, but they don’t jump out either. It’s a fine balance.
So with Phantom Overload, the story began with the Ghost Bus. I’m not sure where that came from, but I loved the idea that dead have their own commuting issues and when something throws a cog in the system the shudders from it eventually make their way up to the all -controlling Council of the Dead. Here too, of course, is the idea of Autonomous Zones – small areas of the city where the dead buck the Council’s bureaucratic oppression. They mingle with the living, they do what they want. And of course, COD turns itself upside down trying to figure out ways to fuck up such a peaceful arrangement. There are autonomous zones all over the world. I remember visiting one near the Tijuana border crossing, Chilpancingo i think it was called, where the folks set up their own mini-government and the Mexican powers-that-be was doing everything to make life as miserable as possible for them. It’s here, in the little independent stretch of East New York, that Carlos glimpses some outward semblance of the inner harmony he seeks.
This is only barely a short story, but it has a special place in my heart.
I say that because there’s really only the loosest semblance of a beginning middle and end and there’s no conflict to speak of. It’s almost more like the personal revery of one character, and more importantly, the chronicle of a particularly relevant night in two characters’ lives. I’m okay with that. First of all, it’s tiny. I’d never publish it as a stand alone but within the context of the book it has its own genuine resonance and swagger. Plus, to me CiCi’s voice and meandering thoughts can carry a little rambled anecdote.
Also, Tangents is the only story in Salsa Nocturna with no supernatural elements. To me, this brings the characters to life a little more. They may be 300 years old or have ghost vision, but they still stay up all night, surrounded by their memories; they struggle with their internet connections, contemplate what might have been, feel the pitter-patter wonder of a new relationship. They are beautifully human.
Of course, the title came first.
I don’t know where it came from, but when it did come I knew it had to be a story. Then came Miguel, the narrator, who’s a composite of several taxi drivers and friends of mine and probably a sprinkling of me too, like most of my characters. And I knew he had to end up at the river, and I knew he was buff and overemotional, thick in the throes of a breakup and about to learn some important shit about life and love. And I wanted Janey back in there somewhere, because I lowkey have a character crush on her, and all the pieces fell bit by bit into place as the story developed around those elements. Flesh on the skeleton of a name, a character and some general sense of direction. That’s how most stories come together, I find. It’s often just a case of tweaking them here and there so they stay focused, move and flow they way they’re supposed to and chopping off the loose ends.
This might have been the most fun story to write. For one thing, it was one of those glorious pieces that flowed out pretty simply- the characters were already alive and clear in my mind and even though it was the first one I wrote with Krys and Big Cane, they took no time adjusting to the shenanigans of the rest of the crew. Plus, I’ve always wanted to write about river demons, and these ones came along with their own twisted mythology and warbly language.
Someone (can’t for the LIFE of me remember who right now) said to write a short story take two divergent elements and bring them together. Tall Walkin’ is essentially that theory put into practice.
This story to me a sort of turning point, the ragtag band of anti-council folks is solidifying and they’re falling into the joys and challenges of friendship and risk taking.
I honestly couldn’t say exactly where this story came from; it surfaced like the stories in CiCi’s own inner garden of stories and unfolded before my eyes. I used to bike home from Harlem after the midnight shift and the ride took me through Queens and over the Pulaski into Green Point. Further south, you can see where gentrification has drawn jagged cultural lines through the heart of Williamsburg and Bushwick; so many lives and stories thrown together in the mix, so many complex power lines between them, colliding forms of magic and technology, the technology of magic, the magic of technology. Alladat.
And then I felt such an old slow moving character needed some speed, thus the super-scooter came into play.
This is also about initiation: it’s a vast, painful, life-changing concept that of course can’t be summarized in a short story, but the way the different characters here come to their paths speaks to the real challenges that the modern world pose to our spiritual growth.
Below is one of the promo videos we made for Salsa Nocturna that features a scene from The Passing.
Salsa Nocturna Promo #1: The Passing
The great Sheree Renée Thomas, who wrote the introduction to this book and midwifed many of its stories into existence, invited me to join her and group of little ones to a field trip at the African Burial Ground site in the financial zone. It’s a strange place: a huge corporate rock surrounded by fancy marble slabs with Adinkras carved into them. The museum inside gives a little more feel for what happened there but the monument itself leaves you kinda bleh. And of course, the gnawing truth that the whole situation is so much deeper than a monument could ever really get at. She asked me to write a ghost story about the burial ground and by that time the whole world of Carlos and Riley and the Council was already firmly in place; Riley had done his deed and the larger narrative was unfolding clearly in my mind. It was time for the various disparate characters to begin converging…
While most of my stories filter my experiences on the ambulance into some fictionalized form (see: the New York Council Of The Dead and various related bureaucratic shenanigans and fuckery), this is the only story that deals directly with the paramedic experience.
It’s also been used in schools to teach about cultural appropriation – a huge honor. I’ve tried many times to squeeze my many thoughts and theories on the topic into an essay. I organized around it in college and I’ve had endless conversations about it, but this piece is the only time I’ve been able to make sense of it with written words. And really, what better way to deal with cultural appropriation that with a story about a crazy floating white lady?
This story truly came alive to me the other night at the reading. It was a combination of the music, the power of spoken word and the overwhelming response I’ve had from readers about it since the book release. At its heart, Magdalena is about how the living can haunt us just as much as the dead. The title character is haunted by a childhood sexual trauma; the narrator, who’s dead, is haunted by the title character, who’s not. The hauntings spur the characters into various forms of action and inaction as they confront their relationships, memories, sexuality.
It’s also about healing: how our own view of how people should deal with their trauma can get in the way of the actual healing, the empty useless feeling when confronted with someone else’s pain that you can alleviate, the impossibleness of holding that space and the endless fight to do so anyway. For a non-fiction companion to this piece, here’s a blogpost I wrote immediately after having a young survivor of sexual trauma on the ambulance, Who Heals The Healers; literally the most helpless and broken I’ve felt in my entire nine year career in emergency medicine. It is a triggeralert type piece, so read with caution.
Simply put, I was sick of all those damn stories about the white guy bringing back a haunted “African fetish” and it reeking havoc on his petty life. Besides being racist, boring and predictable, it’s an overdone trope (see also the Iraqi fire demon in this season’s True Blood.) So this story is a direct remix of that, but it’s also about gentrification and the way power and privilege can have devastating effects even with the best intentions.
This is the essence of a ghost story: history walks with us. We can choose to acknowledge it and move accordingly or we can pretend it’s not there, try to will it out of existence and the cringe while we and all our loved ones reap the consequences. In traditional ghost stories this might refer to a sin of the past, the unearthing of some slumbering demon, an indelicate transgression against Judeo-Christian straight white norms, perhaps a poor choice of vacation home. Here, the past is very specifically the history of our country, the racial-economic factors that got us to where we are today and the mark that has left on all of us.
What startled me is how similar this is to a Lovecraft story that I hadn’t yet read when I wrote it,“Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” in which homeboy has a Congolese relic mailed to him, it turns out to be the mummified carcass of his half-ape gread-grandmother (wearing the family pendant) and then it kills him. (Oh…spoiler alert.) It’s an amazing and amazingly racist story and I’m glad I wrote a counter-story, however unknowingly.
This is also about action, hesitation and friendship, but I’ll let those themes stand as is so as not to give anything away.
Gordo, having lost his job at the overnight care center, ends up working at Evergreen Cemetery, naturally. The still-unwritten story that this one runs peripheral to is Janey’s adventures creating Brooklyn’s version of the Golem with the kids she works with at the nonprofit. I’ve always loved the Golem story, which involves a man-made monster saving the Jewish community of Prague and running wild in the process. It’s the root of Frankenstein and asks us difficult questions as artists and activists: What does it mean to really make change? The Golem gets to the roots, forces the difficult struggle beyond charity or politics and it’s not always pretty.
Amidst all that, Gordo’s stuck with his own whimsical thoughts about the city beyond the cemetery and an nasty cleanup job.
Below is one of the promos for Salsa Nocturna that features this story.