![Dana Powell. “E.L.F.” (2021). Oil on linen. 11” x 14”. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles. ](https://global-uploads.webflow.com/62ee0bbe0c783a903ecc0ddb/6472d7618fda7e80ecb41633_TBG22857.jpeg)
Dana Powell. “E.L.F.” (2021). Oil on linen. 11” x 14”. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.
I’ve just quit my job in entertainment to “explore my horizons” full time. In other words, weekly therapy sessions just haven’t been taking the edge off my toxic work environment like they used to, so I’ve been forced to leave—for my sanity and piling co-pay expenses.The universe has rewarded my decision with a high-paying barista job and two weeks of extra pay from my old company—to compensate me for the workplace harassment—due to drop on my birthday. I’m feeling lucky, and what better place to test your luck than NYC.
Soon enough, I pull up to a Victorian-style bed and breakfast in Brooklyn to link up with my best friend, Olivia, who I see jumping and waving at me through the top floor window with a bottle of gas station champagne. Loyal to LA, I have always perceived New York’s popularity as more of a trauma bond, allowed to persist because of the solidarity it brings, similar to global warming. However, I’m willing to part with that delusion and open myself up to the possibility that New York just may be worth all the hype. In exchange, I can feel an air of serendipity whistling through.
Shortly after settling into bed to decompress from our flights with cartoons, buzzed in our oversized graphic tees, we hear a timid knock on our door. Our Airbnb host is admittedly nervous to enter our room to greet us. She explains that we remind her of her tenacious 24-year-old daughter. She then goes through the typical introductions and recommends some spots that “kids like you” would be interested in, deeming the original itinerary of local landmarks and Trip Advisor recommendations obsolete.We trade a glance to say, “kids like us?” I wonder what tipped her off first: the legwarmers or the camcorder charging in the corner. We get dressed in our Gen Z uniform—mixing different decades to create outfits that mostly only look good in pictures—and as the most overdressed kids in gentrified Brooklyn, reluctantly make our way to the subway with our masks tentatively tucked away in our handbags.
It feels scandalous to leave the house maskless. It feels even more scandalous to be wearing lipstick. It’s a time in which politics have trumped policy, but the temptation of experiencing the old normal is too appealing to resist. All we can do is hope our bashful expressions will keep us on the right side of history. As the city transitions from day to night, the subway begins to fill up with more social and less distance, the after times’ way of embracing the vice of a Saturday night.
We hop on the subway to visit my favorite LA ex-pat in his apartment in Bed Stuy. Josh is one of the many who migrated during the pandemic to chase COVID discounted New York leases—his move solidified by trading his brown flowy hair in for a fiery, spiked 90s cut. However, I’m relieved to see that, regardless of the city he lives in, the boyish hedonism still exudes. After a very disorienting time navigating the subway, we meet Josh at his stop where he taunts us for actually paying the fare. He walks us to his apartment building and takes us up four flights of stairs as we have the classic “I just had to get out of that scene” conversation. Gen Z may do a lot of things differently, but the cost of being a “cool kid” has stayed the same.
Josh puts his index finger to his mouth to signal us to be quiet before we enter the home. As a true 20-something living in the city, he and his roommate _do not_ get along. He doesn’t bother turning on any other lights to lead us to his room, as to say, “this is my space, the rest is purgatory.” The first things I notice upon entering his room are two giant windows that lead directly out to a fire escape. The natural transition is to have a smoke, which nowadays means puffing on a USB stick. At least we’ve eliminated the fire hazards, but our lungs are still burning**.** After Olivia and I are satiated with our first New York fire escape chat, Josh opts to take a shower to cool off before a hot summer night. To burn time, Olivia and I play in his closet, mocking stray bras on the floor from the ghosts of Josh’s hookups past. Olivia’s camera snaps along to the beat of a distant ringing, resulting in her giving me a sultry look followed by a “this is the best picture I’ve ever taken of myself.” Our celebration is cut short by Josh’s roommate frantically knocking on the three bedrooms and one bathroom in the house—there’s a fire in the building, the hallway is full of smoke, and we _need_ to get the fuck out of here.
I can smell the smoke now as Josh scrambles into the room in nothing but his towel. He yells at us to go down the fire escape, but I can’t resist an opportunity to document a fight or flight moment. So, through the lens of my iPhone 12, I watch Josh pick out his most prized possessions. He passes me a tote filled with his Apartment Fire Must-Haves and we make our way down the fire escape. On the descent, I polish and post a TikTok recording featuring Josh recount the following items saved in the fire, sharing, “Our lightly-used bottle of Tito’s vodka, a _Close-up_ by Abbas Kiarostami CD, Wong Kar-Wai Box Set, Marlboros, a $300 _Chungking Express_ DVD, a _Woman in the Dunes_ DVD that was found in the car crash that killed my friend, Hong Kong Lab I and II, my gray MacBook Air, a John Cassavetes Box Set, composition notebooks, and my ‘I Love NY’ zip-up.” The video received 57 likes and 13 comments. User Darrenyodenofski commented, “hahahahah. Letterboxd wud b proud”.
Smoke is known to draw an audience, and as we descend, Olivia and I pull and tug on our rave outfits to make ourselves decent for the blinding fire truck spotlights. I notice two men staring at us down the street. They must be walking home from dinner as each of them carry a take out box reading, “Broadway Pizza.” One eerily resembles a bush baby with huge, protruding eyes and a slightly primal demeanor to him. The other resembles Clark Kent if he chose to pursue a career in finance—he just looks happy to be included. Bush Baby meets us at the bottom of the fire escape and lends us words of encouragement as we hop from the final rung. We thank him and head to the sidewalk to rework our plans for the night, and bask in the cinematic moment that is a life-threatening event.
We convene at the sidewalk with Bush Baby, who drops down to his knees to meet us at eye level and lets out a patronizing, “Me and my friend, here, are big television producers.” Noting that he has finally solidified our attention, he proceeds to break the ice by telling us he is the one who started the fire—for _content_. He gives us each the up and down with his bulging eyes, looking for signs of fear or insecurity. I can see that we have passed whatever narcissistic test he had created in his mind and invites us to his house down the street for a party. Josh and I trade smiles, our cue to each other to indulge. However, Olivia’s discomfort is palpable, so we respectfully decline his invitation. He slowly repeats each of our names back
to us before leaving his number in case we change our minds, the equivalent of giving us a ransom note reading “attend my house party, or else.” Olivia and I have fun catastrophizing the outcomes of trusting a bug-eyed stranger while Josh conducts a google search, and all of our concerns seem to melt away—it could have been the vape pen or the fact that Josh unearthed the fact that this unnerving stranger was an Executive Producer of VICE.
They are of a different world, devoid of notes app apologies and cancellation hysterics. It seems as though this group of ripened millennials are redefining the party foul. In less than an hour of being here, I’ve been compared to an Egyptian hieroglyphic, groped, and solicited for an orgy. Noticing our discomfort, Bush Baby invites me and my friend upstairs for a drink, but not before he brags to the entire party that he saved us from a gigantic apartment fire. We signal to Josh, now surrounded by a group of wide-eyed admirers, to accompany us upstairs. All three of us find ourselves in the kitchen with Bush Baby, multiple dozens of half-eaten pizza boxes, and a bar’s worth of top shelf alcohol. I tell him that we’ll take the house special to which he replies that the house special is a drink called “The Redskin.” I laugh an ironic, post-modern laugh to which he retorts, “Is it racist if I call you a Black American?” This is the last time I speak to him tonight. As a representative of the generation of sound bytes, he talked far too much for my taste.
It is clear that their positions at VICE had come from an extensive list of academic acclaim and corporate accreditations. All impressive accomplishments, but all independent of anything requiring originality. To them, we are still the kids that left them out of parties. Right around the time I am completing this very thought, I am interrupted by a man wearing an American flag shirt and bandana. He states, “She looks like she would so much rather be at a rave right now.” I lift my gaze from his Birkenstocks to meet him with a soft smile, instead of letting him know just how correct he was. A few rude interactions thus far have let me know that we are not invited over to speak, but rather to be gawked at and seeped from. Who knew the fountain of youth is just a party at a rich guy’s house?
We finally leave the VICE office party and head to the rave, Bush Baby not far behind, trying to relive his best years. I have a hunch he never lived them in the first place. We each let out a frustrated sigh in response to the fact that while mask mandates have been lifted, COVID still has a hold on capacity limits. After overhearing our dilemma with the doorman, Bush Baby promises all 10-12 of us that there are plenty of drugs and alcohol at his apartment, which unfortunately for us wannabe club kids, turns out to be untrue. We arrive at his bachelor pad in Bushwick to beers, a balcony, and plenty of Emmys to play with. I’m sure his motivation is sex, but it seems the allure of youth is enough for him to get off on us just being here. He exclaims that we’re all magnificent. He stops his eyes at me as he scans the room, “Even you!”
After a night of interactions that couldn’t have possibly gone any worse, I’m with my crew on a rooftop in NYC. Each of my friends’ tired eyes still glow with excitement. We’re still lively and beautiful enough to shine through our dirty, wrinkled clothes. Our lust for party favors and glimpses into success are met with a craving for youth and longing for a not-yet-written story. Now, we watch the sun rise, and we’re reminded that while our time is now, it is not forever. For the moment, that’s enough.