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hi griefbacon subscribers. this is part two of letters about Meow Wolf. You can read part one here. this letter is for paid subscribers only, but feel free to forward, screenshot, post, and otherwise share it in any way you like. xo
Technically, Brazenhead still exists. I could go there on Saturday night if I wanted to. But for the value of Brazenhead I acknowledge, it is closed and in the past tense. By existing in a new location, it no longer exists at all. Maybe I am talking about myself. Maybe like with most things, I am using something that has little to do with me to talk about the small and unimportant movements of my own life.
Brazenhead was a secret bookstore that sometimes referred to itself as a speakeasy because you could drink there (and smoke there too, in the really old days), in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side. It was owned and run by a used-book seller who ostensibly lived there but had slowly turned what had once been his apartment into two-and-a-half rooms of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books, a place that felt like the sort of elsewhere characters access in childrens’ books, a place that blotted out the world beyond itself. There were no windows, no clocks, no natural light, no working bathroom, even, for a while (you had to go next door to the neighbor’s apartment). It was, of interior rooms, maybe the most interior.
I went there for the first time just after the year had turned in January of 2011. I was with two or three other people. We showed up late at night, after a different party, in a different neighborhood, and I left to go to yet another party, in yet another neighborhood. The world was all portals then, all passageways, a string of lights from one next thing to another. But Brazenhead was something outside of the usual current of distractions, and just the fact that it existed, and that I got to know about it, made me feel more important. I had been told a secret. At the time it felt like this was enough, to carry me through the winter and through the mess of myself, it was enough that this place existed, and that I could return to it, that a blue-painted door would open to an amber-lit shut-in world that smelled like smoke, with filthy carpets and no way to tell time.
I went back roughly once a week for maybe three years, as my life changed underneath me. I went to Brazenhead through some of the worst years of my life. I stayed there until three and four in the morning on nights when I was so broke that I didn’t know how I would get home. I lived far out in Brooklyn, almost as inconvenient to Brazenhead’s Upper East Side location as it was possible to be. It was often full of people I didn’t want to see, the kind of people who would ask me what I was working on even if they knew the answer wasn’t anything at all. But I went back, because the blue door shutting in the smell of smoke, and the windowless light of a room eaten by its own obsessions, the casino-feeling inside where time couldn’t reach, made it feel possible to burrow so deep into my own life that I might find something still untouched, some resource that was still renewable. Here there was still a place so remote that the noise of the day couldn’t reach.
I hadn’t thought much about Brazenhead in a long time and then I thought about it because I went to Meow Wolf and somehow Meow Wolf made me feel something like the way Brazenhead had used to make me feel. Meow Wolf starts as a house and then the house reveals itself to be a story and then the story opens up into a kaleidoscope of rooms, where every door reveals a handful of other doors, where every interior opens to a yet further interior. It is shaped, in this way, like a good conversation between very old or very new friends. Each tangent yields further tangents and yet if you’re careful, and truly interested, everything connects back to the spine from which it began, and can be furled up back into greater significance by coming around to meet the starting point. Everything ripples further and further from the shore, but nothing is lost or wasted. It is the deep care of interrupting while also holding your place, of making sure to come back to the threads that were momentarily abandoned for the next story of which they reminded you, for the new thing you just had to share. A subject - or, in this case, a narrative - proceeds not linearly, but web-like, making not a road but a whole language. Conversations like this are how we seal ourselves close to people, in the dark of a bar, on the corner of a couch or on the counter in the kitchen at a crowded party, at the end of the night when everyone else has gone home. This is the mode in which other people, who so often seem exhausting, and limiting, just a collection of ways to embarrass oneself, treacherous rocks against which to break one’s veneer of acceptability, can seem to provide hope, to make the world larger, to offer energy that we cannot generate on our own.
Meow Wolf is a whole building; Brazenhead was just two rooms, three if you counted the place where we eventually hung our coats and where in later days there was a bathroom. The back room was the first editions room, with a long nominally padded bench on one end and a skeletal floor lamp on the other dimly illuminating the space. The walls were full of hardcover first editions of mid-to-late 20th century classics, mostly American, many of them signed but few of them truly rare. They were expensive in that they were more expensive than the paperbacks in the rest of the place, but not so much more that, on a night when one of us wrongly felt temporarily rich because we’d just gotten a freelance check, we couldn’t grandly purchase one and carry it home, sore-armed, in a heavy plastic bag as though it were a large bottle of booze.
Everybody always was trying to fuck in that backroom, or at least trying to make out there, or at least talking about it. In some ways it was just because that felt like what you were supposed to do; the idea of some kind of illicit sexual activity completed the scene. It became a place where you’d done something, instead of just a place you’d been. But also I think there was a neat metaphorical completeness to it. This sort of interior room, this place without a map or a location tag or a public face, this place that had to be a secret because it wasn’t actually allowed, shared something with the way sex is supposed to be, when we imagine it, when we are alone with it, back in the corner of the darkness, huddled away from gossip and expectation. We hope - I hope, anyway, I don’t know what you do - for sex to be a windowless room, a place without clocks and without light, that drowns out the demands and reminders beyond the doors, down the stairs, out the hallway where the cabs or the parking lot are waiting, where home is just home and the morning is the same morning again, and everything you can see knows what you did and wants you to answer for it.
The thing about the interior is the hope that if you get far enough into it, far enough away from light sources and street signs, you might discover something new or at least unfamiliar. It’s the privilege of knowing someone in the way the daylight world doesn’t, and the clawing, possessive feeling of seeing across the room at a party, someone who you only know from sleeping with them, standing up and being charming and making jokes, talking to strangers, as though they have a face just like everybody else.
Interior rooms feel like getting away with something, whether the literal getting away at Meow Wolf, where each interior leads to another, yet more unlikely interior, or in a hotel, where the interiority feels like someone else’ money - dangerously, even when it isn’t - or at Brazenhead, which felt as though it were dug so far into the city that it that it had gotten to another place. These are spaces in which one could be swallowed up, into which one could disappear and, once the sands of disappearance had closed over one’s head, one could find something better, truer and less obligated, than the everyday world. We chase down rabbitholes after the promise of what we can find and who we can become when we get far enough into the unknown, when we burrow far enough down under the surfaces of the familiar, the place where strangeness and burned-clean potential are one and the same.
Sometimes, though, this very unfamiliarity allows us to appreciate the mundane, the known, and the familiar. Some of my favorite rooms at Meow Wolf were the ones that offered slightly tilted versions of the familiar; places where one stumbled out of an acid dream into one’s own living room. Maybe that, too, was what reminded me of Brazenhead. For the years I went back there, until it stopped feeling like it was mine, until it felt like I had sucked all the juice out of it (which is, more often than we allow ourselves to realize, an entirely legitimate way to love something. Not everything is endlessly renewable, nor does it need to be), it was the most familiar-feeling place I knew. Even when I didn’t have a particularly good time, even when there wasn’t really anyone there I wanted to see, it felt much more worn-in and well-known than I had any right to claim it was to me. I loved it like the kind of friend you start calling your “old friend” far before you’ve really known them long enough to justify the descriptor.
There are places in the world that don’t have to actually be familiar to offer familiarity, and they are siren songs for those of us who have never felt quite at home. These are, just as often, not the places where one can actually stay. Eventually I ran out of nights and reasons to return to Brazenhead; eventually I left Meow Wolf because in the end it was an art exhibit, and had nothing in particular to do with me. But the interiority of one had jarred me back into the memory of the other, and of all the rooms that ever felt like holes in the map, like ladders from which to climb down into elsewhere, pushing to the back of the wardrobe, looking for the unmarked door in the wall.