Escape from Dimes Square
For four months—four banal yet torrid months—I was a near-invisible custodian of the New York City micro-neighborhood known as Dimes Square. Chances are you either know exactly what I’m talking about, or you have literally no idea (in the case of the latter, enjoy your sanity). In material terms, Dimes Square is a relatively small triangle of asphalt sandwiched between the intersection of Canal and Division Streets in the eastern part of Chinatown. Initially named for the nearby health-food restaurant Dimes, it could have just as easily been named for the throngs of “dimes” who hang out there. It is both an in-between and an epicenter, having become, for a variety of reasons, one of contemporary New York’s liver spots or jungle gyms, depending on your view.
When I first moved to New York, chilling in this zone was indeed a thing. You went to gallery openings at Larrie or Reena Spaulings, you downed shots at Beverly’s, and afterwards you ate scallion pancakes at North Dumpling. But in these days of anti-woke film festivals and blackpilled Substacks, the proper noun “Dimes Square” signifies a bit more than it used to, looming larger in the city’s imagination, having become a concept, a chimera, a state of mind.
So yes, I worked there, or, to be a bit more precise, I worked about fifty yards from there, tending the ticket booth at Ludlow Street’s very own Wes Anderson-themed movie theater, Metrograph. Perhaps you’ve heard about the layoffs? I can tell you that I was offered less than two weeks’ severance on the condition that I sign an NDA, which I declined; I can tell you that I am now being paid the exact same sum to write this essay; I can tell you that the whole operation is a vanity project founded by a necktie designer; I can tell you that his ties are ugly, and that I hardly ever wore mine on the job, even though uniform violations were strictly forbidden; I can tell you that I caught Covid on the job the night the theater reopened after Omicron Christmas; I can tell you, finally, that half our team was laid off less than a week after the theater hired a new general manager, who told me over the phone that it was “toxic” that my coworkers and I had written to the CEO and not to her, before inexplicably adding, “this isn’t the Ukraine.” “No one’s getting fired,” she concluded. A few days later more than half of the box office staff had our positions “eliminated,” as the email so flatly put it. No full explanation was ever offered.
Here’s the thing, though—all of that feels like a red herring. Austerity and terrible leadership in the arts aren’t exactly new problems, and having already lived them out at other gigs across this city, I have little interest in reading another article about them, and even less interest in writing one. I will let the true journalists—all those pinging my former coworkers and me on Twitter—write the hit pieces and exposés. If you couldn’t tell that Metrograph was corny from the jump I can’t help you. Perhaps you’ll be able to join Ari Aster at The Commissary upstairs for a succulent but tiny helping of duck.
These days we are all smooth-braining our way through life, my peers and I, by which I mean that we are losing it, we are spiraling as we find ourselves refracted and reflected by the many-sided mirror that is the internet. Indeed, “We are living through the dumbest time in human history,” according to Matthew Gasda, whose play Dimes Square has been showing to sold-out audiences since it debuted in mid-February, right around when I was laid off. But is this “the dumbest time” or are we just the dumbest, the most fried, we’ve ever been? Maybe I’m so cracked I can’t see straight, maybe I found Gasda’s play to be barely passable, but I do find community in feeling worn thin and am generally sympathetic to pessimistic declarations of any kind.
One thing is certain: we are living in a time of shibboleths, of passwords. Lately, language is being thrown about like confetti, like all those business cards for boutique weed delivery services scattered on the sidewalk; it is being stretched out and reshaped, made to mean everything and nothing all at once. We are quirked, we are goated, we are bruh, we are bestie. Those of us living in certain corners of New York are exposed to hyperspecific tweets and memes on a daily basis, ones that gesture toward the bars, clubs, restaurants, and even intersections that we frequent or are alleged to frequent. Do these memes make us feel good? Do they even make us laugh?
One of the many side effects of the pandemic, of peak-pandemic life at least, was that we suddenly had time to categorize or even canonize things. With our former hobbies deemed illicit, all we could do was discuss them online. Dimes Square-as-fantasy-world benefited from this phenomenon (as did similarly meme-able micro-neighborhoods, like Myrtle-Broadway, aka “Grimes Square,” focal point of Bushwick nightlife), but also from the fact that people still seemed to be carousing there, Covid be damned. An entire newspaper devoted to this notion, to having a fun pandemic in downtown Manhattan, was even launched in 2020. The Drunken Canal, like it or lump it, cemented Dimes Square’s reputation as a playground for the ultra-rich that supposedly doubled as a mecca for transgressive thought and politics. The paper’s editors, two white women in their twenties, claim to rarely visit Brooklyn—or, God forbid, Queens—and tend to publish hermetic essays about their extended social sphere.
These days the socialites want to be underground again—no one tell them they’re the fifth iteration of adults living and loving the movie Kids. Or maybe the kids just want to be socialites. Either way, god isn’t dead anymore; the models and the micro-influencers brought him back! Catholic guilt? Never heard of her. Being skinny? Timeless. Being white? Go off. Unabashedly straight? Standing ovation. If Anna and Dasha said it on Red Scare then it must be true, even though one of them plays a lackey for the rich on prestige television. It’s the year of the tiger, but it is also the age of the reactionary. We can all be the smartest, hottest, most original person in the room. We can all make our podcast with God (at the cost of identifying him with Peter Thiel).
To be clear, I don’t hate everything about life in New York, about life on the internet. Me and my friends, sure we are cracked, but we are also laughing and smiling and kicking our feet, we are screaming and crying and throwing up about this. We are shitposting on main and passing battered images around like chain letters. During my time at Metrograph, particularly during the Omicron bubble, I made countless memes behind the front desk or while walking around Dimes Square on break. “THE YEAR is 2021,” one read. “All my friends have omicron, no one’s even at Clandestino, I am nyc’s least essential worker THIS IS MY STORY.” It felt good to express myself this way, either through a tweaked-out meme format or on Instagram’s Create Mode, which, with its kitschy fonts and hideous color-gradient backgrounds, has the uncanny quality of making everything seem funny, or even prophetic. People tend to use a sorta low-key, sometimes confessional tone. A couple weeks ago, a friend—someone I’d met online first, IRL second—posted something (lowercase Futura letters over a bright pink smear) that read, “i don’t dislike red scare because of their views i dislike it because they spawned a new, more annoying type of normie.” “This is good lol,” I responded.
What happens when two people get addicted to playing devil’s advocate? Whether or not you have ever listened to Red Scare, whether or not you have heard the rumors that the podcast’s hosts, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, may be taking money from PayPal cofounder and conservative “activist” Peter Thiel, you have almost certainly felt their cultural influence. Back in 2018, Red Scare dipped a toe in the socialism of the so-called “dirtbag left,” providing an alternative to pearl-clutching political correctness, but as time churned chaotically forward, quasi-ironic shock-jock aesthetics prevailed. In 2018 Dasha told a reporter from Infowars that “you people have, like, worms in your brains”; this past November she stood in the south Texas sun in a pair of yellow-tinted shooting glasses and posed for a photograph alongside Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist and publisher of InfoWars. What’s the point?
In addition to repopularizing the casual use of the word retarded, Anna and Dasha have catalyzed Dimes Square’s central paradox: in a climate where no one can be bothered to proffer (or at least commit to) a fully fleshed out idea, how do we tell each other apart? Whenever anyone asks Anna or Dasha to follow up on anything, they get defensive, adopting a tone of mock-ignorance: “Why would you listen to us?” they respond, eternally hedging—proving everyone right who likened them to Jon Stewart. But when you make $57,899 from Patreon subscriptions every month, people are listening. Just like Alex Olch, necktie scion and Metrograph founder, who has tried to make Dimes Square into one big atelier, Anna and Dasha have fashioned the neighborhood in their own image, turning it into a gleaming advertisement for fake proletarian credentials.
One night, while working an especially slow shift at Metrograph, I met a film critic, a soft-spoken guy in a Yankees cap and glasses. I would guess that he was about sixty years old. He was supposed to introduce a screening, but when no one else showed up to watch it, he was unfazed, perfectly happy to take in its splendor alone. “This must be a pretty cool job,” he said, and he asked me what else I was up to. “I’ve been writing this essay in my head,” I told him. “While I’m here at work. It’s about the culture of the neighborhood, I guess.” “Go on,” he said.
I didn’t know how to translate things for him, so I told him that, to my eye, a schism had occurred in the wake of the thwarted Bernie Sanders campaign, a defeat which was itself obscured by the sudden gloom of lockdown. A lot of people who had maybe supported Bernie ended up moving a bit toward the right, I told him. They found the BLM movement corny, they felt frustrated that it was suddenly cooler to be queer than it was to be straight. It’s reactionary—they can’t do anything but react, I concluded, practically foaming at the mouth. I think he got the gist, or at least was kind enough to pretend to.
Some geographical facts: Dimes Square is a few paces from the East Broadway F, a subway station named for the commercial thoroughfare that runs from Chatham Square in central Chinatown to Grand Street in the Lower East Side. When you get off the subway and head west on East Broadway, you’re in Little Fuzhou, a distinct subsection of Manhattan’s Chinatown, which is otherwise predominantly Cantonese; when you get off the subway and head east on East Broadway, past Seward Park toward Clinton Street, you reach what was at least once called “Shtiebel Way,” for the numerous synagogues that line the block.
Before my shifts, I would often eat rice noodles in Seward Park. “You enjoy it even though it isn’t your food?” an older woman (eastern European, if accents are to be trusted) asked me one day. She was sitting on the bench across from me. “Yes,” I said. “And they’re only $2.00.” “They used to be $1.50,” she said. “I haven’t had that food in two years. I lost the taste for it. I’ve been cooking more.” “Cooking is a lot of work,” I countered. She nodded, staring at the pigeons between us. “You’re Jewish as well,” she said. It was not a question. “Are you religious?” “No, not very,” I responded. “I see,” she said. “You are an intellectual. It is all worth it if you use your talents.” “I’ve been trying,” I told her, already hating myself, already writing it all down.
During my shift breaks, I’d stalk about the neighborhood, dodging drunkards and tracking graffiti. There was PAR and VILOE and FATJAY and DASU and Miss 17 and FALSE and FLASH. There was JOWL and JOJI and SLUTO and ACER and TONEY and MANIK and ADOBE ONE. There was HOUND and DIP and PEAR and GANE and TEXAS and TIZ and ZERS OTL. TIZ would paint over ZERS and ZERS would paint over TIZ. Then there was ICBM, or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the “anti-style” crew who purists derided for their freehand, almost wabi-sabi wonkiness. ICBM included WOMBAT and ZIG ZAG and Cancer CARL and ANEKO, but to be honest, for me there was mainly WOMBAT, or WOM, her being, to my amateur eye, the most electrifying and original graffiti writer in New York. Every writer I listed “gets up,” and some are even “all city,” but none of them get way the fuck up like WOMBAT does. If you look toward the rooftops, you’ll see her everywhere: “W” kind of like a Wu-Tang Clan bat, “O” a melting skull with an “NY” for a bindi, “M” an inverted “W”, “B” with a sniper’s crosshair at its center, “A” encircled for anarchy, “T” cross-shaped battle axe. Each of her fill-ins is a little different from the rest, featuring interior tags like “Napalm Death,” “False Hillary Duff,” and “Enter Gates of Hell.”
While Matthew Gasda and Dasha Nekrasova and all the other transgressive downtown thinkers dash off their half-baked plays and feature films, WOMBAT goes to work, rising over the city and laying claim to it. A friend of mine recently snagged a copy of a punk zine that featured an interview with WOMBAT, one that confirmed my hunch that she’d been involved with the hardcore scene before turning to graffiti. Aside from modestly calling herself “a huge toy” (slang for novice, aka “tag over your shit”), she notes, “I only really try for it in Manhattan, because Manhattan’s the one.” “Getting on roofs is really easy in Chinatown,” she adds, “because none of the buildings are locked.” Walking around the neighborhood I would imagine an invisible turf war between WOMBAT and the micro-celebrities I’d helped at work, between her and all the reactionary podcasters. Each time I found another one of her fill-ins I would experience a sort of vicarious, inward high, confident she would win this imaginary-yet-tangible battle.
Inspired by WOMBAT’s anarchic daring, I began to imagine myself as “Go Piss Girl,” New York’s third favorite anonymous gossip columnist. Go Piss Girl was a girlboss. She liked to gaslight and gatekeep. She had a small bladder. She liked to watch people who didn’t care to watch her. She would take New York City’s jumble of signifiers and somehow spit them out in a way that made sense, that made things cohere. She would write an earnestness manifesto, a counter to all of the ass-kissers who were too interested in trend-riding to have any ideas of their own.
By reframing myself as Go Piss Girl, by going “anon,” I could truly be my freak-ass self, I thought. “Now is a moment of masks,” as Dean Kissick naively put it last October, in his monthly column for Spike. You feel more confident when you’re hidden, he surmised, “not only because you could be represented how you want . . . but just as well because you don’t have to be represented at all, you can stay hidden in the shadows . . . or assume many forms.” The mystique of anonymity was definitely part of my interest in graffiti—before I stumbled upon that zine all I knew about WOMBAT were her pronouns and what I could glean from following her work. There was a certain comfort in making a patched-together community out of the enigmatic names and letters and numbers I kept seeing around me. With recognition and repetition came pattern-building; it felt like waiting on a decoded message that might never arrive.
At Metrograph, as I waited behind the front desk, a masked mannequin in a designer necktie, I would read Substack essays by the anonymous culture critic known as Angelicism01. Self-described as “theoretical gossip of the 2020s,” Angelicism01’s column reads like Heideggerian copypasta, unfurling in a breathless, schizoaffective, nearly unintelligible torrent. It possesses many of the aesthetic trappings of the present internet moment: Japanese characters feature prominently; a vaguely messianic, angel-obsessed, tone prevails; embedded images possess a pixilated or weather-beaten quality that could be called “second generation Tumblr.”
Angelicism01 is also a bit of a reactionary. His (and I’m sorry but he is so clearly a he) writing blatantly thumbs its nose at liberal “SJW” culture; the word retard is used repeatedly and in a way that suggests an overarching effort to distort or thwart or even destroy language. One of Angelicism01’s pinned entries (his “magna carta,” as one meme put it) is even called “The Retard List.” It contains two sections, Retards and “Retards,” which are basically lists of who he does and doesn’t fuck with. Dasha makes the cut, Anna doesn’t; other admits include Chief Keef, St. Augustine, Donald Trump, and Simone Weil. (Angelicism01 has pointedly thwarted Dean Kissick’s breathless endorsements, placing him on the “Retard” list. “angelicism seemed to really resent him for actually living in ny/being effectively 40/having a public position in the art world/effortless relationship to dimes square youngins irl and online,” is how one anonymous poster put it on a forum called lolcow.farm.)
Beyond the alluring visuals and the shocks of edgelord language, the perverse wonder of reading Angelicism01 comes from the sheer difficulty of decoding the proper nouns that so densely populate his exceedingly quirked up sentences. References range from philosophy (Heidegger, Weil, Paul de Man, and the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition) to niche members of New York’s downtown scene. An anonymous figure floating over Dimes Square, Angelicism01 has become, for some at least, king galaxy-brain, guardian of shibboleths, originator of lore.
He is also the keeper of the Vibe Shift, its preeminent historian. Last summer, in a series of tweets that have now been deleted, Angelicism01 used the term to describe the stretch of time between June 1 and 5, 2021, when his loose circle of internet friends began posting in an unplanned-yet-somehow-synchronous manner, creating mimetic networks that felt exponential, passing around jokes and increasingly deep-fried images and pairing them together in a way that implicitly mocked the look-at-me posting style of the 2010s. But, in a bizarre twist of irony, it was Sean Monahan, oft-derided millennial trend-forecaster of the 2010s, who got credit for coining the term “Vibe Shift” in the truly unhinged article that Allison P. Davis wrote for The Cut this February. Monahan had mentioned Angelicism01 on his own Substack not too long after the Vibe Shift had actually occurred, tweeting that “Angelicism01 is way better than gossip girl,” on June 14, 2021. For what it’s worth, the Vibe Shift, for most New Yorkers I know, happened when everyone got vaxxxed up and Covid was over and everyone started party rocking at Bossa every night of the week.
If you want the certified Go Piss Girl take, the Vibe Shift is language. Language and time. The Vibe Shift happened but we missed it; as soon as it was given a name and demarcated, impressed upon a Gregorian calendar, it was gone. The Vibe Shift is finding comfort in multiplicity, in following the traces of an event that can never quite be recreated; there is no official reading of the internet because pieces of the internet are always in motion, always disappearing. The Vibe Shift is a particularly bruh moment, it is a pair of pants so big they crash the economy. The Vibe Shift is an oral tradition.
The Vibe Shift is also organic: we mustn’t hem it in, we mustn’t horde it. Here is where Angelicism01 and a few of his acolytes ultimately lose me—they seem intent on building a fence around the Vibe Shift, on making its lore theirs alone. We weren’t there ourselves, we will never see the deleted tweets, but each time we move about the internet, parsing patterns and searching for digital artifacts, we participate in a sort of collective authorship. The Vibe Shift is a conversation, it is pure play in the face of death, it is a feeling of perpetual almostness. Whatever it is, whatever it was, maybe it can happen again, in new ways. The word egregore has been thrown around a lot recently; it is a word that Wikipedia defines as “an occult concept representing a distinct non-physical entity that arises from a collective group of people.” The Vibe Shift is an egregore but so is the feeling of love that I, Go Piss Girl, feel for my beautiful friends, whose phrases and jokes and observations have inevitably entered this essay and written it for me.
“All I can really tell you is that the vibes were off,” I told a reporter from New York magazine the other week when he asked me about what had happened at Metrograph. There wasn’t really a smoking gun, I told him, it’s not like the MoMA stabber, it’s just a weird place to work. Yes, a good vibe is hard to find here in New York City, with our bloodsucking black cop mayor hellbent on hounding the homeless and our nightclubs suddenly subjected to lurid acts of arson.
Whether we want to admit it or not, as we gracelessly make our way through a mass extinction event, we have more than “non-physical entit[ies]” to reckon with, more than online egregores. Incognito, in character as Go Piss Girl, I would bike from silly little Metrograph back to Brooklyn, passing over the Williamsburg Bridge and looking down on everything below. Yes, there was a real city down there after all, a city that had been torn to shreds. Beneath the icy glow of an NYPD-installed floodlight I could make out the destroyed southern portion of East River Park, a once-green strip of earth that had been dug up and devastated, turned to orange dirt. Even the historic amphitheater—that beautiful concrete bandshell—was gone. I would think about the closing scenes of Wild Style (1983), when graffiti legend Lee Quiñones and his crew mish it from the Bronx to the L.E.S. to spray-paint the amphitheater and throw a concert there. Now all that was left below me was the bathroom, which JOWL had bombed in big black letters. That and the wrinkled blue foil of the East River.
Who is this destruction done for? It isn’t done for the residents of the public housing projects nearby, I can tell you that much. It isn’t done for the residents of Little Fuzhou either, or those on Shtiebel Way. Even if Bill de Blasio, who rushed to raze the park in his final days as mayor, claimed that it was done for the good of the city, to stave off the rising oceans that will inevitably devour us, it doesn’t take more than one glance to recognize that it is also one link in a seemingly endless chain of projects intended to sanitize lower Manhattan. Heading to and from Metrograph, I would stare up at One Manhattan Square, a nearly eight-hundred-foot-tall glass tower full of luxury condominiums that looks down upon Dimes Square. Transgressive politics or not, this is what the grim carnival of the neighborhood has gotten us: a shiny blue cheese grater full of oligarchs on the site of a long-gone grocery store.
I know that a lot of people in Dimes Square have a God thing going on, but on the low, this moment is straight out of Jewish mysticism (this section is called “Go Piss Girl walks down Shtiebel Way”). In the Kabbalah they speak of the Ein Sof—meaning the “infinite” or “without end”—when the limitless Divine Being created the universe by withdrawing from it. Rabbi Isaac Luria believed that in God’s absence there was also presence; the vacuum that God had left was also lined with God, in the way that water clings to the edges of a bowl. Inside this vacuum, there came the first emanations of divine light, the sephirot that make up the material world. These divine emanations took on many forms, including letters and words and language. Flowing outwards, the sephirot began to overwhelm the great vessel of the universe, to the point that it exploded, showering fragments everywhere, white-hot fragments that were now coated with both God and the language the sephirot had imparted. What followed was a period of repair, a period that Luria called tikkun. Tikkun is never-ending, you see, we are living through it now. Only after all of the glinting splinters of sephirot have been archived and rearranged—only after we have put language back together, piece by piece—will the tarrying messiah come and only then will tikkun end. Only then will we say goodbye to Dimes Square.
 It would not be unfair to say that Angelicism01’s aesthetic seems lifted from Yung Lean’s 2013 video for “Ginseng Strip 2002.”