The year was 1986. Ailene Flannery refused to abandon her apartment when the Centers for Disease Control tacked eviction notices on her neighbor's doors.
A year earlier, almost everyone in her building on 17th street had relocated. Once the spiked section of steel wall choking off ninth avenue from the rest of Manhattan was built, the residents of that Chelsea apartment knew the time to leave was upon them. Aliene's wretched landlord refused to option the building to the tenants. Instead, he sold the leases directly to Mayor Gloomberg's relocation thugs. Gino's Pizza, home of the original New York slice, folded (pun intended) as well. When that final eviction deadline rolled around, the only tenant who remained in the building was Old Man McQuaid down the hall.
And Ailene -- sort of.
"They'll drag me outta here over me dead body!" was the Irish immigrant's defiant cry.
Ailene had known the curmudgeon all her life. She'd pass her time in her cramped living room, admiring her collections as McQuaid drank Sterno "squeeze" and serenaded a faded photograph of Ailene and her mom with pub songs until he tipsily shuffled himself back to his apartment, sobbing. Ailene had been raised from an infant in that squalid apartment. She consoled her dear mother when her brother was killed in Vietnam and was by her bedside when the BURP cut her mother's life short.
Ailene would say, "Hang in there mommy. The pain will pass."
Her delirious mother would sometimes whisper, "Ailene? My sweet Ailene. You've come back to me... I see you..."
No. No. No!
Ailene wouldn't be forced out when the Zooks were locked up. Chelsea was her home. She felt a closeness to her belongings. No one could make her leave. The night before Old Man McQuaid was forced out, they sat together in Ailene's apartment. McQuaid uncorked a sacred bottle of Connemara he'd been saving for a special occasion. He sang and cried and said goodbye. It was almost dawn when the CDC took him away. Ailene cowered in her bedroom as men wearing what looked like space suits dragged him from her apartment. She hid beneath a pile of torn curtains and listened as McQuaid drunkenly screamed to be let go. She was certain the men were coming for her next. But Ailene heard only hammering. She peeked from her bedroom window overlooking 17th street and watched a military truck packed with neighbors drive from view. Some time passed before she summoned the courage to sneak down into the lobby. The CDC had nailed a bright orange sign to the front door declaring the building condemned and a verified BURP infestation area.
She was alone.
And Ailene couldn't have been happier. Ailene missed her mother, but the pair often came into conflict regarding what her mother called "junk". Ailene didn't see her collections as junk. Far from it. Ailene saw her collections as treasures. Ailene was happiest among her collections. She'd started collecting very young.
Ailene would say, "In the woods people collect leaves and rocks, so why not collect city-things like magazines and bottles? I'm not stealing. It's going to the dump anyways--"
Her furious mother would scream, "Because it's garbage, Ailene!"
Her mother didn't seem to understand, but it made perfect sense to Ailene. Behind the closed door of her bedroom, the cracked picture frames, discarded stuffed animals and torn clothing grew from a collection into a hoard.
In the early eighties, neighbors, particularly children, died as the BURP parasites spread from the ghettos where Zooks lived into human neighborhoods like Chelsea. When it was announced Chelsea would become a quarantine zone, most of the uninfected vacated their homes way ahead of the deadline set by the CDC. The dead and the fled left more and more treasures on the streets of Chelsea. Ailene brought home as much as she could carry. Soon her hoard spilled over from her bedroom and into the rest of the apartment.
Ailene would say, "I can't believe someone left this behind," as she lugged another three legged chair into the apartment.
Her mother, unable to stop the flood of garbage into her home, would cry as she stumbled over the piles of trash in her living room.
But that was a long time ago. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Ailene saw her childhood neighborhood become a war zone. The animal people, the Zooks, fought one another claw and beak in the streets of Chelsea. Ailene would sneak out at night in search of treasures, anything, really, to drag back to her apartment, but soon enough the streets were picked clean of junk -- everything repurposed by the warring Zook clans.
Ailene had no recollection of things getting so bad among the Zooks corralled in the Chelsea Biohazard Zone. Aside from her obsessive attachment to her collections, Ailene's perception of life was fuzzy at best -- and for the most part nonexistent. Ailene didn't sleep. But then again she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen daylight. And Ailene didn't eat, but she understood she needed to collect cans and bottles and boxes of dry goods. So long as her collection was involved, Ailene had purpose and she was still part of this world.
Beyond that, the young woman couldn't remember anything else. These lapses in memory frightened the young woman. This selective amnesia, paired with the lack of collectible street trash, often sent Ailene into a terrifying tizzy. She'd storm from her apartment building, the front door (it's orange warning sign long obscured with a thick layer of grime) shaking on it's hinges. Empty trash bins tumbled on their sides as she rummaged for lost treasures.
Late one night, almost dawn, Ailene raged through alleyways and across abandoned lots as she furtively searched for treasures. It had been weeks since she'd brought a new collectible home, and that night's excursion appeared to be a wash. As her frustration mounted, the sidewalks cracked with icy footprints and the air around her shimmered. In those moments of panic and anger, Ailene was able to better sense aspects of the world that seemed hidden to her in a calm state of mind. The Zooks that also roamed those abandoned nighttime streets seemed to pop out. Ailene could hear their whispers from blocks away and even sense their presence from around corners and behind closed doors.
Mostly she avoided them. Ailene had no interest in the angry ones with sharpened claws or curved horns, but that night she sensed something different -- something timid and kind and curious even. She followed her senses to an alleyway leading beneath the elevated railroad track near the Nabisco cookie building. She found a Zook girl. The young thing was blessed with bouncy Shirley Temple curls and also cursed with the snout of a pig.
Poor girl, thought Ailene.
The pig-faced girl glanced about the alleyway as though to assure herself no one was watching, and quietly ducked inside the Nabisco building through a broken window hidden behind a stack of wooden pallets. Ailene glided to the window and passed through the brick into a cavernous warehouse space.
Row after row after row of treasures greeted her. There were shelves of silvery cans and crates of fuzzy blankets and teetering stacks of beautiful books next to a massive bin of vintage clothing. Ailene felt a warm spark ignite where previously there'd been a cold frightful void. There was so much stuff!
Where to start? There's no time to start rummaging and collecting. Not just yet.
The morning sun had already started to crack the top of the eastern Chelsea Biohazard Wall. Ailene knew she had to return to her home, her hoard, but this treasure trove would be here for her perusal tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. This assurance was all Ailene needed as she giddily pinched a pair of men's dress shoes and floated through the broken window back to the street outside the abandoned cookie factory.
Ailene giggled as she flitted among the shadows back to her condemned apartment building and her precious horde of garbage.
Mine. Mine! All of those treasures will be mine...
(to be continued...)