he penny-wagon worked its way up past Central Park West, before heading over to the Baptist Church on 79th Street. The government men picked up a man, age forty or thereabouts, wearing a white collar. I’d seen him around before; he’d evidently been tipped off by an informant, as I had.
“I don’t need to ask what happened to your choir,” I murmured to him as they hustled him into the van. Realizing the men would hear us if we continued our conversation, I asked hurriedly, “What’d they get you for?”
“Tampering with a Melody Detector,” he answered. The look in his eyes was sunken. “I was only trying to dismantle it, actually. Seeing as there aren’t any services there anymore and I still had some keys, I didn’t see any need for it to still be there.”
We continued the ride in silence, both of us falling asleep and waking up at different times until we got there.
The Correctional Facility must have been located ninety minutes or more out of Manhattan, and I had no idea what to expect. Testimonies from survivors were confused at best, when they weren’t euphoric (if the Correctional Methods had worked) or destroyed (in the rare event they hadn’t).
My mind’s eye gave me a result somewhere between a reform school and a penitentiary. My grandfather, a businessman, had traveled to Berlin when some wall was still up, and although my memories of his descriptions of the place were hazy, they surged back into memory then. Enormous white buildings, filled with people, gloom, and no God, he would lament — he was very religious.
What I ended up seeing wasn’t so far off. This branch was situated in Corona, Queens, where Louis Armstrong’s home stood. Unbelievably, they had kept the brick structure intact, but the interior — once preserved as a museum — had been gutted out.
On one side, a huge billboard bearing the inscription KNOWLEDGE stood against the oppressive wind. The red paint on the lettering was peeling off. On the other was the Governor’s unbeatable motto, SCIENCE IS SALVATION.
The Facility in itself was an extension of the house; this officiated as base for the security, known as the Sapiens Guards. There were two courtyards: one before the house, another behind it, which separated it from the looming white Facility building. After sunset, searchlights would start glaring, but already, guards dressed in Serious Attire were on the watchtowers, beginning their shift like ominous vultures.
“They’re all the same,” the pastor reflected. “Sapiens Guards or city squads. Only difference is the size of their guns.”
All of the Correctional Facilities must have more or less resembled this. Everyone who emerged from them acted pretty much the same, too.
The Government men pushed us out of the car and led us to the brick house. One of them escorted the pastor to a separate queue marked SUBS, RELIGIOUS. I barely had time to shake his hand before I found myself in a queue marked SUBS, UNDERAGE. The line was dwindling as admissions ended at a certain time in the evening.
After standing awkwardly for a few moments, I heard familiar words. They were the opening lyrics and chorus to an old Cuban song made famous by Buena Vista Social Club, a group which the Sing Circle had loved. The words were spoken with urgency and came from behind me.
“Oigame compay.” Listen to me, friend.
To which I answered: “no deje el camino por coger la vereda.” Don’t stray from the path. This was one of our codes; often we used Spanish as there were still many Hispanic neighborhoods.
The speaker was a girl of around my age, black, with denim shorts and a jacket. Her head was covered by a wide cap which conferred secrecy and quietness.
“You John?” she asked. I nodded.
“I wasn’t sure how many of us would be in the same camp,” she sighed. “They probably want to split us as far apart as possible.”
“How many do they have?” I inquired.
“Too many to count. Anywhere where there was music made is now a Facility. First one was Capitol Studios in L.A, next was Sun Studios, Memphis, then Hitsville in Detroit, and so on. They haven’t got the Lennon house on 72nd Street, have they?”
“No,” my fist closed as a sign of small victory. “Bastards’ll never take the Dakota.”
“They did take Rubén, though,” my comrade said. Rubén was one of the Cuban-born Sing Circle members. He had brought the Buena Vista record to the table since his grandfather had been friends with those musicians. I liked his energy. We all did. He had dreams of owning a restaurant.
“Have you seen him?” I asked.
“They got inside his head, man,” she whispered. “Fact they did more than that. Last time I saw him he was in Serious Attire, leading the Hispanic Division of the Science Enforcers. Putting guitars through the wood-chipper. The very sight of an instrument repels him.”
“Messed up shit,” I muttered.
“Hell yeah,” she agreed. “Swear now before you won’t be able to. My turn’s comin’ up.”
The line led to a desk where a surly guard was checking us off.
“Neil,” she replied. A second guard entered the name on a computer database. If the name matched another one connected to music, she’d have to change it. This one matched with a renowned scientist, so she was allowed to keep it.
“Cubicle 58C,” the guard called out. They did the same with me and I stepped away with my name intact as they assigned me to 58D.
“Looks like we’ll be neighbors here,” I said, attempting to work up a smile.
“Don’t count on it. They could move you or me or anyone here so fast it ain’t funny.”
“Aren’t they gonna take our valuables?” I worried. “Gold and stuff?”
For the first time I saw her look directly at me.
“Gold? You a Jew or something? This ain’t quite the Holocaust.”
I turned to get one last look of the outside. “I wonder.” My knowledge of that period was limited, it was almost a century ago. People still quibbled over the numbers, but at the heart of it, I came to my own understanding of it: there were no beautiful sounds in the camps or anywhere in the world then. Just noise, hellish, nightmarish noise.
Clearly, that was all we would ever hear, here.