My friend Marc and I were walking through Chelsea one night last summer looking for ice cream when we were accosted in a very friendly and not unpleasant manner by a very strange woman.
We walked up and down 8th Avenue well into nightfall, but the temperature was still probably in the high 80s or low 90s. Such is heat retention in the city. The ice cream, sweet bliss in the summer heat, melted at an alarming rate and began dripping down the cones and the paper wrappers into our hands and down our wrists. The minuscule napkins Ben & Jerry’s gave us were hardly enough for a nose blow, let alone a torrent of chocolate goo. I had to be careful not to dribble all down my front. We ate (licked, sucked, slobbered) quickly to avoid disaster and embarrassment, and I ended up with a stomach ache.
At some point, a woman ran up to us from behind and tapped Marc on the shoulder. We turned around and she looked down at my friend’s chest. I noticed this, because I thought it was weird she wasn’t looking at his face.
“Sorry to bother you, but I have to ask you about your shirt,” she said.
It was a Bright Eyes shirt. White silk screen on black or dark-dark green or something. The front displayed the words “Bright Eyes” and a drawing of a guy throwing up into a toilet, but instead of vomit, it was a stream of ones and zeros. Very techie. Very Matrix. Very New Century.
I recognized the woman as someone we had just passed. Apparently she had caught a glimpse of his shirt and now wanted to inspect it more closely. People do this all the time with my Trash Can Sinatras t-shirt, which displays a single-color silhouette of a clothesline in a strong breeze. Marc seemed pleased if not startled by the attention, and eager to talk about the shirt.
This happened to me once. A guy about my age once stopped me and asked me about my Batman t-shirt. “Dude, I love your shirt.” He asked me where I got it from. “I don’t mean to insult you. I mean, I’m sure it’s, like, vintage. Have you had it, like, forever? I mean, did you get it around here?” I told him I got it at a place on 5th Avenue near 34th Street. You can find ’em anywhere, I said. (I did not say specifically that I got it at one of those cheap tourist t-shirt stores near the Empire State Building.) I was impressed that he stopped to ask and flattered by the attention. A friend of mine later told me the guy just wanted to get into my pants and I should learn to recognize when people are flirting with me. Another friend told me the guy probably knew I got it from some cheap tourist store and was mocking me.
Anyway, you never know what you’re going to get with a random stranger who stops you on the street to ask you about your clothes. And with this woman, we definitely did not know what we had on our hands (apart from dried, sticky, melted ice cream).
“That shirt,” she said. “I have to ask you something. What’s going on here?”
“Well,” Marc said, “Bright Eyes is this band I really like, and —”
“Yeah, I know who Bright Eyes is,” she said. “But what’s this?” She gestured to the figure crouched over a toilet.
“Well,” he said, sort of nervously looking at me, “this guy is throwing up? But he’s throwing up … um … binary code.”
“Uh, huh.” she said. “There’s something I need you to help me understand.”
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Um… I need you to help me understand something.”
“Well, what does it mean?” she asked.
“Um. I don’t know. I just thought it looked cool,” Marc said.
“You did,” she asked, more accusatory than inquisitive, cocking her head. “‘Cause I’m really bothered by this shirt.”
We were both thrown for a moment. Marc stammered. “W-w-what?”
I expected: Where did you get the shirt? or How much was it? Or even, lifting her own up over her head and saying brightly Wanna trade? But not this.
“I need you to help me understand something. I mean, do you think this represents his music?”
“Well,” Marc began. “Actually…” (he paused to think) “yeah. Yeah, I do — ”
Marc knows Bright Eyes. I don’t. So I can’t even remember what he said. But it took about 30 seconds and it sounded reasonable. Nice thinking on your feet, I thought.
But she pressed on. “Do you think he would like this? This ‘throwing up?’ Do you think he would want this to represent his music.” She sounded not exactly belligerent, but was definitely approaching agitated.
Marc just blinked. “Well, I just said — “
“I need you to help me understand something,” she said again, calming herself. In the course of the conversation, she probably said it about five or six times.
Nuts. Just nuts. But she looked so normal. She wasn’t drunk and didn’t appear to be high. She didn’t look like someone who would know where to find drugs anyway. I forget precisely what she was wearing, but let’s say it was a beige cotton skirt or khaki shorts with a simple fitted t-shirt and a pair of flip flops. Late summer wear. She could have been a student. Looked about 23 years old. Asian-American. Glasses. Just utterly normal and unthreatening.
It turns out she assumed Marc had made the shirt. That he was ripping Brights Eyes off by using their identity and misrepresenting them or something. We explained that Marc had indeed not made the shirt and that it was probably sanctioned by Conor Oberst himself long ago. Are you some kind of music industry representative or copyright lawyer? we asked her.
No, just some girl.
She doesn’t even like Bright Eyes, she said.
“Well, then why do you care?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve offended you.”
“What? No! No, nevermind. It’s fine, it’s fine. Just … what do you want?”
“OK, I’ve offended you. Well, that’s all. I’m …. ah … I’m gonna go. Sorry. Thanks.”
And she turned and walked away.
Marc and I waited a bit in silence, watched her get a good block away from us, and we turned and continued walking in the other direction.