John

By Coco Young 
Photo by Oto Gillen

Who the fuck is this guy? The sneakers he always wears. His hot 21 year old girlfriend… where did he find her? His apt in Tribeca. In his apt: Throwing magnets on his fridge while his girlfriend’s Swedish friends were sleeping on his couch.  He showed me the throwing magnets game, then he’s like "do you do drugs?" Who the fuck is this guy? I hear he works on wall street? Is he a weird stalker/creep? Or is he a genius? Is he perverted?

*  *  *

The dinner party had technically ended but no one was getting ready to leave any time soon. Familiar faces were loitering around the huge smokey loft. Some bodies were crouched on the floor holding cigarettes, others on the couch taking iphone selfies and tagging John’s instagram name.

I knew John through social media more than I knew him in real life. The first encounter I had had with him with him was a Facebook message I received on July 22, 2012 saying “you seem very interesting, Coco”. I didn’t respond. Shortly after, I began to notice the mention of his name around town. This was the first time I ever went to his apartment. I had been drinking at my friend Alex’s on West 12th Street when we heard that John was “having people over”. I forget if we walked or took a cab but I do remember walking into the TriBeCa loft and wondering
 who is this guy

The tree planted in the center of his living room was so tall that its leaves brush against the 18 foot ceiling. People wondered aloud how it got there in the first place. A stack of dirty porcelain plates on a wooden table matched John’s casual all-white outfit. Worn-in Reebok sneakers peeped out under his wide legged Levis. A baseball cap was negligently placed on top of his heavy head of hair, making him look like one of those purposely sloppy “celebrities are just like us!” pictures from In Touch magazine.

That night I did ecstasy thinking it was ketamine because they both look the same. My friend Alex meanwhile was on John's MacBook Pro, playing Aqua. John’s girlfriend Cece was dancing next to him. She was wearing a pair of baggy jeans and one of John’s white dress shirts. Standing there, moving in place, she looked like a young mermaid, an explosion of blonde, Swedish hair flipping in the air as she danced. Her flawless skin picked up the expensive looking studio lights above. Her full lips parted to sing the lyrics:

“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.”

Her voice revealed perfect teeth covered in shiny metal. She was as beautiful as Marial Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but she had braces. I wanted to understand this dynamic, because, despite the age difference, John and Cece appear to have something real. As she was dancing to the sound coming from his speakers, effortlessly dressed in his clothing, she looked at him tenderly.

*  *  *

On March 25 at 7:21 PM I was editing photos when I received my first text message from John. I had no idea how this person got my phone number and I was a bit perplexed at first as all it said was “Hi Coco. U miss me?” and immediately after: “LOL lets hang out soon”.  I started piecing the identity of my anonymous texter together after a run-in with John at an art opening, when he asked me why I never responded. I nonetheless maintained his number unsaved, as I wanted to keep the novelty of an unregistered set of digits popping up on the screen of my iPhone, in the hopes that it would, once again, distract me from a Photoshop K-hole.  

What is so amazing about John is that everyone either knows him or knows of him.  He is connected to every social circle in New York but no one seems to know how or why. Whenever someone asks him a question about his life, he answers by talking about a book or movie.  He is liked, even loved, by many, but after asking around a bit, I came to realize that I wasn’t the only one perplexed by this character.  Even a few weeks after this dinner party, I couldn’t shake the curiosity I had about John . Usually when a person captivates me, I want to photograph them. This was different. I wanted more from John than to capture the way he looks. I started thinking about the artist Sophie Calle, and how she follows people. Although she will often choose a person randomly, she is able to make a portrait of them by decreasing the distance between herself and her subject, by following them until they become a real part of her life.

The distance between John and I is already getting smaller: one day he sent me that Facebook message, and now we are acquaintances. Distance is a measure, a malleable quantity and maybe the distance between John and I, engaged with social media, could be reduced even more if we tried. Instead of asking to take his picture (which I don’t think would have captured his intricacies), I decided to focus my attention on him as a whole. I got to know him in order to compose this written portrait of him. 

I started by looking on the Internet: besides his heavily filtered Facebook and Instagram accounts, nothing, absolutely nothing exists about him. Very odd for someone who goes to most parties and knows everybody, John seems in control of his Google absence. I asked around about him, and there’s no shortage of rumors: he has a secret high-powered job, was a piano prodigy by the time he was thirteen, and, more recently, was spotted by a friend of mine crawling out of the trunk of a Jeep with four other people on a sunny afternoon—apparently returned from some rave in Brooklyn. John was known for curating his parties with specific and eclectic groups of people like someone might curate an art show with coveted, in-demand works. Originally I thought that John was hitting on me, but then I realized that he was just interested in pulling me into the mix. Decreasing the distance between him and I would be easy.

On Sunday, May 26, I woke up at noon to a text from John inviting me to a dinner party at his place that very night. The dinner was in honor of Cece, who was returning to Sweden for a while. I was really excited and asked my friend Daria to come along. We were supposed to bring wine but we got a six pack of Stella from an overpriced deli on Broadway near John’s apartment. The narrow staircase of his Franklin street building felt like a hallway leading to a club. As we got closer to the door, step by step, the volume of the music and the cigarette smoke increased. We didn’t really know anyone there but John greeted us with a sparkling white smile. A group of young Swedish girls were scattered around the living room table. They were chain-smoking Marlboro Lights with the mannerism of Hollywood actresses. These young girls seemed to be playing dress-up in their mothers clothing and had certainly mastered the affects of maturity. But they gave themselves away washing down pieces of home-made sushi with clumsy gulps of champagne. John was the master of the ceremony, fluttering from one group of guests to another. He seemed happy, a moving center of gravity around which everyone seemed to be in orbit. As a director, he was in his element.

That night I wore my most opaque red Chanel lipstick.  I think John liked it because he asked if he could wear it after he shaved. He ran into the bathroom and came out without his typical five o’clock shadow. I handed him my tube of lipstick which he deftly applied without once glancing into a mirror. Throughout the night, I tried to talk to him a few times, asking him casual questions without seeming too eager. John gave short answers and would change the subject by making a joke or introducing me to another one of his guests.

Around midnight, he made an announcement: the party was moving to some Korean nightclub in Chinatown, an obscure place he was at that time frequenting as a DJ. Our small group followed his orders and vacated the apartment. We all walked together, John’s army, from his apartment to Mott street. As we entered the club, I realized the manager were waiting for him. Many guests were there already, sipping on vodka sodas and Tsing Taos, waiting. The black lights inside made everything fluorescent and blue. John’s teeth glowed and seemed whiter because his lips were still dark from my red lipstick. John, the luminescent techno butterfly, disappeared into his crowd and I didn’t see him again that night.

*  *  *

This is what happens when John picks you up on the Fourth of July. you’re waiting on East 13th Street and Avenue A. the wheel of a rented white Audi pulls up on the curb right next to you. The driver’s side window rolls down. John doesn’t say anything. He’s wearing a baseball cap and wrap-around sunglasses. They’re the kind you wear when you go skiing. Three other girls are crowded in the back of the car. You don’t know them. They are going to annoy you. You start talking because you don’t want to hear anyone else’s voice today. You’re stuck in traffic going into the Holland tunnel. The girls are laughing, you feel like puking. A dog barks. Kanye West. There's nowhere to go. Black skinhead is playing on the radio. This is Independence Day. John is doing 80 on the highway headed for the hamlets of eastern Pennsylvania.

Gun laws here are practically non existent. You hear the pops in the air. You know you’re getting close. The gravel cracks under your feet as you jump out of the car. You’re at the Sunset Hill Shooting Range. Everyone who works here is strapped. You take the earmuffs off for a second because it’s too hot. A guard barks at you immediately. John is laughing. John is always laughing. He takes a picture with an iphone. He tries to crowd you and the other girls for a group picture. You frown. You don’t want to be in it.

John is jumping up and down and yelling something at you. He is pointing at an assult riffle.

I want you to shoot it.

The gravel cracks under your feet. The gravel is littered with empty shells. It’s family day at the range. A fourteen year old boy raises an M4. His father stands behind him. Proud American.

Your hands are shaking. You’re gripping a matte black AK47. The gun is too heavy for your boney shoulder. The instructor shouts in your ear. None of his words make sense. John stands behind you. A butterfly of fear grows inside your stomach. You clinch your hand with anxiety and start picking at the cuticles of your index finger with your thumb. It bleeds a little.  Black Skinhead is playing over and over over again, on repeat your my mind. It needs to stop. You pull the trigger.

John’s pointing his iPhone at you. You are shooting the gun, John is shooting you. The man whose number you never saved captures you on a scratch-resistand LCD screen. He publishes your image on his well travelled Instagram account. He tags you, @cocoyoungx and you will LIKE it, maybe even comment “haha” or something.

When did this shift happen? The distance between you had all of a sudden decreased even more, ushered along as much by mutual technological surveillance as by the still hatchling narrative of your real life relations. You could text John right now and say “what’s up.” Maybe you would meet at La Colombe for an iced coffee and talk about people you know or laugh about the 4th of July. Either way, a new memory would be created, added to your portfolio. It might even appear on Instagram, reducing the distance between you even more. But If you were to ask him a question, something simple about his life—because the distance between John and anyone else in the world can never be completely eradicated—he would probably change the subject and start talking about some film he likes, maybe The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

From Sex Magazine #5 Fall 2013
Labelled Life