by Jim Leftwich
Very few people know about Area 5757.
I'd first caught wind of the name only a month earlier at a party and had assumed at the time it was a joke.
"No shit, it's real," said Joe, taking a gulp of his Isle malt and a long drag on his cigarette before snuffing it out in the crowded glass ashtray next to the party chex.
Joe might know. He worked in advertising. Not a bigshot mind you. Joe was a really low-on-the-pole adman. But even janitors can overhear the odd conversation between the players, so you never know. Joe liked to talk lots of shit though, so I tended to discard most of what he said.
"I can fucking show you. Tonight." he said, looking all for serious.
Huh... I wasn't expecting that. "Hmm. Okay, let's go," I said, without really thinking about it. I didn't have anything else planned, so I figured what the fuck. Let's go have a look.
"It's beneath the Four Seasons."
"What?" I replied. A cab pulls up and we get in.
"The Four Seasons." he says to the driver. And then to me in the same breath, "Just off Madison Avenue. It's beneath that hotel."
"Beneath the hotel. Like a basement joint or something, right?" I asked in reply.
Joe begins to laugh, then stops. The blocks peel by silently. Neither of us says a thing.
"No, it's _way_ beneath. Like a couple thousand feet or so, I don't know," Joe finally retorts. The cab pulls over and stops. Joe hands the driver a bill, opens the door and steps out onto the sidewalk.
"Now wait the fuck on," I half whispered, climbing out of the cab. "What do you mean, 'a couple thousand feet?' That's not possible, there's nothing that deep."
"You'll see," he said and turned to enter the hotel. Once inside, Joe spoke with the concierge, who nodded his head towards the back. I followed Joe as we made our way through a door into a hallway. About thirty feet down on the left, Joe unlocked and opened an unmarked door and nodded for me to follow.
The room was unlit, except for a small amount of light that filtered in through a translucent glass transom above the door. Rough and unfinished, as one might expect a utility area of a large building would be. It was also piled high with stacks of interlocking chairs and folding tables, all covered with a considerable coating of dust. Abandoned coffee cups looked as though they were left by earlier indigenous peoples. Behind a particularly large metal cabinet structure, Joe showed that there was a section of the floor that pulled up on hinges. He lifted it up, revealing a set of stairs descending below. From his coat pocket, he pulled one of those tiny L.E.D. flashlights and proceeded down the steps.
"Here," he said, looking up at the lid he was holding up. "Grab this, and let it down as you follow. It's on hydraulic cylinders that will let it down slowly after you've descended."
We started down the stairs for what seemed to be an alarming number of flights. Alarming, in that one would presume that it was going to be necessary at some point to climb back up them in reverse. The further down we went, the more seriously I began to question my judgement for having embarked upon this increasingly unlikely adventure. But what seemed to be about twenty flights down we emerged onto a metal platform. It was adjoined to a twenty foot long catwalk leading to an old cage-style elevator. We got in and Joe pulled the door down and shut. An industrial safety lamp in the top of the car came on and with the pull of a lever, we began to descend.
The light was not bright, but after several minutes, the surrounding shaft walls that we'd seen whizzing upward gave way to what looked like dirt and rock. We continued to descend at what seemed like a normal elevator speed. "Ten seconds a floor" my uncle had once told me when I was a boy. A bit of trivia that had never before struck me as particularly useful, but at this moment it actually was.
I glanced at my watch. We must've been going down for something like twelve minutes. It seemed longer, but it felt pretty much like being lowered into a bottomless pit. I began consult my watch obsessively. Fifteen minutes. The walls now look like solid stone. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five minutes. Joe's not saying a thing. He apparently knows what we're doing, which is good because I don't. I'm thinking this is batshit crazy. "This can't be real," I thought. But the cool air blowing up my pantlegs told me otherwise.
About a minute later, the car came to a fairly abrupt halt. Joe reached down and grabbed the handle of the door, lifting it up and open. I immediately began to calculate in my head. Nearly thirty minutes at around one point eight feet per second. That's somewhere just over 3,000 feet down! "Joe, this is seriously underground," I said.
"No doubt about it," came his matter-of-fact reply.
We're standing in a small, dimly lit chamber with what appear to be concrete or stone walls and floor. There's a painted line leading off through an exit and down yet another corridor. "For God's sake, are we there yet?" I ask, having not made this particular query for nearly thirty years. I'm reminded of how much I fucking hated those CD-ROM dungeons and dragons worlds involving endless navigation through corridors and passageways.
Finally, after another round of doors and corridors, we enter a room with one entire wall configured as a glass window looking out over another enormous area. A huge stadium-sized room in fact, about fifty feet below and stretching what looked to be several hundred yards in all directions.
"What the hell's this?" I asked incredulously.
"This is where the painters work." he replied. "The moles. The swirlies."
"Moles? Swirlies? What the fuck are you talking about?, I asked with an amalgam of amazement and annoyance.
"That's just our nicknames for 'em." he replied. "Moles 'cause they never go topside and swirlies because that's what they paint."
I walked over to the glass and peered down. Joe wasn't kidding. Below were hundreds upon hundreds of cubicles, each with a seated person painting at an easel, with a computer monitor to their right. It was hard to make out the finer details from above, but they were all very large paintings and they all looked to be of glasses with liquids of varying colors. And ice cubes. They all appeared to have ice cubes in them.
So this was Area 5757, located deep within the bowels of the earth beneath Madison Avenue. Beneath the cable, phone and electric lines, the subways, the water pipes, and the sewage tunnels lay what Joe had brought me to witness. A facility so secure, so impenetrable, so "underground" that not even the X-Files demographic had an inkling of its existence.
And within the thick, concrete walls of this hidden laboratory toiled hundreds upon hundreds of graphic artists and painters. Rarely allowed above ground, these "moles" worked at the behest of a shadowy syndicate of unnamed figures, whose aim it is to minutely control the actions and behaviors of an easily manipulated populace. In this hidden facility, the cabal constructs its instruments of persuasion, plying a secret knowledge first discovered in the 1950s - that the key to human behavioral control lies in the manipulation of stylized liquid images.
Joe explained. And explained some more. I was stunned.
What had begun as a crudely understood phenomenon half a century ago, had since been researched and refined to the point of psychoaesthetic precision. Moods, feelings, impulses, aversions. All were as programmable within the human herd as lights at a music concert. And all could be duped and led simply and stealthily through print advertisements containing specifically-designed images of ice cubes, liquids and splashes.
Over the years an enormous amount of practical experience had yielded a complex and dimensional indexing of the behavioral responses produced by particular swirls and combinations thereof. Until the late 1980s this complex database was kept in an enormous library, where series of volumes containing prints of archetypal forms and transitional boundaries were stored. Each time a particular emotional or psychological response was necessary, a master pattern would be assembled from these swirl print components. Each print would be located in the indexed library, pulled, and brought to a room where they would be assembled into a composite image and photographed on a room-sized stat camera. The resulting reduced-size print would then be whisked off by golf cart to an assigned swirlie to create an original painting from. Today, the master patterns are all done digitally. The paintings themselves are still done using traditional oil paints though, as it's still the most efficient path to an image of the requisite complexity and subtlety. It's inevitable that eventually they too will be done digitally, but for now, the skill of hand and brush is the most cost-effective production method. When finished they're scanned digitally and "wired to the folks upstairs."
The painters, Joe said, jokingly refer to themselves as "cubists." There didn't seem to be much humorous about the work itself though. It looked tedious and painstaking. Each painting had to conform to a precise blending of the curves indicated in the master pattern. Each painting would also have a particular shape, usually a glass or bottle within an advertising layout where the image of ice cubes and liquid would be superimposed or otherwise incorporated.
A typical painting took a swirlie around forty hours to produce, and that was working fast and accurately. Rookies often took eighty or more only to see their work burned on account of substandard pattern match ratings. The inspection program was ruthless.
Looking out over this sea of cubicled artists working away on such an utterly bizarre and arcane mission I could only shake my head and stare. "I can't believe this," I said. "It just doesn't add up."
"Oh it adds up, all right," assured Joe. "It subtracts the guesswork, divides the masses into neat little piles, and multiplies our clients' profits. It's pretty much the be all end all of calculation, buddy."
Later as we started back up the elevator I had but three thoughts: I don't understand a blessed thing about advertising. I won't be quite so quick to discount Joe from now on. And I'll be damned if it isn't going to suck climbing back up those stairs.
©2000 Jim Leftwich - All Rights Reserved