The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

a book recommendation post that got out of hand

My almost-four-year-old son is not yet able to reliably shit in a toilet, but he has cleared a developmental hurdle that I hadn’t even thought to hope for: he enjoys reading a book that I would read even if he wasn’t around.

The book is “The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo;” we have also enjoyed its sequel, and are relieved and thrilled that there is a third book in the works, which is available already as a work in progress on its creator’s Patreon! It’s a graphic novel for kids, which is a genre I am coming to appreciate so much right now, since Raffi is too old and I am too bored by picture books, but he’s not quite ready for books that aren’t heavily illustrated. By the time we encountered Margo we had already worked our way through almost every book that Dav “Captain Underpants” Pilkey has ever written and wow, there are a lot of them but also, somehow, not enough??

As the first Margo book begins, a white kid named Charles Thompson has just moved, with his cool-seeming parents, to Echo City. They’re going to live in an apartment in a old Art Deco apartment building, a former hotel called the Bellwether, that his dad is fixing up. The Bellwether is gorgeously creepy — an untouched old ballroom! dumbwaiters that function as secret passages! — and seems unlimited, a labyrinthine new world to explore. Charles hates it and wishes he’d never been uprooted, of course. But he’s a sociable, inquisitive guy, an amateur reporter with a notebook and a blog, and soon he’s meeting his new neighbors.

Charles soon realizes that Echo City is gentrifying, in one familiar way — black and brown families getting pushed out by white newcomers like Charles’s family — and also, simultaneously, in another way that’s more unexpected: rapid development is destroying the homes of the monsters who live in the derelict alleys and attics and closets and hidden warrens of Echo City. There are so many varieties of monsters, from trolls to goblins to imps to blobs to ordinary ghosts. This hidden sub-city is invisible to most adults, but kids can occasionally catch a glimpse. Charles’s initial encounter with a troll in his closet leads him to Margo Maloo, a kid who functions as sort of a reverse ghostbuster: she responds to calls about paranormal activity not in order to help people banish monsters, but to help monsters keep their existence under wraps.

She has a network of monster informants who hang out in a bunch of different Star Wars cantina scene-type locales: a monster dive bar, supermarket, and diner are rendered in vivid, specific detail. One of the most fun things about the series is that monsters are themselves, not a metaphor.

A lot of this goes way over Raffi’s head, of course, but enough of the storytelling is visual that he doesn’t mind. And some of the themes are starting to make sense to him a little bit, at least, as he becomes aware that he lives in a city. “Could [bad thing] happen in our city?” is one of his most frequent questions these days. We almost always tell him “no,” but of course sometimes we’re lying.

Cities change all the time, New York maybe more and faster than most, but recently too many changes are happening too fast. The gentrifier’s classic lament, of course, is that we always want to freeze time at the exact moment that we moved in, when we could afford our neighborhood and it still had the untenable charms that first attracted us — but our existence is what makes the rent go up and the charms get bulldozed. There was a moment when there was just enough tech, just enough convenience, to make life a little bit easier and all the industries and businesses that the app-conveniences were designed to disrupt were disrupted but still functioning. Then there must have been a day when the balance shifted.

Last night after a reading at the Soho McNally Jackson I got a text from Keith that we needed bread and milk, so I went to the Bowery Whole Foods. I’ve lived in New York since long before this Whole Foods and the building that houses it existed, and I remember when it opened, in 2007, it was widely derided but also kind of special. Remember how going to Whole Foods used to be like a treat? You certainly wouldn’t shop there all the time (“whole paycheck,”) but you might get a few special items, meat or fish or cheese or fancy junk food. When this store first opened, Curbed and Gothamist kind of lost their minds about it. There were all these things about it that were supposed to make the giant chain store specific to the neighborhood, like mini-versions of local purveyors of knishes, bagels, burgers, gelato. It was also kind of a scene; people packed into the top-floor café for lunch, eyeing each other as they searched for a seat like high schoolers in a cafeteria. Tao Lin wrote about shoplifting from it. It smelled good-bad, the way all fancy grocery stores should smell: the discordant but somehow pleasing combination of roasting coffee, cold fruit and vegetables, stinky cheese, mineral smell of meat.

In 2019, the walk from McNally to Whole Foods down Prince and up Bowery is full of empty storefronts. Commercial rents have risen precipitously at the same time that retail sales have fallen or stagnated, making what used to be bustling, living neighborhoods into ghost towns. And one of the major culprits, of course, now owns Whole Foods, which should just go ahead and rebrand itself as Amazon Foods. Blue signs advertising special discounts for Prime members line the aisles, which have lost any pretense to charm. This store is purely utilitarian now, just a warehouse you can push a cart around in. Everyone who works there seems miserable. It smells bad, both literally and figuratively. It smells like a wet cardboard box.

I bought bread and milk there anyway, and then I got on the subway, back to our home. Well, it’s our home for now. After eight years in our apartment, we’re moving out in a week. We’re not going far, but it’ll be far enough that we won’t feel like we’re in “our” neighborhood anymore. In the past few years, we’ve watched as longtime neighbors have been forced out of their buildings, which have then been gut-renovated by developers into a state of charmless “luxury” or just plain knocked down.

I guess what Raffi is going to learn is that “our” city is only ours insofar as we own our experience of it, our memories and our thoughts. Everything else belongs to someone else, and those people are not taking good care of what they own.