Monday, August 18, 2008
Summer in the City
One night an old Pontiac driven by an overburdened father of six went out of control on Avenue A and crashed into a corner building, bringing the whole thing down. The noise was overwhelming, an explosion. People came running from bars and bedrooms. The tenement--empty for years--just dissolved into a hill of bricks, from under which one solitary taillight poked out, its turn signal still for some reason pulsing red. Eventually the cops showed up and tied off the scene with sawhorses, but by then a party had begun to take shape. Somebody had a radio or maybe it was a cassette player, emitting charanga. Joints and bottles of Ronrico and forties of Olde English went around. Percussion started up, keys and knives on bottles tapping the clave rhythm. A man in late middle age who looked like a goat kept enjoining the crowd in a loud bray to "show some resPECT," but nobody paid him any mind. Cop cars at night, with their lights spinning around, splashing the sides of the buildings and visible from blocks away, nearly always put everybody in a party mood. By now there were at least a hundred people milling around, laughing and pointing, shrieking and clowning, quite a number of them dancing. Even the cops were getting into it.
An ambulance and a firetruck arrived along with another squad car. The firemen got busy digging through the rubble while the ambulance crew stood around and shot the shit with the locals. It turned out it wasn't even the second or third building collapse of the day, but the seventh. One in Inwood, two in Chinatown, three in Harlem. This not counting the fires. Even as they spoke, said somebody, two separate tenements along Avenue C were burning, one of them for the third time--what could be left of it? And how about those Mets, somebody else said. Everybody laughed, then the conversation petered out. What could anybody say? For all anybody knew, their building might be next. You didn’t really want to go around to the back and see the fault lines in the brick face, or go down to the cellar and see the sag. You really really didn’t want to speculate about what your landlord might have in store or what his tax situation was like.
Time passed. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had showed up. People in pajamas rubbed elbows with people in disco outfits. A guy appeared with a shaved-ice setup in a shopping cart and immediately began doing a brisk business. By now the cops had gotten to the car and were deploying mammoth pliers on the roof, trying to wrench it open. It was something to see, like mice trying to open a can of sardines, but it was taking too long. The crowd started losing patience. "Hey papi, you want a hand?" yelled a woman who looked like a ten-year-old until you saw her face up close, and some guy in the back shouted a rejoinder in Spanish that cracked up the whole crowd. Pretty soon everybody was calling out lines at the cops the way they shouted at the screen when a movie started to drag. The cops fastidiously ignored the backchat, just as they ignored the characters standing right next to them smoking cheeba.
Everybody who was anybody was in the crowd. The man with the crutch was all over the street. It was never clear whether he actually needed it or just used it as a stage prop. He was often, as now, seen walking normally while gesticulating with the crutch, shouting all the while. Over there, bending the ear of a young cop who was attempting to pry himself away without leaving his post, was the little man who showed up at all public functions, waving a greasy, much folded piece of paper that may once have been an official document. His cause, an ancient and esoteric grievance, was instantly forgotten by anyone who listened to two minutes of it, although it seemed to keep him alive. The dirty shirtless man with the nine misshapen and mange-ridden dogs was there--from the look of them you assumed a carnival of incest--and so was the marooned Swiss woman with the stainless-steel hip who regularly woke up everybody on the block calling all night for her cat, Gaston. Lolling here and there were various of those locality drunks--usually somebody's brother--who got themselves adopted by the tenancy of a half-block, so that little girls bought them jelly cakes at the bodega and their mothers thrust sweaters upon them in October and baseball hats in June.
An hour limped by while the cops kept working. Soon after the crowd hit its maximum the excitement level started dropping fast. People went back to bed or dominoes or television, probably, but it almost looked as if they had just evaporated, like spilled beer on a car hood in the sun. One minute there were fifty people standing right in front of you, and then you blinked and they were gone. You could hear the music fading away down the avenue. Soon enough there were just three skels left alone on the avenue with their quart of Don Diego rum, and everybody else was spared the sight of the crushed body as the cops hauled it out on the gurney. The ambulance's doors finally slammed, and it took off at full throttle with lights spinning and sirens blasting, followed by squad cars doing likewise. You might wonder how dead a body had to be for them to slink off in silence, but most likely they were just having a little fun.