Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Shoelace

Joey wore his pants long, in the fashion of the day, and this meant a bit of frayed, damp fabric would sometimes catch on either heel. It happened again on the corner of 84th Street and York while he was walking around the block for the seventh time, estimating the time it might take for Kim to simmer down. That faint but nagging tug. He grabbed his belt and hitched his pants up again, pulling a little too hard in nihilistic irritation, annoyed at having it arrive at that. When his right cuff lifted to reveal his shoe he found the laces untied and dragging, too.

He looked around for a place to tie his shoe and wondered, Why can't you ever find a place to tie your shoe? When you want to? and through the veil of his unhappy agitation he could not help but note the rhyme and he told himself he was a fool. After darting abortively in this direction or that, toward a useless wall, toward a fire hydrant (what if it's covered in dog piss?), he spied the rain-slicked diagonal bar of a scaffold; scaffolding: the half-perceived exoskeleton of the City, forever molting; the structure upon the structure, grid upon the grid.

Joey approached the bar and lifted up his foot. He placed it on the silver tube's slippery surface and struggled for a moment to get grip. Once his foot was still, something else was not: he felt a terrible looseness crying through the vast, high network of pipes and joints and planks and ropes and ladders. The pipe below his foot gave way. At first, it seemed the event might possibly remain contained. The diagonal pipe took down a supporting one to the left and detached from the base of the one to the right; it leaned and fell awkwardly toward the street, clipping the side of a 2005 Nissan Altima and cutting a shooting-star scratch down its mystic emerald paint. The vertical pipe to the left buckled and bent a little, bereft, valiantly bearing more than it was meant to bear. It stood a moment that way, as though it wondered what to do. Then it fell forward, in front of Joey, who drew back reflexively and looked up to see what might yet lie ahead in this awful causality. The scaffold platform was bowing ominously, like a membrane, like the belly of a birthing beast. There was a Bank of America ATM vestibule right behind him. He stood in its doorway and pulled out his card and stabbed it tremblingly in the slot, backwards with his right hand as he faced the street and looked up. Finally the little light turned green and he entered the bright, white room with the slots of deposit tickets in the counter, the chained pens and the certificate of deposit posters.

The first floor of the scaffold hit the sidewalk with stunning violence. Joey thought he saw it coming down, the moment or two before it landed, but that might just have been his mind. The strange and empty time of pending impact. It struck the ground with an emphatic whomp that spoke of umpteen layers of burden. Then another story fell, and another, and another, cruelly unrelenting in the frenzy of dust and motion beyond the trembling window, which emitted a moan with each concussion.

Joey stood in the vestibule and wondered when it all might end. How could it still be going on? he thought. It was darkly funny that it did not end, a bad joke repeated till you had to laugh. A creeping exhilaration soon displaced his horror: he wanted it to go on and on and on and on. He felt an urgent impulse, long forgotten but instantly familiar, aroused from deep within him and from far into the past. The young boy's wonder at destruction. Wicked eyes drawn to mayhem. If a thing has fallen, what else might there be to drop? If a thing is broken, what else might there be to strike? Might this not finally be, after all these dreary years, the fulfillment of everything? Joey watched as the racket and commotion did not cease.

The scaffolding had nearly completely collapsed. It had peeled off with it the deteriorated facade of the building, a utilitarian brick co-op, between the 24th and 47th stories, tearing out living room furniture and televisions and collapsing several load-bearing walls; this in turn had made the top of the building double over like a man shot in the gut. The roof and top twenty stories or so slammed into the concrete-and-glass condominium high-rise across the way. Enormous, jagged panes of glass broke off and fell to the street below, plunging through awnings, severing traffic light cables, raining shards on cars and people.

An exposed floor of the glass building collapsed from the impact of the brick and mortar. It fell on the floor below, fracturing some columns on which it sat and causing it to fall in turn, whereupon the combined weight of these two collapsing floors proved too much for the floor below them to bear, and so on, and so on, and the so building eroded from within and finally succumbed with an awful shudder, collapsing into itself but tilting just enough to strike a hundred-and-thirty-foot crane which spun and teetered in theatrical fashion before picking its final resting place southwest toward 83rd and First, slamming across the tarred and silvered rooftops, crushing penthouses and sending a water tank off its perch to roll off the roof and explode on the parked cars below.

The crane's jib came down hard on First Avenue, its nose puncturing the tarmac and pinching the steam main below it against its bed of rock like a drinking straw. Immediately, the pressure built up in the main. The 24-inch steel pipe buckled and shuddered from the strain for two terrible minutes, chafing against the dirt and rubble in which it lay. Bolts popped off the joints like bullets, exploding in every direction, some burrowing into the ground and others shooting up into the street, smashing windows of buildings and cars and denting street signs. The pipe emitted a curious whine, all along a length of a hundred feet or so, and began to shake and tremble. Finally it blew with a monstrous boom that shook the streets and sidewalks, rattled every floor and wall and terrified each soul from Harlem down to Midtown, from the river to the park. Dirt and rocks and wires and steel shrapnel exploded all around, tearing through the walls of the low buildings on the avenue, heaving cars twenty feet into the air and leaving a crater that went up and down the block.

The blast also sent a convulsion downward, through a rare gap in the hundred and fifty feet or so of mica schist that ordinarily insulated New York City Water Tunnel Number 1 from what infernal commotions may take place above. It caused a massive expanse of rock to shift slightly and to make unsound an already weakened segment of the tunnel, which led from the southern part of the Central Park Reservoir out below the East River, to collapse. The rock itself severed the tunnel and whatever water did not seep around it and harmlessly into the ground was trapped west of the breach. Hundreds of millions of gallons water followed gravity to the impasse, building an immense strain that tore through the tunnel walls in various places; more rock was dislodged above and below in chain reactions of seismic upheaval, causing a minute shift in a mile-deep seam that had been pressing along the 125th Street fault line. The fault gave and in the merest fraction of a second the southern plate moved three centimeters north, above the lip of the northern plate, which moved the same distance south, causing a tremor to radiate downtown.

The earthquake rippled through Spanish Harlem to the Upper East Side, bowing and snapping streets and subway tunnels, bringing buildings down upon each other, shattering every pane of glass, bursting water pipes and fire hydrants. Across the park and through the Upper West, down through Midtown, Chelsea, Greenwich Village. People ran but there was nowhere safe to flee. Everything came down around them: bricks and glass and steel and asbestos. Plaster, marble, wood and granite. Everything that things are made of. A great storm of dust and toxic debris blew down the avenues and billowed into every street. Things exploded beneath the ground and fires fed on everything that burned. The shock wave reverberated down through the southern tip of the island, uprooting everything that man had made along the way. The Chrysler Building's concrete foundation was mangled to the tip of its roots; it loosened like a tooth. It swayed and heaved from side to side—slowly at first, like it might settle after all, but then more and more, appearing to consume the malevolence around it. Finally it fell, the silvery surface of its crown shrieking as it ricocheted off buildings and into 42nd Street. Several aftershocks followed, bringing much of what still stood to rubble.

Joey stood on his shoelace and watched it all. Behind him the ATMs were all alight, all dumbly at the ready for some customer to come. To insert his card, to type his secret code. To withdraw from checking or from savings. To request a receipt, or maybe not. To remove his cash and walk back out into the world.