Tuesday, August 23, 2005


on the western end of paulus hook

We are awakened by the red machines. They are scraping the area behind the Golden Cicada, just before the light rail stop on Marin. They are tying enormous church bells to the back of their trucks, and dragging them over broken asphalt and speed bumps. I can hear the voices of the work crew members. When they are done scraping and dragging the area, it will become Liberty Harbor North.

Then I hear the black machines. The black machines are pounding the area behind the Mack-Cali building, across the street from the Grove Street PATH Train Station. They are coaxing a giant with change in his pocket into a tantrum; he is jumping up and down and breaking the earth. So far, the black machines are scarier than the red machines. When they are done pounding the area, it will become Columbus Plaza and Grove Pointe.

From our living room, we can see the Mack-Cali building and its hundred slit-like insect eyes. Across Marin Boulevard are the original luxury towers that broke the Downtown grid, now looking defensive and outclassed. The sun shines off of the high windows and throws beams of light at us. In the late afternoon, a terrace door sometimes opens in the high tower, and shoots a momentary flash of concentrated sunlight across our living room wall. The flicker, radiant and brief, reminds me of J.G. Ballard's description of the atomic blast in Empire Of The Sun.

J Braun once likened sound to water, and the New York Times though enough of the quote to slap it on the front page. This morning, the original luxury towers south of Marin Boulevard are gigantic gobos. Sound bounces off of the high windows and terraces, and crashes like a wave into our courtyard. On the other side of Grand Street, sound finds channels between old brownstones, dripping between cracks in bricks and pouring through empty lots. It shakes our house, rattling the silverware we've left out on the kitchen island. The cups and knives add a dull metal clink to the scrape of the dragged bell, and the rumble of trucks bringing food for the giant.

I don't know where the cicadas perch. There was a tree in the courtyard, but the city deemed it unsafe, and brought in a work crew to cut it down. They dismantled it with the usual clumsy thoroughness of city work crews, dispassionately lopping off limbs, running indifferent chainsaws through the trunk, and stuffing leaves and branches into a wood chipper. I had assumed that the cicadas lived in the tree, and that once our tree had been murdered, the cicadas would have to find new digs. But they are still here, obstinately singing their big hit song over the construction noise. Perhaps they perch on the sides of buildings. I have seen them do that.

The trees in the City Hall park are filled with cicadas. The choruses roar over the air conditioning in the municipal offices. If you stand beneath the trees in the park, you can hear all three songs at once: the piledriver, the scraper, and the bugs. It sounds like the radio.

What will someday be Grove Pointe and Liberty Harbor North is now desert. The lot across from the PATH station had, for many years, been home to a boarded-up gym. There was an abandoned factory, awesome in its crumbling grandeur, on the property nearer to Grand Street. Derelicts lived there, throwing soiled mattresses on what was once the work floor. Hilary and I would drive past the Golden Cicada, park on the sand road, hop the fence, and photograph the interior of the building. Now it is gone, replaced by the red machines and huge mounds of gravel and sand. On Columbus, two mountains of dirt squat where the black machines have placed them. Over the hills there are desert noises: bells, insects, giants.

In a moment, I will put on a record of my own choosing, and begin work. But now I am listening to the city. It is the sound of adult teeth. Our desert blossoms anew with armchairs and terraces, and insect repellent. What mighty forces push up from the torn ground, singing their songs of blunt renewal as they come. It is not the only hit, but right now, it is the one that matters.

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