I lived for years in a century-old building on State Street in Brooklyn. When I first signed the lease for $800 a month in my super’s roach-infested apartment, my friends told me I was insane, but the rent-stabilized one-bedroom quickly became a bargain, and they marveled at my good fortune. A melding of recent tenants and hardscrabble lifers, the building was once notable for its Native American population—Mohawks whose families had helped build the bridges. At one time, every person in the building was a Mohawk. Now they were all gone.
Across from our dilapidated dwelling was a row of well-proportioned townhouses. I would often look out and imagine myself past their brick walls, inside the residents’ daily lives. Who were these charmed owners, who wisely bought here when properties were still affordable? I wanted all those windows, all that space to move and breathe, and projected myself passing like a ghost through the many wide rooms, which I pictured as open and doorless, as if they were oversized dollhouses.
On July 11, 2000, I was startled at home by a sound I can only describe as that of the world’s largest balloon popping. I turned to face the window, my view obscured by a fluttering veil of frenzied pigeons chased by a cloud of sepia-tinged dust, rolling out in a relentless silted tide until the glass was covered altogether. It was as if a dark curtain had been drawn across the sky, blotting the sun from my sight.
I stepped tentatively from my apartment. Other doors cracked open up and down the stairwell as I descended, past my bewildered super, Peggy, in her quilted housecoat, and the alcoholic veteran who often passed out on our stoop. Outside the street was unrecognizable. A fog of dust hung in the air, bitter with the scent of smoke and choking fumes, no one running but some stumbling along the sidewalk, dazed and directionless.
“What happened?” we asked one another, we neighbors brought closer by a cataclysm we couldn’t yet identify. Not until the air began to clear, and we saw the pile of shoulder-high debris that had been a pair of quaint townhouses mere moments before. Only half of one building still remained, the house rent in two like a torn sheet.
We soon learned what had occurred. Long-time residents Harriet and Leonard Walit had smelled gas, and called their friend Khay Cohran from next door to help them investigate. Minutes later, they were all dead. Our little corner of the world had been ripped open, and once we glimpsed the seams between places, it was impossible to look away.
Sirens blared, police and ambulances and fire trucks, including Engine 226 from down the block. They rescued Julian Jackson, Khay’s companion, from what was left of their house. The street was cordoned off, a makeshift podium and mic stand erected for an impromptu news conference with a solemn Mayor Giuliani; it was an eerie foreshadowing of the following year, when two more buildings would fall in another cloud of dust and ash. Engine 226 would lose four men that day.
The lots were empty for a long while. Eventually, replacement townhouses were constructed, nouveaux structures of brick and glass. They look nice from the outside, though I’m not sure about the interiors; they’re harder to see inside. We did look at an apartment for sale in the building next door, however, when my boyfriend and I decided to buy a place together. Two percent down! the listing had promised. 2002 was a different time. The place was decent but too dark, with too few windows.
After the open house, we rode down in the elevator with a recently married couple, and we compared notes on our respective real estate searches, how wonderful it would be if we could afford a whole building to ourselves. Someday, maybe we would live next door to each other, in matching twin townhouses; maybe one afternoon they’d call to say they smelled gas, could I come over and take a look?
“So,” the husband said once we were out on the sidewalk. “You guys live around here?”
“Actually, we live across the street.” I gestured toward our front door.
The wife put a hand to her chest. “You live in the Devonshire?” she said, her tone pure reverence.
I faced our ramshackle building. And there, above my downstairs neighbor passed out on a milk crate on the stoop, beneath grime and dust both recent and less so, I saw the name etched into the terracotta and granite arch above the entryway. So busy looking elsewhere, I’d never noticed the word before, but it was there all the same.
It was the name of a regal building. Something from the Gilded Age, a well-heeled neo-Gothic behemoth like the Dakota, or perhaps the Apthorp. Or it should have been. Now, every building was its own aspirational address, even the tenements. Every New Yorker had become their own restless spirit peering out of darkened windows, at an imagined better life the might be just across the way. We had become our own haunted houses, looking out from beneath our skins.
“Yes,” I replied to the woman, forcing a smile. “I live in the Devonshire.”
In time we found another apartment, in another neighborhood close by, stared out at a new stretch of townhouses and a different set of lives. A new home to be unpacked, item after item carefully lifted from their numbered cardboard boxes, a clipboard of yellow legal paper cataloguing the contents of each box that would eventually comprise the basis of this new place, this new world. All that was damaged was the glass of a single picture frame, shattered while carried from the immense truck by one of the lumbar support-belted movers. We were lucky. There was so much more to break.
In 2003, my old block was renamed Khay Cohran Place; the smell of gas still reminds me of that day. We’ve moved twice more since.
Robert Levy is a native Brooklynite, as well as a Harvard graduate subsequently trained as a forensic psychologist. His debut novel, The Glittering World, was published this year by Gallery/Simon & Schuster.