Suddenly it is October, with golden light and fluffy clouds, and on one of these beautiful autumn days last week, over on West Twenty-something between 9th and 10th Avenues, I stopped to look at a plain brass doorknob on one of the old houses. The house was empty and being renovated in an expensive way, judging by the look of things, but the original front door, and its doorknob, had not been bothered yet. I liked the doorknob because of its sturdy matter-of-fact shape, and I went up the stoop to take a picture of it. Down on the sidewalk a lady wearing a black hat, who looked to be somewhere in her 80s, had stopped to look at the house too. When I came back down she asked me if I owned it. She was the type of person who isn’t at all surprised by somebody who just wants a picture of a doorknob, and she told me that in the early 1960s this house we were looking at would have cost $8,000 to buy. “Chelsea was really dangerous back then,” she said. “I mean really, very, dangerous!” A house like this in Chelsea goes for millions now, she told me.
We walked towards 9th Avenue together and she told me that she lives on the East Side now but she’d come over West to visit a friend. She told me that when she was a girl she lived in another terrible neighborhood, South Brooklyn, which was also very dangerous way back when, and that now, of course, it is extremely expensive and called Park Slope. I asked her if she remembered the plane crash on 7th Avenue there in that part of Brooklyn, and she said she remembered it like it was yesterday. How sad, she said, the way the pilot tried to make it to Prospect Park but just couldn’t, and so the plane crashed onto 7th Avenue. I’ve known many people from Brooklyn who remember that day very well, and all of them remember the little boy who survived the crash and was found sitting on the curb somehow, stunned. But he didn’t live, his lungs had been too badly damaged, and to this day, in the main waiting room of big Methodist Hospital on 7th Avenue, there is a plaque in his honor—I’ve seen it—with the coins he had in his pocket, including a buffalo nickel. I’m not sure why, but it was the nickel that made my eyes prick when I looked at the plaque. You’d never imagine a plane had crashed there to look at that spot now.
The lady asked me where I live and I told her, and she wondered if I had heard the bomb when it exploded on West 23rd Street—the one the terrorist put in the dumpster outside the big building where all the blind people live—and I told her that I had, because it was so loud that it shook my old building. I told her that I felt the blast in my heart, which I did, and I knew right away that it was a bomb. She too had heard it, but it was distant. She said it had made a curious sort of whoosh, not loud, but different. It wasn’t like most city noises she’s used to. But she didn’t think too much of it before seeing the news, she said, because so many new noises can be heard in the city now, with all of the construction going on and all of the changes. And, she said, lots of old city sounds have become obsolete.
I thought about foghorns when she said that, because I don’t think we hear them the way we used to in the city. It used to be that many of the boats up and down the Hudson and the East River had foghorns that would make deep resonant blasts on foggy nights—one hears them in old movies made in New York—but we don’t hear them much at all anymore now. And when I think about it, there isn’t as much fog as there once was either. I wondered if London has less fog now, too. I thought of an old thriller, I think Richard Widmark might have been in it, and an atmospheric scene with a man looking for an address somewhere way over in the East thirties, which turned out to be a dismal rooming house with gaslight and a terrible old landlady at the door in her housecoat. And the foghorns coming from the blackness that was the river somehow made everything feel much more lonely and dark and threatening over there at the edge of the world. I wondered as we got close to 8th Avenue if global warming is the reason for there being less fog, and I thought about how much I love the fog when it does come and roll through the streets of New York. I thought of a foggy night on my way to the grocery store when I looked up in time to see the Empire State Building appear suddenly from nowhere like magic and then disappear again just as suddenly, and the ticklish feeling I had that it had been done just to entertain me.
I asked the lady if she remembered the foghorns and she said she certainly did, especially in a neighborhood of Brooklyn where she’d lived once. She told me that she remembered a long-ago New Year’s Eve when a whole bunch of tugboats gathered in the narrows, that channel separating Brooklyn from Staten Island, and played “Auld Lang Syne” with their foghorns. She smiled at me. “It was so beautiful,” she said. She was going over to 23rd Street to wait for the crosstown bus, she told me, so we said goodbye then. I watched her walking away in her colorful scarves, and thought that the little story she’d just told me was one of the prettiest things I’d ever heard.
October 3, 2016
copyright Romy Ashby