Uncountable times have I gone over to the 25th Street flea market in the parking lot next to St. Sava’s church with the bust of Nikola Tesla out front. I've always admired the particularly beautiful juxtaposition of majestic and dissimilar buildings standing all around and behind the old church, including the Empire State Building. Never in any of those moments did I imagine what St. Sava’s might look like were it to catch fire, and last night it did, spectacularly. The fire looked like dragons, and in a few hours the church and all its quiet history was ruined.
One day last fall I went into the church after the flea market. The doors were open and I sat in its dark mystery with the sunny day outside. And in January when I passed it—whitened and still—during the big blizzard, I marveled at the way it looked in the snow and took a picture of it. Last night after finding out that St. Sava's had burned, I read about all of the struggles to raise the money for its repairs over the years, and about how its windows were blown out by anti communist terrorist bombs in the 1960s. I felt astonished at that; that such a thing had happened and I had not heard of it before. Which just reminded me of how little I really know about so much, about so much that is right here all around me, on these streets that I walk in all the time.
Today I had a doctor’s appointment downtown, and in the waiting room I saw people with very dramatic things wrong with them. There was one particular man called Petey who was completely stiff, like a light pole. He looked to be in his fifties somewhere, accompanied by a woman probably in her sixties. She put her hand on his back and called someone on her phone. “Hello?” She said. Then she said, “Hello, Sal? I’m here with Petey. Yeah, that’s right, but I wantidda check up on you. Here. Say hello to Petey.” She held out the phone and Petey leaned forward like the fire hydrant in front of my building that has been broken and leaning for weeks. Water is pooled in the base of the hydrant at the broken place, and every time I see it I wonder if I should go around the corner to the firehouse and let them know.
Petey spoke into the phone the woman was holding in front of his face. “Hey pal,” he said. “How ya doin? Yeah, I’m in the doctor’s office. You know I love you, right pal? You’re like a father to me.” The woman took the phone back then and said into it: “Now Sal, I want you to eat everything that’s on the plate for your lunch. And after you eat everything on the plate, then you can go to the piano. A’right?”
The doctor called me in then. She was supposed to have my blood test results but the mailroom was very slow, she said, so unfortunately she didn’t have them yet. She told me a few things about the MRI scan I’d had, mostly explaining how nerves in the spine can work or not work, very generally, it seemed, and she told me how terrible my insurance is. I had the MRI at night on a Sunday, and everything had felt eerie in the radiology department at such an odd time. The MRI machine was very loud inside. Some of the sounds it made had a sort of rhythmic, atonal monotony that made me feel as if I were trapped at a John Cage performance. How boring I’ve always found John Cage to be, I thought, lying there in the loud banging tube. How boring and tedious and claustrophobic, as boring as an MRI.
Today I was given a note to take to the file department, where they would make me a copy of the MRI reading. The file department was down in the basement, and the man and woman working there were much nicer than the doctor. The man told me it would take some time to make the copy, so perhaps I might take a walk. I told him I would walk uptown to look at the burned church, which both he and the woman had seen on the news. “Terrible,” the woman said. “If it is arson,” said the man, “God will most certainly punish whoever did it.”
I walked up Park Avenue to 25th Street and westward. The police had put up barricades around the shell of poor St. Sava’s. The street was full of quiet fire engines and in front of the ruined church I could see the bust of Nikola Tesla, unharmed, his head turned the way it always is to face Madison Park. The church looked like a war photograph. All that stone and brick. How could it burn? People wondered aloud about candles, or gasoline, if it had been done on purpose. Then there were people who walked along in pairs, talking, passing the church and its blown out windows without so much as a glance. A few feet away I saw Jack Hirschman, once the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, speaking into a phone. He was describing the ruined roof and the transparent quality of the shell. He turned and looked directly at me. “Jack,” I said. But he shook his head. He smiled and waved a finger to tell me he wasn’t Jack at all. “Someone else just mistook me for Jack Hirschman,” he said into the phone.
The Empire State Building stood back at a distance, her head full of mist, and never more somber. I walked back downtown. I thought of Sal, whoever and wherever he was, on the other end of the phone in the doctor’s office waiting room, the man for whom a piano waited, and I wondered if he had eaten his lunch the way he was supposed to.
Romy Ashby May 2, 2016