I suppose I should have seen it coming. My occupants steadily left their spaces one by one a while ago now, leaving me empty and very alone. My hollow insides long for something to fill the void, something to breathe life into these old lungs.
I am one of the last buildings left standing. I have watched several others in the area disappear over the last year or so. I didn’t understand why I felt increasingly anxious with every explosion and subsequent cloud of dust, smoke, and debris. But as each building succumbed to the blasts, my anxiety turned into a sense of abandonment and further into despair. I realized the likelihood of my own demise was sure to come, that eventually, I would be left behind as a solitary pillar on the horizon. Here one day, gone the next. A pile of rubble merely to be discarded and swiftly forgotten.
I was proud to be the first apartment building erected in this corner of the city. Originally built in 1875 to house working-class families, I stood nearly alone for a short while as the construction of a large bridge was started nearby. Soon the city around me began to buzz with new inhabitants and new construction. The view on every side of me morphed quickly as building after building popped up, each one like a Jack in the Box. Before I knew it, the city was full of life, structures set tightly together, and people moving in droves, brushing shoulders in the street, or riding the elevated trains to get from Point A to Point B.
It was fascinating to see how the city changed and grew over the years. Immigrants from foreign lands began to crowd the city. Each group seemed to prefer living amongst those of their same heritage. I quickly understood why when I listened to them speak in unfamiliar languages, it certainly made it easier for communication purposes, among other things.
Over time the neighborhood I stood in became known as Little Italy. The Italians were a charismatic bunch, noisy and full of life. They made every day seem like a party. And, oh my, did they have a way with food! Each meal was an aromatic delight, filling me not only with robust scents but a warm, tingling feeling of love, which I assumed was what it felt like to be part of a family. So many wonderful memories of those that called me home linger.
My heart swells as I think of all the momentous occasions that took place in these homes. Celebrations, mourning, births, deaths, anniversaries, divorce, lost teeth, Christmas miracles, and every other ordinary day in between. The children who played in the halls. The women who tidied their homes and tended to their children, who made dinners for their working husbands each evening. The fathers who returned after a long day, eager to get home to the families waiting for them.
Some of my inhabitants were more memorable than others. Like Mrs. Aiello, whose husband of 62 years passed in his sleep. She knelt by him, praying for hours before she allowed herself to shed a single tear. She went on to live alone, refusing anyone’s help, in that same apartment for another 12 years before passing on herself. She was a wonderful woman, strong and capable, loving and kind.
And Mr. Donato, who was the building superintendent from 1948 until he retired in 1986. Mr. Donato was a very fair man, friendly, and easy-going. Always ready to help the residents in any way he could, he was the epitome of a Jack of all trades. His wife, Grace was a lovely woman and an amazing baker. She frequently made baked goods - cakes, muffins, cookies - and would deliver them throughout the building for no other reason than to spread good cheer. Unable to have children of their own, they cherished each child in the building, whether naughty or nice.
Some of the children that lived here were quite mischievous indeed. Like Joey DiGiorgio, who stuck gum in his sisters’ hair, more than once, and Johnny Mariano, who stole a handful of baseball cards from his neighbor. Some children were sweet and gentle. Like Sofia Brunetti, who found a lost cat and knocked on each apartment door until she found its owner.
Some wives were excellent cooks. Like Angelina Martinelli and Sylvia Longo, who prepared delicious meals with recipes passed down to them from mothers and grandmothers born in the “old country.” Some wives like dear Nancy Tomasetti, a newlywed trying to impress her husband with his favorite childhood dish, had little to no cooking experience. This was evidenced by the first grease fire in apartment 3B. The Tomasetti’s lived in 3B for 35 years and saw many more cooking accidents in the first two years of marriage. Mr. Tomasetti gifted his lovely wife with cooking lessons for their third anniversary. Dinner was a much more relaxed occasion after that in apartment 3B.
Some fathers were attentive and loving, striving to give their children every available opportunity. Like Mr. Tomasetti, Mike, who taught his son everything he knew about the game of baseball, taking him outside for a game of catch almost daily and to Yankees games as often as he could. And Tony Rossi, who watched his young daughter plié, pirouette, and rond de jambe for years as her desire to dance at the New York City Ballet company increased with each new skill mastered. Other fathers were harsh and impatient, and some were abusive to their wives and children. Still, those are memories I prefer not to recall. Those are the memories I’ve stored away behind a locked door, and I’ve thrown away the key.
I’d much rather remember the glory days.
Although they weren’t all glorious times. In the 140+ years that I have stood here, I have watched nostalgically as my people lived through the Gilded Age, the glamourous roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the rise in fame post-World War II, racial riots in the 60s, the decline during the 70s, the ups and downs of the 80s and 90s, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the constant evolution since. In all these times, both the good and the bad, I have stood here, arms open wide, to welcome each individual home. Day after day after day.
I stand ten stories tall, constructed of thick brick walls pieced together by the hands of dozens of talented masons, stacking and scraping, long hours for months on end. My brick once was beautiful, a gorgeous dark red with a light mortar, a perfect contrast, showcasing my newness. It has since worn and faded, unevenly, to display several shades of burnt orange. Its beauty now resembles a carefully crafted patchwork quilt sewn together with the hands of a skilled quilter, similar to the capable hands of those masons so long ago. The mortar has greyed, and in the end, I look old and tired.
When I once was majestic, strong and new, and ready, willing, and able to fill the space within with lovely people, I now appear a bit beat down. The area around me has grown sleepy as well. Sidewalks cracked, pavement faded, fences sag. No children outside jumping rope, playing hopscotch or tossing a ball. I am filled with a kind of sadness and depression that I have never felt before. My current state and imminent future leave me terribly distressed. I can feel it straight through to my core. I can feel it in my bones. I can feel it in the slowing of my heartbeat.
It was inevitable. The day has come. All the tension and dread that I have felt watching and waiting culminates today. I am, quite literally, going to implode.
The controlled demolition team has arrived. They move through me with the sole purpose of readying me for my destruction. They are cautious, strategically placing explosive materials around some of my key supports, my vital organs, in order to weaken me. They vacate the building, moving a safe distance from the area marked with caution tape.
Someone in the distance yells. “All clear!” A short pause and then a loud shout, “Okay!” I cringe with fear.
Several small explosions are the catalyst of my collapse. BOOM! BOOM!! BOOM!!! I shiver as if a stiff Nor’easter is whipping around me. BOOM! BOOM!! The blasts echo through my hollow chest. BOOM! My hips sway as though I’m a young child with a hula hoop. Suddenly I feel more explosives detonating around my ankles and feet. These final blows do me in; gravity is not my friend. I fall to my knees, no longer able to withstand my own weight. In mere seconds I’ve crumbled to pieces on top of myself, in the place I once stood unwavering, a place that was once a safe space for those who called me home.
The dust settles upon me as my heart slows to a thud and stops with one final beat.