“Okay, Sal – time to earn those big bucks!”
Sal looked down from his cab on the demolition crane. His partner, Ernie, was looking up at him with a broad smile and a pair of thumbs up. Sal gave a brief salute, then reached down and began to gently maneuver the lever that would send a 4-ton wrecking ball into the ghostly remains of the Pearlson Apartment building. A ten-story structure which had housed more than 500 people at its peak, the Pearlson was the last of four nearly identical housing units to be torn down.
The first swing came awfully close to the window that Deedee Johnson used to look through to watch the neighborhood boys play basketball while she sang along with well-worn Whitney Houston records.
Ernie climbed up to the side of the cab. Sal really preferred to be alone during this part of the operation so that he could concentrate on what he was doing.
“Not enough juice, buddy!” Ernie cackled as he pushed his 280-pound body as far as it would go into Sal’s cabin.
Sal was silent as he watched the enormous steel weight settle into its new trajectory. With a twitch of the control lever, the swinging ball sent bricks flying through the upper floors, all the way into the kitchen where Macey Harper once burnt a cake she had tried to make for her husband to celebrate their six-month wedding anniversary.
“Thataboy!” Ernie exclaimed. He coughed once and wiped off his chin. “Where you going to watch the game tonight?” he asked his junior partner.
“I dunno,” Sal mumbled, his eyes transfixed on the ball suspended several stories in the air. “Usual place, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Ernie remarked without actually agreeing to anything. “My wife wants me to stay home tonight. Her sister and her husband are coming over. My wife thinks I should spend more time with the brother-in-law. Says watching a game would help us get to know each other better.”
The ball smashed through the exterior wall, showering a cloud of plaster through the apartment where Anthony Siggs had hopped up and down for a full thirty minutes after getting the notice that he had received an athletic scholarship to Temple University.
“Well, you might as well do that. He could turn out to be a decent guy.” Sal wished that would be the end of it. He knew it wasn’t.
“Yeah, right,” Ernie scoffed. “This guy lived up near Stroudsburg for a while. I think he’s secretly a Jets fan.”
Sal chose not to respond. The two sat as silent witnesses for a minute to the demolition they were inflicting on the Pearlson.
The ball, which was actually more of a squat bell-shape, glanced against a support beam and crumpled the bedroom wall that had held an Eddie Murphy poster, which a teenage Darius Wexton would stand in front of while practicing his stand-up comedy routine. Then the ball swung backward, taking out the bathroom where Rhoshanda LeCray had collapsed to the floor after experiencing yet another miscarriage.
“I was kind of hoping we could take our time here,” Ernie suggested. “I mean, not to up rack overtime – don’t get me wrong now, overtime is great…. Although the supervisor has been riding us about overtime. But you know what I mean, right? I just want to have an excuse not to get home too early.”
Sal adjusted the position of the crane and the lateral rope to send the crashing weight into another section of the building. The shadow of the ball moved over the steps where “Bet” Teasdale had been shot dead after saying she would not stop testifying as a witness to another murder. The wrecking ball then careened through what had been a hallway, the same hallway that the Groby twins would race up and down while visiting their grandmother.
“I heard that they’re going to put up some expensive townhouses here,” Sal stated, hoping to change the conversation.
“Yeah,” Ernie grunted. “Same old story. Out with the old, in with the overpriced.” Ernie scratched at himself while wondering why Sal always looked so oily. Take a shower once in a while, Ernie thought to himself.
The unstoppable machinery destroyed the doorway where a resolute Orla Watts told her daughter she had turned in the paperwork that would allow her to take her grandchildren with her. One floor below, the ceiling collapsed over the living room where Robert Atchison tearfully received the phone call that his wife’s cancer was in remission and her prospects for a full recovery looked very good.
“You know, the only people stupid enough to pay the prices they’re going to charge for these townhouses are out-of-towners,” Ernie said matter-of-factly. “Them and suburban kids who grew up rich and now they want to stick it to their parents by moving into a neighborhood like this.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Sal answered. He was distracted by some movement over on the periphery of the demolition site. A couple of guys just walking around close to the fence, watching the industrial proceedings. They really should go across the street, Sal thought.
“Gentry-fication,” Ernie continued. “That’s what they call it. Tearing down what the city had given to poor people so that rich snobs can build up a place for themselves and act like they’re so cool for living in the city.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Sal answered again.
The unblinking behemoth tore through another section of brick wall, erasing the space that had held the photographs of four generations of the Marlin family. Down below, lifeless scraps of building material showered over the thin stretch of grass where Mr. Henry Abbott had once attempted to grow tomatoes and peppers.
“I suppose there’s some good to come from this,” Ernie persisted. “Nothing but a bunch of homeless people and drug dealers. That’s all this building had left in it the past couple o’ years. Now we’re going to have tax-paying citizens living here.”
Sal said nothing for a few minutes as he continued to focus on his job.
The steel hulk finally managed to crumple a central support beam. Tons of falling debris destroyed the three-bedroom apartment where Caerina and Rony Hapstead had held regular gatherings after Sunday services of the A.M.E. Church which they had belonged to for forty years. On the backswing, the ball removed the bedroom window that E. J. “Easy” Warren had been laying under when he realized just how much money he could make selling heroin exclusively to the white people who came down to Kensington looking to score.
“I don’t know if it was all homeless and drug dealers,” Sal replied cautiously. “There might have still been some poor people living here. I think I heard about some protest or something about people being forced to evacuate.”
Ernie merely shrugged.
Sal looked over the rubble as he prepared the ball for another swirl through the apartment building. All he saw was metal scraps, broken glass, twisted pipes, and thousands of pieces of brick.
“I wonder what the people who lived here were really like,” he said offhandedly.
The ball cracked through the timbers which had formed the flooring that separated one floor from another. Five-foot-long slivers of wood tumbled end over end into the janitor’s closet. Mr. Haley, the last custodian, had spent countless hours there poisoning his liver with cheap bourbon while wondering why his wife wouldn’t just leave him and find herself a better man. In the farthest apartment on the first floor, dust coated the kitchen wallpaper that Terrell Darnick had put up for his mother when he first came back home after 18 years in jail. As the wrecking ball returned along its pendulous path, the northeast corner of the building collapsed from a lack of support, filling in the stairwell which little Janie Tyson had used as a makeshift schoolroom for the smaller kids who had no one telling them to go to the local elementary school.
“I dunno,” Ernie said as he checked his watch. He would, unfortunately, get home in time to watch the Eagles game with his brother-in-law. “Did anybody ever really ‘live’ here?”
The final sounds within the Pearlson Apartments were not laughter, crying, shouting, sighing, pistol shots or squeaky shopping-cart wheels. The final sounds were the soft whisper of dust settling and memories being erased.