We were on our way to a downtown loft party in Emily’s Volkswagen, Emily, Kay and I, when we stopped off to see the ruins of a fire in the waterfront district, on Thirtieth Street and Twelfth Avenue.
This whole neighborhood, along the western spine of Manhatan, has always been mysterious to me, with its deserted steamship offices that look like flaking venetian facades, and its imperturbable warehouses where no one can ever go in or out. A few blocks east are skyscrapers, but between those skyscrapers and the waterfront lie empty lots where my imagination has more than enough room to turn frightened. Emily parked the car, and we heeled our shoes cautiously on the tractionless ice.
The fire had been a week a ago. It had been so close to zero the night of the blaze, and ever since, that the water from the fire hoses had frozen. Sheets of white ice hung down the collapsed timbers, which were charred black and leaning diagonally against each other. Looking at the warehouse was like staring into an unfinished cathedral of snow. Smoke continued to pour up, apparently from the warehouse basement where the fire was still alive, incredibly enough, in all this ice.
The smoke burned the eyes so that we didn’t get any closer to the ruins than across the street. The smoke floated up between the webs of ice and out of the roof and across the street to our side, to some railroad tracks lifted on a raised plaform, with iron railings, behind which were stalled maroon-brown freight cars. Everything began to swim together in a delicate chalky light that was uncanny, no matter where I looked.The bones of ice, the boxcars, the ruined warehouse, the half-moon. It was like an overhead shot in a wonderful suspense movie when something horrible is about to happen; the filigree of the train railings had a trembling clarity, a rib of aquamarine seen through the smoke, as though in a grisaille painting.
But these comparisons with art only understate the rareness of the spectacle. We all realized we might never see its like again. Emily began taking pictures. The watchmen from the fire department returned, and Emily, who is good at striking up conversations with policean or museum guards, left us and started talking with them.
Kay and I were shivering; it was too much of a good thing. I wanted to get in the warm car and go to the party. I signaled to Emily with a yank of my head (she ignored me, of course); then I headed for her fire-engine-red Volkswagen to wait by the hood. At this farther distance and angle, the warehouse did not look so special. What if the poetry had already drained from the scene? It was a matter of getting that grey green to line up with the white again.
I was debating whether to clatter back to a closer vantage point, when Emily wandered over to us, explaining as she opened her car door: “I just wanted to find out if the night watchmen felt too jaded to enjoy it.”
“I said to them, “I find this very beautiful – do you?” and one guy said, “It’s tremendous! I can’t get enough of looking at it.”
We were pleased with his answer, suddenly feeling warm affection, probably condescending, for the watchman who shared our aesthetic excitement. So, apparently everyone thought this was an extraordinary sight. The knowledge of its universal appeal reassured me, even as it spoiled the pleasure slightly.
In any case, we were probably the only people at the party we were going to who had seen it.