Lately when I go for a walk I make a vow not to walk under any scaffolding, in protest of there being so much of it these days. Two minutes later I realize I’m walking under scaffolding.
One day I stopped and looked at the scaffolding around the NYU tower at East 8th Street and Mercer and realized it had no purpose. It wasn’t even next to the building but instead twenty feet away around the edge of the plaza. If there were any reason at all for it to be there, it could only have something to do with security, as some kind of camouflaged fence. Just when I concluded it was secretly not temporary, it vanished.
I started to look more closely at things and realized that the chain-link fence around the arch at Washington Square was not protecting any kind of renovation. There were no workers, no tools lying around, no project underway; it was simply there. My best guess is it was installed to prevent graffiti, that its pseudo-utilitarian ugliness was considered preferable to allowing human insult to the social order. Recently I noticed they took it down for commencement weekend and put it back up again when the parents were gone.
In April they put scaffolding up outside my apartment building. It’s like the building is in fourth grade and had to get braces; it won’t be smiling anymore this year. Men perch out there hammering in a lax and sporadic fashion, the work going pretty slow when it goes at all. I sit at my desk imagining them as a flock of heartbroken woodpeckers come to roost, or Bunyanesque infants grown bored with their pickaxe rattles. Sometimes the knocks seem plaintive, like the moans of zombies calling a town’s remaining survivors out to join them in the penultimate scene of a horror flick. Sometimes the hammering falls into a groove and almost begins to mean something, to speak like drums — but I can’t answer, can’t even stick my head out to see because they’ve stapled heavy sheets of plastic over the windows, leaving me sealed in like a funky Tut.
No one knows when it will come down; they seem to find it comic I should ask. I watched them assemble it from my window, my last view of the world not the outlaw’s gallows but a marvel of modern efficiency built from specially-made blue tubes resembling designer pasta, x-shaped crossbars that snap into position in seconds, and a platform of ordinary two-by-fours nailed firmly in place. It was done in half a day and then no one showed up for a week. You take so much on faith in the city.
Life was good growing up in the suburbs, before you knew that’s where you were. You had a discreet and obedient little thermostat instead of a madly clanging radiator, thick shag pile to roll around on instead of clackety cold polished wood, and a nice garage to pull in to — you were expected to parallel park exactly once in your lifetime, on your driving test. At twilight the fireflies lit up like unstrung yellow Christmas bulbs and the crickets chirped their vespers of senseless lust and glee and a carpet of glory rose up from the lawns until you felt you were wading through it.
There was always scaffolding around at college but no one minded since you were usually moving in a matter of months. Freshman week we drank grain punch and climbed around on it like we were playing a giant Donkey Kong game. Junior year my girlfriend ate mushrooms and sat out on it in a state of trippy wonder until campus security came and gently talked her down. My last summer I even got a cushy job guarding it, with a hard hat and folding chair and thick novels by Melville, Joyce and Pynchon, which seemed themselves pointless feats of engineering, intricate sponges to sop up the flood of seemingly superfluous time.
It took me months to get used to the street noise here. People pour out of the bars wildly and triumphantly oblivious to my need for rest, just as I and my friends once poured out of the bars in someone else’s neighborhood. Prostitutes fight over the corner in voices as loud as opera divas, their indifference to the hour more shocking than their profession: sure, they’re shameless, but do they have any idea how late it is? Sometimes the city bus stops at the intersection and just waits there a full minute or two to get back on schedule, with a row of backed-up cars behind it each honking angrily at the one ahead. I hear car alarms and jackhammers more often than thank you and you’re welcome.
I guess I stay here for the conversation but it dies out a little more every year until you start to understand why they keep the jukebox turned up so loud in bars. Old friends get wary or just worn out; our lives either converge to such a degree they’re hardly worth discussing or diverge beyond all relation. Still you stay for friends you never see, the way you came for museums you never visit.
I tried to look at all the renovation in my neighborhood as a gladsome indicator of prosperity, but it didn’t help. I’m tired of this place, tired of streets that are torn up every time you turn around for no reason while a trash can someone had to drag out to warn of a pothole will be sitting in the middle of the street for a week, tired of cones and vests of safety orange and the urgent warning beeps of trucks backing up, tired of plywood tunnel detours and signs that say pardon our dust. I don’t want to live in this city anymore, where the very walls perish around you only to be reborn in the agony of time. I want to live in a city that’s done.