Radiant (daily practice)

You could tell immediately that this time was different. The slight uptempo and volume of the man’s cadence over the intercom sounded the alarm far more effectively than bells. “Ladies and Gentleman, Ladies and Gentleman” (hear ye hear ye, important announcements always begin with repetition). “There is a fire at the 9th Avenue entrance! If you leave the building, please exit on the 10th Avenue side.” Some ran for the exits, but most of us stood awkwardly, confused, “does that mean we should go?” I couldn’t remember if I was still the floor’s designated fire marshal, so just in case I said, “Everyone remain calm. I’m not sure that means we have to leave.” I don’t think it helped matters.

Someone finally pulled up Twitter: “Whoa, gas main explosion on 9th Avenue!” I felt vaguely scared and texted my wife: “Fire on 9th ave and 15. Evacuating. Love you.” The last part was a little dramatic admittedly but the intercom voice sounded serious and I was getting carried away. I asked a pregnant coworker if I could help her carry… anything… “Like what?” she asked. I didn’t know.

It was one of those brutally hot days in New York where you can feel the heat radiating straight off the buildings. I didn’t really want to go outside, but the rush of bodies toward the exit made me feel a little stupid if I didn’t leave now, considering the dramatic text and all. Everyone looked as confused as I felt. “He didn’t technically say we have to leave, right?” By the time I made it to the 10th Avenue side of the building, the report of “gas main explosion” turned into “minor fire at Chelsea Market.” I was disappointed and stood looking out toward the river, assessing the urgency of the situation, or lack of it, by the flow of traffic on the Westside Highway. Tourists walked the pedestrian path gingerly with umbrellas and sips of Gatorade. Construction workers sat in the shade with their heads bowed, helmets off, neon green shirts soaked through at the pits. I shot off another text to my wife: “Not evacuating. All good.” She hadn’t even responded.

I hadn’t received a work email in about 15 minutes at this point, so I decided to take a stroll outside. A fire truck’s faint siren down down the block reignited a feeling of danger, but only briefly. Probably a coincidence, I thought, and sat down in the small park hugging the highway. My work phone buzzed. An instant message from Kip saying the team should regroup at Brass Monkey for a “firedrill happy hour.” I decided I’d rather sit on the bench and bake. My wife still hadn’t responded and I had nothing to think about, so I started walking back toward the office.

That’s when I smelled the smoke. Something metallic in it struck me as really unusual and there it was again, the danger. I started to text my wife again, “hey i think…” But then a siren blared and a cop whizzed by. Now dread and the metallic smell of fire revealed itself in a flash of flame and smoke. Something in the distance glowed red on the sidewalk and moved like a sheet in the wind. It fell to the ground, bounced back up and veered violently back into the street. I could see people jumping out of the way but not fleeing, like a group of toreadors in a bullfight. A metallic smell turned distinctly into burnt hair and what could only be, by visceral knowledge, charred flesh. The sirens grew louder and it became terribly clear.

I stood in horror, frozen by a paralyzing tonic of helplessness, panic and disbelief. I started backing away unconsciously, my eyes burning, shoulders tensed. The ding of my phone brought me to and I looked down at my wife’s text: “glad ur ok hunny. what’s for dinner?”

NYC’s Tenderloin (daily practice)

When I find myself anywhere near the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, I’m more than likely stressfully pushing through a horde of bodies en route to some other stressful thing or other Uptown, always just barely avoiding a Vision Zero demise. But maybe today the humidity was low enough that my human brain pushed back against the reptile parts, and instead of cursing this fucking sticky piece of shit city, I halted appreciatively before the big columns and broad stairs of the Post Office. If anything could calm every impulse in my body to flee this transit hub nightmare, it’s this truly arresting sight filled to the top with beautiful people.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Had I been paying attention before, not simply dodging pigeon shit, I may have noticed that this Post Office has, deservingly, an official name. The James A. Farley Building, and it’s designed by the same McKim, Mead & White firm whose famous train station once stood in place of the design hell that is today’s Penn Station. I’ve never understood what insanity might have led the rich developers of this city to stick us with the clinical abuses of Penn, but the Post Office at least allows us a glimpse of what the original may have looked like in its Beaux Arts glory.

To some, today’s Penn may seem more appropriate for its environs, which can feel a lot like San Francisco’s Tenderloin. And like the Tenderloin, there’s no other place quite like it in this city. The main difference, I think, is that the down and out junkies and homeless mentally ill haven’t simply been penned off here by the cops in order to be more easily surveilled, victims of the city’s murderously aggressive gentrification. Rather, they’ve chosen this strange nexus between Chelsea, Hudson Yards and Midtown to cohabitate this space delimiting the city’s bustling working class rush hour (which seems, here, to be all hours). I see students and accountants, tourists and construction workers all drinking in the same bars, while right outside a one-footed transgendered woman stripdances an internet kiosk. Neighbors, that’s all.

So for once, today, I took a moment to look at this abundance of life, not just curse it on my way to the next mind-numbing work project. People here seem genuinely happy at times, together haunting this or that cheesy bar on the corner to share a $2 Bud between 5 and 7pm. The magic really is in the variety of life, and up here, not everyone is wearing the same goddam pair of $200 Huaraches.

I hope those Post Office steps long survive the final days of the empire.