By Jennifer Zeynab Maccani
When the first hydraulic excavator pierced the brick, Gregor heard the voice of his long-dead great-grandmother. The cry was little more than a moan, but Gregor knew it was her voice. He hadn’t heard it in fifteen years, not since the day he’d stopped by the hospital to read to her in German. She’d taken the book from him and smiled, adjusting her glasses, her blue-gold voice lilting up at its edges like preserved paper. When he had promised to come back the next day, she had patted his steel-blond hair. “You look so much like your mother,” she had said. “It’s astounding.”
She had died in her sleep that night. Gregor wasn’t sure if the white streak in his hair had appeared because of her death, or if the Tuesday of the following week had done it—that Tuesday that should have been like any other Tuesday but wasn’t.
The foreman, Mr. Henries, lifted his hardhat to scratch his scalp. “What was that?”
Gregor swayed. He grasped the silver chain around his neck, the delicate compass charm blackened by fire. “I don’t know,” Gregor said. “Fire escapes creaking, probably.”
The other members of the demolition crew whispered among themselves. The old crane operator waited, puzzled by the groan let off by the old brick tenement building. Mr. Henries gave the order to continue with the pull-down. The steel fire escapes groaned in the cold wind coming off the East River.
“Someday this whole old tenement warren will be emptied out,” Mr. Henries said to Gregor. “We can all get jobs working on those new high-rises, installing pleated glass and fresh steel.”
The cold breeze tongued the white streak of hair poking from Gregor’s hardhat as he walked away. “I belong in demolition,” he said, “not construction.”
Mr. Henries shrugged and turned to Pete Krezski, one of the other crewmen. “Old Gregor used to be with the FDNY,” Mr. Henries said. “Fire rescue, up until ’02. Said he got tired of trying to keep things up that were always coming down.”
“Yeah. That’s what I heard.” Pete watched the excavator crush stones as it rolled toward the tenement building. “Did you know Greg used to take care of his great-grandmother?”
Gregor pretended he didn’t hear. He watched the faces of the Syrians huddled beyond the wooden worksite fence: aging mothers, school-aged boys, a young woman with a green scarf at her throat. The families had vacated the building a few weeks ago when it had been deemed unsafe. Gregor wondered why they hung around, as though they feared for the tenement itself, as though it were a person full of breath and blood.
Before stopping time, the excavator took down the south wall on the fifth floor. The wisp of a woman’s voice escaped, the hint of an Eastern European accent.
Gregor and Pete took the subway home. The lights flicked past like a woman turning the pages of a newspaper. The B line throbbed with the stench of dried urine and brake smoke.
“Why do the old tenants watch us like that?” Gregor asked. “They had weeks to vacate. They must have found other places by now.”
“I heard they were placed there by a service.” Pete peeled a Snickers like a banana and tugged the corner off. He offered it to Gregor, who waved him away. Pete chewed on the caramel and chocolate. “Somebody said a bunch of them were refugees.” Pete smacked his lips. “Yeah. Definitely what I heard.”
A man in a shabby overcoat, filthy with the stench of his own weeks-old sweat, got on at DeKalb. He settled into a corner seat, curling and uncurling his fingers around the plastic.
“Why did they order it demolished, then?” Gregor asked.
“Internal structural damage,” Pete said. “Probably no one noticed until it was too far along to fix. You know how those old tenements are.”
“It’s a shame to see them fall apart,” Gregor said. “Those Lower East Side tenements have seen German immigrants, Polish and Irish kids, Jewish families too. They’ve seen our parents. Our grandparents.”
“Yeah. Definitely.” Pete bit off another slab of Snickers and chewed, the caramel stretching from his tongue to his palate. “Revolving doors for the poor and the hopeful, I guess, for anybody starting a new life.” He touched his thumb and forefinger together, spreading melted chocolate over the contours of his fingerprints, and stared solemn-faced at his hands. “My mother said my grandma and her sister lived in a tenement on Orchard Street when they first came over to the States.”
Gregor stared at an ancient coffee stain on the floor of the subway car, burnished by thousands of soles. “My great-grandparents, too,” he said. “Somewhere on the LES—not sure where. There must have been hundreds of German families in that neighborhood. Nets of laundry lines stacked five stories high, stretching for blocks between the buildings. I’ve seen the photos.”
“Why did you go for this gig?” Pete asked. “You were a fireman. Henries said you loved it.”
Gregor stared hard out into the dark. The tiles on the back wall of the Atlantic Avenue stop wobbled past. “Things happen,” he said, “and you don’t love what you used to love anymore.”
“Is it true—” Pete started.
Gregor ran his fingers through the white streak in his hair and thought, Don’t say it.
“Is it true you were there?” Pete asked. “At Ground Zero?”
Gregor looked down at his boots. “I was there.”
The South Tower opened before him like a hand: the alarm. The flames. The toothpick-thin external supports, still standing after the rest of the building was down. Unearthing Flight 175’s fuselage, a hunk of blackened, twisted metal. Hauling a steel beam off a woman’s chest. You’re going to make it. The woman’s sooty fingers on his own, pressing a scorched silver necklace with a compass charm into Gregor’s hand. The woman’s body, an hour later, covered with a sheet.
Gregor tapped at his collarbone, searching for the comfort of the old compass. “It was a Tuesday,” he said.
“Should have been like any other Tuesday,” Pete said. “But it wasn’t.”
“It wasn’t.” Gregor tapped the heel of his boot against the wall, dislodging crumbs of concrete. “I got tired of trying to save things I couldn’t save,” he said. “It got so that I’d look at a three-story or a high-rise and feel tired, just thinking how long it would take to rebuild. It takes years to build something, Pete. Years.” The underground lights flickered on and off, and the brakes squealed as the subway car rounded a tight corner of the tunnel. “But it takes less than a second to bring it down again.”
7th Avenue. They screeched to a halt, and bodies poured on and off. Steam and the salty smell of buttered pretzels sighed into the subway car.
“Yeah,” Pete said, his voice thin. “Definitely.” He wiped his hands on his jeans. “I never got to ask you. Did you hear anything today?”
“You know,” Pete said. When he turned his face, it was ashen. “Just before five, when the excavator pulled the fifth-floor wall down.” He cleared his throat. “Did you hear it?”
Gregor shifted in his seat. He felt eyes on his shoulders and the top of his head. The gold and blue notes of his great-grandmother’s voice hummed in his mind. “The voices?”
“I know what I heard,” Pete said. “Grandma. I heard her voice like it was coming from the stone. From the brick and the steel.” He crumpled the Snickers wrapper and darted his eyes up to Gregor’s face. “You think people’s words can get trapped like that?” he asked. “Can they swirl around a building for decades and come out as rock dust, the sounds still whole?”
In the corner seat, the homeless man wrapped his ragged overcoat tight around his face.
Gregor said, “How should I know?”
Patches of cold fog littered the streets the next day when Gregor emerged from the Grand Street subway entrance. Days like this reminded Gregor that Manhattan was an island after all, a low strip hanging above the water. He passed a bedraggled man covered by a thin blanket, huddled over a subway grate to keep warm. Steam puffed up around his body, seeping into the gutter.
Gregor turned onto Orchard and stalked under the scaffolding of a squatty garage. Across the street lay the pizzeria that had burned to the ground fifteen years ago, one of the worst fires Gregor had seen before 9/11. Someone had rebuilt a nail salon on the lot.
Underneath, Gregor still felt he could see the charred space between the buildings, the smoking hole of debris, the blackened bones of the old three-story. Sometimes he felt that wherever he went, all he saw was bygone destruction. Walls were replastered, sure; roofs were rebuilt. But the whispers of old tragedies were never cleared away, not really. It made Gregor feel very old, as though the whole city was built on nothing more than memories.
A young man in a wool coat came out of a bodega and dumped his change in the street. The wooden worksite fence loomed a block away, the hydraulic excavator dull mustard next to the old tenement building. Beyond, the Syrian immigrants huddled, watching the worksite and following him with their eyes.
The top floors had to go first, before the rest of the building could come down. Gregor watched the excavator lurch to life, piercing the stone. As soon as the first brick fell, voices streamed out of the wounded wall like water.
“We were a hundred days’ journey in the belly of the ship—“
“—at Ellis Island, where they checked our papers and our ears—“
“Mama, ich habe Hunger—“
“My fingers hurt to the bone from so much sewing—“
Pete and Mr. Henries lifted their hands to their faces. Gregor stood transfixed. He heard his great-grandmother singing her daughter Liese to sleep: “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf…”
Pete took his hardhat in his hands, the fog collecting on his cheeks. “I heard her again,” he whispered. “My grandma.”
Mr. Henries had his hands on either side of his head, frozen, unable to cover his ears. “That was my great-uncle’s voice,” he said. “I always heard they lived in a tenement after Ellis Island, but I never knew—”
“Boss.” The man in the excavator leaned out the door. “The hell was that? This building’s vacant, right?”
Mr. Henries cleared his throat. Moving toward the building, he threw up his hand. “Back to work,” he called, shaking off the cold and the uneasy silence. “We got ‘til the end of the month to bring this thing down. What are you waiting for?”
When the top floor came down, the voices became more insistent. They bombarded the demolition crew with songs and commands, the pleading tones of parents and the whispers of lovers. The fourth floor collapsed on itself, revealing the voices of Polish boys trading secrets in the hallways, lullabies in Yiddish and German. The third floor walls released the words of young women trading gossip while they hung their laundry on the lines. The second-floor stones spat words like blood and cried out. The brick crumbled into song.
Then they pulled down the first floor. The voices gave way to a bright, swaying language like a great wind.
“What is that?” Pete asked.
“I think it’s Arabic,” Gregor said. “There were other immigrants here once, mostly from Syria. Whole blocks of the LES were built on their backs.” A bulldozer raked the wreckage of the demolished building, cut down to its foundation. Gregor watched the silent Syrians at the fence, their faces stricken. “Maybe in those voices,” he said, “they hear their own.”
The bulldozer withdrew. Fog turned to rain, forming grey rivulets of dust.
“Just the foundation to go,” Mr. Henries said, staring at the square of dirt where the tenement building had been.
But none of the demolition crew moved, not even Mr. Henries. They stared at each other and at the naked foundation. Voices simmered from the steaming hole and seeped around their knees, babbling about stifling heat and low pay in five languages.
Gregor walked up to the fence and approached the young woman in the green scarf. She gathered the fabric under her chin against the cold. She met his eyes.
“Why do you stand here watching?” Gregor asked. “The voices of the families who used to live here yell and sing. Why aren’t you saying anything?”
The girl pointed at the cracked foundation of the old tenement. The voices wisped toward the sky. She said, “We are.”
Gregor returned to the worksite where the crewmen stood, staring at the foundation, unwilling to disembowel the demolished tenement. He picked up a mud-hued brick and marched to the remains. He pushed the brick into place and heaved another on top of it.
“Have you lost your mind?” Pete crouched beside him, the rest of the crew watching them. “What are you doing?”
“Rebuilding,” Gregor said. The brick in his hands sighed and hummed. “We owe our lives to the people who lived in this tenement. They built something from nothing. Can’t we do the same?”
Pete put his hand on Gregor’s shoulder. “Things are different now, Greg.”
“How can you say that?” Gregor tossed his head toward the Syrians at the fence. “How can you say that, when the voices of all our parents and grandparents are tangled up together?”
“Yeah.” Pete coughed against the tightness in his throat. He picked up a brick and set it beside Gregor’s. “That’s true. Definitely.”
Footsteps. The young woman in the green scarf came forward from the fence. She picked up another brick and set it beside Pete’s and Gregor’s.
Gregor nodded, grey silt collecting in the creases in his knuckles. “Gregor,” he said.
Gregor searched her face. “My great-grandmother lived in this building.”
“So did mine,” Asma said. “Three generations of my family lived in this neighborhood. That’s why we placed the refugees here. We wanted them to know they weren’t the first to rebuild in this city.”
Behind her, the rest of the building’s tenants streamed from the fence.
The compass swung on its chain at Gregor’s neck. He asked himself why it was so hard to rebuild. He asked himself why people circled their fear like rings of terrified birds, always thinking of what they had lost. He asked himself if losing a home meant losing yourself.
Mr. Henries stepped up beside them, and the demolition crew followed. Their shadows emerged as the rainy weather passed into the ocean, the tendrils of clouds raking the skyscrapers.
Gregor shimmied another brick into place, the vibrations of a woman’s voice thrumming in his fingertips. Down the block, the owner of the nail salon unlocked the door, and Gregor wondered if the lot still smelled like burning.
“Do you think they knew?” Gregor asked. “When they left their countries, their cities, the houses they were born in. Do you think they knew how much they’d lost?”
A hundred pairs of hands hauled stones, a chorus of whispers at their feet.
Asma lifted another brick, other people’s words in the dust on her skin. “We forget sometimes that home is in each other,” she said. “It can’t be lost.”
They patched together the foundation, second- and third-generation Americans working beside first. They rebuilt the first floor with the brick and metal they had culled from the tenement. The stones sang and wept. A new building emerged, a brick three-story, a cathedral of years and tongues.
Gregor and Asma worked side by side, listening to the sound of each other’s breaths. The round coin of the compass sighed heat onto Gregor’s sternum, the needle pointing to the space between their words.
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is a Syrian American writer and a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.