2. At the edge of the city
This is part of an interactive serial fiction experiment called “A March Story”. Reader contributions are marked as links. To learn more, read the Introduction or begin with Episode One. To tell me what you think or to get involved, tweet me.
There was supposed to be a big storm today, rain and wind and a little bit of snow. The Weather Channel decided to name this one Saturn, with their annoying new habit turning every storm into an anthropomorphized hurricane or at the very least a hashtag. It lit up my forecast for Queens bright red with alerts. Manhattan, of course, does not have a page on the Weather Channel site.
This doesn’t look much like a storm. I’m standing at the edge of Manhattan, peering through the glass at the West Side Highway beyond. It’s gray, certainly. And the wind is kicking up a chop on the Hudson. But I haven’t seen a drop of rain spatter against the Dome. Not that I’d be able to tell if it felt like a storm was coming in here, separated from the elements in the world’s most perfectly-temperate city.
I’m in Hell’s Kitchen on 46 or 47th, just past Tenth Avenue where the buildings begin to shrink in height to make way for the descent of the Dome. In some instances, lots still sit empty with storage containers stacked up on the foundations of turn-of-the-century buildings. This whole area was roughly six stories at one point, but now that’s just the corridor running down Ninth Avenue. You can’t reach too far to the sky this far west.
It’s quiet out here. The closest traffic tunnel out from under the Dome is down at 42nd and you can barely hear the honk and bustle reflected off the glass above me. No taxis pass near me. I haven’t seen another pedestrian in a few blocks. I am alone with the view.
I stretch my hand out and for the first time in my life, I touch the Manhattan Dome. It’s cold. Damp. I press my palm fully against it and it feels solid. Solid like three inches of the special glass Buckminster Fuller cooked up. It’s smooth and clear, stretching up from my hand towards the sky, above my head and eventually behind me. The original design had called for glass panels in a steel grid, but during construction Fuller figured out how to do away with the grid and obscure less of the sky for the city’s inhabitants. It looks more like thick plastic than clear glass. A little blurry, a little scuffed. As I look up into the curve overhead the iridescence turns the glass a purple tint.
This is one of the few places in the city you can touch the Dome. Rather, one of the few places where you can touch the Dome without being jostled by hundred thousand tourists. In most places, fences sprung up around the Dome after 9/11, as they did with all pieces of New York’s critical infrastructure. As time passed the Dome seemed less of a critical target. A few of the fences came down to allow the tourists their pastime of caressing the glass at certain famous points. A few others fell down and were forgotten.
Outside the Dome the cars continue to pass and the rain continues to not fall. Wind blows that I can’t feel. I’m bored already.
Sullivan Street Bakery is not on Sullivan Street. This branch, at least, is just down the street from the Dome, and I’ve discovered that they have fantastic pastries and good black coffee. I’m sitting at a small counter with only three seats facing out onto the street. I’m thinking about what, if anything, I can write about my tactile encounter with the Dome. As I sit, a gray-haired man in a coat far too heavy for Manhattan’s perpetual late springtime walks in. It’s a work coat, I realize, with some governmental logo on it. I chew flaky crust as he orders and then sits on the stool one away from me. He smiles as he sits down.
“How you doing?” I venture. “Staying warm out there?”
“Been out by the River,” he explains. He points to the ceiling. “I work on the Dome.”
“Name’s Rusty. Work for Dome Maintenance. It’s my job to get up there and clean the thing.”
I am wowed by the idea of humans cleaning the dome. “How does that work?”
He laughs. “Ain’t as impossible as it seems. We basically put on harnesses and walk up the side. Then it’s just like cleaning a giant window.”
“With massive squeegees?”
“With high-pressure hoses.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “Not today, anyway. City won’t let us up because of the damned storm.”
“Exactly,” he laughs. “Don’t get me wrong, I live in Staten Island. I’m happy they’ve started taking storms seriously around here. But I was hoping to get a couple of hours in today before the strike began.”
“Yep, The union’s calling a strike for more pay. I’d be happy just to keep working, but majority rules.” He points at my half croissant lying forgotten on the counter. “Are you going to eat that thing?”
I push it over to him. “How long do you think the strike will go?”
“Few days probably. They don’t like to let the Dome go without a cleaning for too long. Awful lot of birdshit up there.”
“I should tell you I’m a reporter. You mind giving me a quote about the strike?”
“You work for the paper? The Dispatch or something?”
“That’s the one.”
He looks back at the bakery where no one is paying any attention to us. Then he leans over the stool between us. “Look you can’t quote me as telling you nothing. But the Dome needs fixing. Like heavy fixing.”
I also lean. “What do you mean?
“You’ve heard the rumors before about the Dome. Well they’re true. We get up there… it creaks. It gives. The glass is unstable and it’s started leaking. When we get a heavy rain, it leaks down through the glass. The Mayor says it’s condensation dripping, but I tell you…” he whispers now. “It’s rain.”
I am standing in front of Harold Simmons and he is reading my very first story for the New York Dispatch, printed double-space on three sheets of computer paper. I know it’s meant to be a digital story but I couldn’t help but print it out. He nods as he reads but his face is inscrutable. He offered me a seat but my nerves keep me on my feet. I’m focusing all of my mental energy on not pacing.
After an excruciating three to four subjective mental hours which are probably more like three to four actual objective minutes, Harold puts the pages down on his desk and pushes his glasses up to the top of his head.
“Well, it’s a bit long.”
I expected this one. “I can cut it down.”
“I like the experiential tone.”
“It just needs some focus.”
“Right. I spent too much time on the setting of the bakery.”
“No, keep that. Cut all this about the Dome.”
Wait. “What? That’s the story.”
“Unfounded and off-the-record rumors from some maintenance guy who’s got an axe to grind because his Union is about to go on strike?” Harold chuckles. “I’m sorry, Monica, but it reads to me like you got played.” He taps the pages. “Sullivan Street Bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, on the other hand. That’s a nice little local piece for the website. Write up everything you can remember about the menu and make sure to add the address.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Simmons…”
“Harold. I… I thought, I think there’s a story in this. In the Dome.”
“Like it could be your first scoop? Like maybe the Dome could be your beat?”
Am I so transparent? “Well no, but…”
He chuckles again. “You let your beat find you, LaRosa”. He points to an old newspaper cover, framed. “That was my first cover story. It took me four years to get there.” He leans back and puts his feet up on the desk. “When I started I wanted to cover the cops. Cops were crooked and corrupt and I was going to blow the lid off the whole heinous thing. But my editor wanted me to cover Harlem. He didn’t have a lot of black reporters and his white reporters didn’t love going above 110th Street. So he’d send me. I hated getting assignments because of the color of my skin, but I did the work. And eventually I made a lot of friends in the community.” He gestures again at the frame. The cover photo is of a broken window with police tape across it. “I got that call because I’d put in the time with the fellow who owned that store. And in the end, it was the biggest police story of the year.”
He swings his feet back to the floor and pulls his glasses down to gesture with. He points them at me. “Monica, great stories will find you if you put in the work. But for now, on your second week, that means copying, pasting and reviewing bakeries.”
And so here I am, writing a restaurant review after all. Of my twelve original paragraphs, one survived the edit: an atmospheric description of the bakery. The smell of flour and yeast fill the nose as you walk step through the glass door of Sullivan Street Bakery…
I’m listening to The Blueprint. It’s the only thing that can kick me out of my funk. Coming out of Harold’s office “The Takeover” seemed appropriate (“R-O-C, we run this rap shit”) and now “Heart of the City” is really speaking to me.(“Ain’t no love in the heart of the city…”). My fingers are hovering hesitantly over the keys, darting out for the occasional word. I just don’t have that much detail to work with from the Bakery. I was too busy thinking about the Dome.
I click out of the document and into the endless distraction of the Internet, thinking I can find some pictures on the Sullivan Street Bakery website.
The track changes with a seamless transition into “Under the Dome”. It’s such a great song: bouncing along with a Kanye West beat (from back then he was still “K”) and dripping with so much of that celebratory bravado that Jay-Z has all over The Blueprint. This is his song about coming into success, about moving from the open skies of Brooklyn where he’s battered by the weather, into the life of wealth and luxury in Manhattan— under the dome. I Google “manhattan dome rap songs” and of course there is a Wikipedia page. Jay-Z’s take is a bit different from the early- and mid-90s canon, with the comparisons to segregation. “Harlem Air” and “Shatter the Dome”; The Dome as apartheid in “Clear Glass Wall” by KRS-One. Rhyming Dome to Rome led to the complicated metaphor about Roman citizens and Roman slaves deep in Paul’s Boutique.
It’s an easy click to New York graffiti culture in the 80s. Just like the exploits in subway train yards, the Dome made for a perfect target. Taggers rigged complicated mountain climbing rigs… or stole the maintenance crew’s harnesses to scale the side of the Dome and plant a piece of art between the City and the Sky. Giuliani eventually ended it with a coat of paint-repellant chemical.
It’s easy to get lost in the history of the Dome on Wikipedia. Andy Warhol’s West Side Highway Peep Shows, when the whole of his troupe would take field trips to the edge of the glass and watch their compatriots strip in the road beyond. The lawsuit filed in the year of the Dome’s completion in which a man sued the city for wrongful imprisonment— because he believed the Dome qualified under federal guidelines as a penitentiary. The two years of acoustic horror before the city figured out noise-cancelling technology. The new issues with homelessness as destitute from around the region flocked to Manhattan’s balmy streets. Or the time when all hell broke loose as the Dome’s filtration system spewed putrid filth into Manhattan’s otherwise pristine air.
The Dome had all begun with a chance cocktail party conversation between Buckminster Fuller and Robert Moses, the city’s master builder. Moses, facing mounting opposition in the early seventies, felt that he had to make one more great work to remind the city of his worth. There were plenty of bridges and highways and tunnels scattered around. But Fuller’s wildly ambitious plan to encase the greatest city on Earth captured Moses’ imagination. With his leadership and Fuller’s ground-breaking discoveries in the field of glassworks the construction of the Dome had actually (surprisingly) come in under budget. And Moses, true to form, ignored all protests and controversy and just kept building. No one really had the opportunity to say no to the Dome once he’d decided to build it. And no one could convince him to expand it to include low-income neighborhoods in Harlem or Alphabet City. Once it was built, the Dome became just another nuisance for its detractors. There was no anarchy, no unrest. Just the occasional protest from animal rights groups over the increase in bird deaths as they smacked into the glass.
I’m staring at a picture of Robert Moses smiling and standing next to one of the massive air filters that keep Manhattan residents from dying of carbon monoxide poisoning from all the cars and cabs when I realize I’m almost alone in the newsroom.
Standing above my desk is a pleasant looking older man in a janitor’s uniform. He’s holding my wadded up story draft, peering between the paper creases at the words contained within. “The Dome is failing?” he asks me.
“Sorry, that’s not actually a story. It’s not going to be printed.”
“I know, I assumed that’s why I found it in the trash.” His nametag says Otis. “This is how I read all my news.”
“Out of the trashcans in the newsroom?”
He nods. “It helps pass the night. And it’s a better source of news than what gets printed in the paper.”
I decide I like Otis and I introduce myself. He asks me to tell him about the Dome and I like the fact that he listens.
He smiles and smooths out the draft on my desk. “Don’t give up on this story,” he says. “It reads to me like the Mayor’s playing a thimblerig with the maintenance costs and you’ve got a lead.” He straightens and lays the paper on my desk. “Listen here, young lady, I’ve been cleaning up this newsroom for twenty-three years and there’s something I’ve learned: the real news always ends up in the trashcan before it makes the front page.”
I hope you enjoyed the second episode of A March Story. Have ideas? Have a word or sentence you want me to include? Tweet me with the hashtag #marchstory. Stay tuned for the next episode in one week.