Saved by Zero

But it was not to be. When the bus reached the place where Vernon Boulevard becomes Astoria Boulevard, I hopped off, turned my back on the road to Astoria Park, and headed east down Vernon, towards Chateau le Woof, as though drawn there by a magnetic barking.

I had only a few times approached Chateau le Woof from this side, and I was curious to find this “3-40 Vernon Boulevard” which my research had informed me was the address where the public artist Mark di Suvero, in the 1980s, had set up a studio before he wandered over to a dumpsite on the East River and decided it would make an excellent sculpture park, what is now Socrates Sculpture Park. My problem with this research was that no such address existed.

I walked past the Two Coves Community Garden, a recovered and nurtured former dumping ground turned vigorously busy garden, replete with bags of mulch, stacks of pots and gardeners standing arms akimbo as they survey their plots, wearing the restless frowns that belie gardening as a mild past time, rather than the fruitless battle against nature that it is. I walked past Hallett’s Playground and the public housing apartments known as Astoria Houses, past the wharf for the ferry which whisks Wall Streeters to their jobs across the water, past the remains of an old loading dock, reduced to splintered black timbers emerging from the river like the hands of drowning ghosts, past a nudely clean, recently completed building on my left, with the wee chrome-fenced balconies favored by the new developers, festooned with banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” and regular American flags, past a corrugated metal warehouse on my right, with a sophisticated buzzer lock and a heavy steel\ door bearing the sign “Space Time,” below the glued-on tin black and gold rectangular numbers available at any hardware store, indicating the address. “30-40.” I stepped over a patch of sidewalk deeply stained with seasons of trodden berries from the overhanging mulberry tree, reminding me of my Missouri girlhood. I glanced at the tip of the cove, inhaled the mildly brackish river scent and nodded a greeting at the water fowl waddling ashore on the ribbon of sand and . . .

Halt.

I backed up. I didn’t turn around and walk back, but walked backwards, not quite a graceful moonwalk, but with a similar magic in the movement: Space Time. 30-40 Vernon Boulevard. The accounts I had read of Mark di Suvero had left out a zero. Problem solved.

I continued walking (forward) along the comma of the cove until I reached the entrance of the park. I paused at the gates to look at the dog café, looking in from where I usually look out – at the cove, the park, the vacant lot in between – and saw the barista Curtis waving at me hugely, like he was bringing a small plane into an airfield in heavy fog. I crossed Vernon Boulevard and entered the dog café. Curtis had found an apartment! He was now an Astorian! He gave me the address.

“I just came from there,” I said.

Curtis asked, “Did you see the memorial? They were having a memorial service. It was like the two year anniversary of this big explosion.”

An older woman fishing in the refrigerator for a bottled ice tea straightened up. “It was longer ago than that!”

“The sign said two years,” Curtis said.

No,” the woman said. “I remember it. There was a fire, and then there was an explosion, and three firemen were killed.”

Had I been her drama teacher and she an acting student, I would have advised her to conserve her anger and not release it so early in the scene, but she was immediately enraged. Curtis said, feebly and unwisely, “They said two years?”

“I remember it!” the woman said. “I was here. How long have you lived here?”

Curtis stood stupefied in her glare until I attempted to distract her, “Where is this, exactly?”

“On Astoria Boulevard,” she said. “By Astoria Provisions.”

I shook my head. Astoria Provisions? A market? A food bank?

“By the library? You know where the library is?”

“The Carnegie library?” I asked, and watched a cold rage settle over her face as she told herself that no one in this godforsaken dog-addled café was capable of uttering a word of sense.

She probably thought, when I said “Carnegie library” that I meant a library close to Carnegie Hall, but I meant, in fact, the little library on the intersection of 14th Street, 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard. It is one of the New York City Carnegie libraries, of which 52 still exist as libraries. Only four of those are in Queens. The Astoria branch was designed by the architectural firm Tuthill & Higgins,whose partner William Tuthill did in fact design Carnegie Hall in the early 20th century. But the Carnegie libraries, roughly 2,500 built worldwide between 1880 and 1930, are a certain breed of library, and ushered in the public library as we know it today. Before then – that is, before 1880 – most libraries were fee-based, and almost none allowed the public to roam freely through the stacks, plucking out books at will. Andrew Carnegie, whatever else his robber-baron failings, is known as the “patron saint of libraries.”

Carnegie would build, at his own expense, a public library for any community that could demonstrate a willingness and ability to provide the building’s, and the collection’s, upkeep and maintenance once the building was up, and to pay a staff. Towns also had to commit to spend ten percent of the civic budget to the library and to make it available, free of cost, to all. The first Carnegie library was built in Carnegie’s hometown in Scotland; the next several were erected in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. Many of them are similar in architectural design, and beholden to a theme of “enlightenment.” Broad stairways lead to wide front doors (representing an ascension to knowledge), between two lamps or torches, either functioning or symbolic, representing the intellectual illumination promised within. Patrons are greeted by a large horseshoe-shaped reference desk.

I wrote a paper on the Carnegie libraries for one of my core classes at library school, which I attended so late in life that I was the same age, easily, of the parents of many of my classmates, and older than nearly all of my professors. Library school had only fertilized and hothoused the seeds of my nerdiness, so I did not attempt to explain the concept of a Carnegie library to the angry iced tea woman. Instead, I asked, “By the community garden?”

“What community garden?”

“The . . . community garden,” I repeated, because there was really not much more to say. One might know nothing of Carnegie libraries, but surely a triangle of thriving green amidst warehouses, the art-funded sanctioned graffitied walls of Welling Court, and the Section 8 housing of Astoria Houses, would not escape notice? “Two Coves Community Garden.”

(The garden, by the way, is less than 500 feet from “Astoria Provisions,” which is a restaurant.)

“It was 2001,” the woman suddenly remembered. “June 2001. Father’s Day. There was a fire, then an explosion. Eight kids lost their fathers that day. One of them was called Fahey . . . and the other two were something Irish. You don’t remember this?”

“No,” I said.

“How long have you lived here?”

“My current apartment? Since the ‘90’s.”

“And you don’t remember?”

The other “something Irish” were John Downing, who had spent that morning studying for the lieutenant’s exam, and was planning a trip to Ireland later that month with his young children to see his wife’s parents and his own grandparents in their respective Irish counties. And Harry Ford, a 27-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, who had been cited ten times for bravery. The fire occurred at the Long Island General Supply Company, across the street from the Astoria (Carnegie) Library. Long Island General Supply was a community fixture, a hardware store which kept paint, lacquer and thinners in its basement, which had no sprinkler system. Once the fire reached the basement, the explosion blast “sent rubble streaming like confetti across Astoria Boulevard and tossed firefighters about like rag dolls,” according to The New York Times.

Downing and Ford were killed by falling brick immediately upon the explosion, which injured fifty other firefighters. Brian Fahey, whose name the iced tea woman remembered, was plunged into the basement when the explosion blew the floor out from under him, He gasped into his hand-held radio, “I’m by the stairs. Please come and get me.” He was found by his frantic colleagues, four hours later, dead from smoke inhalation.

The men were honored by unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives—unanimous, across party lines, reflecting a different time, but also a different time made manifest by remarks made from then-representative Anthony Weiner, and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The news accounts from the time – the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, The New York Times and even CNN and the Associated Press – are truly heartbreaking. Nothing this bad had happened since . . . nothing this bad . . . but of course, it was June 2001. What was I doing in June, 2001? On Father’s Day? My father was long gone by then, and a June Sunday twenty years ago is wiped from my memory, perhaps because of the sky-ripping, worldwide tragedy which occurred three months later. No. I didn’t remember it.

“2001,” I said to the iced tea woman, and turned my head to include Curtis. “So it was the twenty year anniversary. Not two. You probably just missed the zero.”

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