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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Scriveners and salvagers

There's an amazing story about the history of the oldest street in New York City in this week's New Yorker. I felt genuinely sorry to get to the end of the article because each twist in the story was so good. It's not available online, but there's additional audio content on the site. The author's friend Al Solomon, a junk and old document enthusiast, seems like the kind of person you want to know because he'll always come up with something: in this case, it's historical wood, scrap metal and marble, property deeds, newspaper articles, nineteenth-century manuscripts about sacred geometry, religious texts from nineteenth-century New York radical religious sects, curiously patterned bricks, and a million more things. There's a lovely riff on Melville in the story--Al Solomon guesses that Bartleby the Scrivener was written on the street, but he has only a few half-clues--and the whole story felt like something out of Melville, like a missing chapter of Moby Dick or The Confidence-Man. The story also reminded me of Paul Collins' The Trouble with Tom in its wonderful use of digressions, as if Al Solomon were guiding the story. This was one of my favorites:
The best reclaimed wood is finer than anything freshly cut, Al said. A few years earlier, he had sold me some old joists for a bookcase I was making. The wood was Southern longleaf pine, four inches thick and heavy with resin. It had twenty growth rings to the inch--twice as many as the plantation pine at Home Depot--and felt hard as oak. When I'd sanded and oiled it, the wood glowed a deep amber and looked nearly translucent. Afterward, Al sent me a Times article that he'd found online, about the building that the joists had been in. It was dated December 13, 1892. "All the shining lights of the east side political world assembled at the opening of the Comanche Club at 207 Bowery last night," it began. "Among those present were Mr. 'Silver Dollar' Smith, Mr. 'Dry Dollar' Sullivan... and Barney Rourke, the Napoleon of down-town politics."

The yard was full of such ghosts. Its two-acre lot was covered in piles of blackened boards and splintered beams, interspersed with stacks of new lumber. Al showed me some long, tapered joists from a schoolhouse built in the eighteen-fifties, and others from a nineteenth-century factory in Chinatown. The latter were Eastern white pine, hand-cut in Maine and hauled south by oxcart. The trunks were so long and unwieldy in those days, that the logging roads didn't turn left until they got to the city's latitude. Across the yard, a forklift had deposited a stack of lumber under a hangar to dry. Al pointed to some strips of molding, delicately fluted, about twelve feet up. They came from the Marquand stable, on East Seventy-third Street (now a two-family house), which was once owned by Joseph Pulitzer. "I call it Pulitzer Prize pine," Al said.

To Al's eyes, the city was a vast boneyard. There was enough old-growth timber buried in its buildings to make a national park, he said; enough stone to fill a thousand quarries. Sing Sing marble, Onodaga limestone, brownstone from Paterson, New Jersey, and Dorchester, Canada--the latter so hard it could hold an edge for a hundred years; everything cut too thick and built too stout, for fear it might not bear up in buildings of such dizzying height. Five full floors! Even the nails had stories to tell. They were hand-forged in the eighteenth century, slab-cut from strips of iron in the nineteenth, and snipped from rounded wires in the twentieth. Al dug them out with a crowbar and sent them to an iron yard. In the scrap business, history was just another raw material.

Brette and I went on the eighteenth-century New York walking tour a couple of years ago on the Fourth of July, and I was taken with the iron fence at Bowling Green. In 1776, George Washington's troops knocked down a statue of George III, which the fence had formerly surrounded. The tour guide told us that there used to be little iron crowns on the fence posts, and the troops had sawed those off, too. The statue was melted down to make bullets. I loved running my hand over the jagged edge on the fence. The African Burial Ground was also amazing.

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