Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Noam Dorr: House on Fire / House on Ice

I woke up with an acrid smell in my nose, a burning sensation in my throat. All night I had dreams I was on fire and couldn’t put it out. In the morning my roommate suggested that the smell was paint burning off of the radiators in the house, overworked due to the extreme low temperatures that February night, but that seemed like a stretch. I saw the explanation on my way to work, when I walked down the block to catch the El. The building on the corner of 52nd and Locust previously housed a pharmacy and a medical practice, at least according to the signs, but seemed mostly abandoned. One elderly resident still lived on the top floor, and resorted to kerosene heating to deal with the freezing cold the night before. A fire broke out, firefighters called in, no one was hurt, except the building and some firefighters who slipped on the ice formed by their own firefighting equipment. It was the ice, not the fire, that became arresting. The entire corner of that block was suspended in the water the firefighters sprayed in order to contain the flames. There was an ice-cubed traffic light, red and green lamps palely shining through, still struggling to direct traffic that wasn’t there; icicle beards decorated all of the power lines. The Ice House (or Ice Palace by some) became somewhat of a local tourist attraction, with crowds gathering to look at the scene. Days later the ice was still there:

Photo by Lindsey Gaydos, February 2015
Photo by Lindsey Gaydos, February 2015

Spring came, the ice melted, the house demolished, and neatly turfed over. I was walking back from work in downtown Philadelphia one afternoon when I froze again. This time rather than a suspended exterior, it was an exposed interior that kept my attention. A half-eaten theater, steel beams exposed, domed and frescoed ceiling collapsing on itself, the ghost audience facing the machines that were tearing the place apart. I could even see the theater trapdoor leading into nothing. And so I stopped and looked. For a little while I imagined this was the result of a blaze too, a moment when someone shouts “Fire! Fire!” in a theater in earnest. But a quick Google search on my phone revealed that this was the historic Boyd Theater, demolished to make way for a luxury apartment building; a different form of tragedy perhaps. I was not the only one pausing to reflect and take in the sight. Pedestrians stopped and took a photo, asking each other what happened there. Cyclists turned their heads, oblivious of the traffic ahead. It was an unusual moment in a city. 

Photo by Noam Dorr, May 2015
Photo by Noam Dorr, May 2015

The urban space tells us that we are not allowed to stop, not allowed to gaze or ponder or meditate on a scene. It is, in fact, a crime to do so, punishable by armed men and women. So we push forward, we don’t pause, we stay purposeful, or at least struggle to appear so. But every once in a while a sight forces us to stop, calls our attention to the extraordinary ordinary, layers of ice covering a building façade or machines gnawing at the seams of structures bring out their wonder, their spectacular.  

Perhaps I fixate on buildings in this post because Construction, the digital literary journal for which I’m the nonfiction editor, has an ongoing thematic interest in structures, in the way things around us are constructed (in addition to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, in every issue we also feature pieces devoted to architecture and to the border). But perhaps it is also because this breaking down and re-forming is what I search for in essays. If we can watch this action unfold in front of us, maybe we can also glimpse the inner-workings of a human mind, which is in a sense the promise of an essay. The essay is a house is a mind is the world being torn down and rebuilt.

Both of the essays in our last issue, an audio essay by Laura Brown-Lavoie and an animated essay by Sarah Minor, do this work in a form wholly their own. In Brown-Lavoie’s “Spring Harvest” layers of sound introduce us to a conflict between labor and landscape, a physical and historical surface that is best left untouched: work the earth and you will yield nothing but rocks; unhinge the bucolic New England rock wall and you will discover uncomfortable truths. And yet her voice, her rhythms and beats compel us to continue exploring this story, as her narrator constructs and deconstructs a landscape through a soundscape. In Minor’s “Stroud’s Legend, Again” we find ourselves gazing at an image transforming so slowly we cannot tell if changes are occurring or if it is just our imagination; is it buried treasure, or just the tip of a white skull, and how would the being whose skull it is experience this process of unearthing? Once we start stripping away the layers we cannot stop, though its voice may call out to us to cease our probing. 

I’ll end on a note about our digital format. Just as the urban space forbids us from lingering too long in one spot, so too in cyberspace it sometimes seems like we will sink if we don’t keep on clicking– there is always a better post, a more pleasurable status update on the horizon. I, for example, am a terrible online reader: I always have three different browsers running with 20 tabs open simultaneously, and a constant anxiety about all the pages I’m supposed to read and never do (my computer inevitably crashes, the tabs disappear, relieving me temporarily of the anxiety, and allowing me to start the cycle all over again). When it comes to long form text I find that I can never got lost in a webpage the same way I can in a book. So I search for essays that not only tell me I can stop, pause, take some time with them, but for ones who leave me no choice but to do so, loitering fines be damned. We are fortunate enough as a digital journal to be able to accommodate a myriad of forms, for which print would simply not work, or at least require some clunky compromise. I don’t strictly search for multimedia essays, and often find that the plainest form can be the most striking. I do, however, seek authors who fully embraced a form that not only enhances the content, but becomes the content itself; for constructs whose subjects shimmer under a layer of ice, that show me the beauty of their metal beams, their torn down walls.

Noam Dorr is the nonfiction editor for Construction. His work has appeared in Seneca Review, Gulf Coast, Wag’s Revue, and WorkingUSA, among other places. He is from Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud, Israel, currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, and this fall will begin his studies as a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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