Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Gain and Loss
For bears of little brain like myself certain abstract concepts encountered daily in the newspapers—“city planning,” “community organization,” “social dislocation,” and many others—tend to take on meaning only through instances of small, local, and sometimes even trivial exemplification. I am prepared to follow my thought-leaders in the belief that Robert Moses, who carved up New York City’s old neighborhoods and repackaged them with gaudy ribbons of expressways and flyovers, is one of the great sociological criminals of the last century. But my censure is as tentative and imprecise as the phenomenon was huge and consequential.
The reshaping of Dillon Gym is a different matter. This week is my second without a morning swim. The Dillon pool is closed for two months as part of a major upgrading of the whole gymnasium. The sense of dislocation is intense. There are of course alternative pools, and their opening hours will be more convenient for my own particular needs beginning in May, when I should also be recovered from a minor surgical episode and ready for the plunge. When Dillon does reopen in the summer, however, everything is likely to be changed as much as if Robert Moses had pierced it with the West Side Highway. The Men’s Locker Room is to be gutted, and all the old rusting metal lockers scrapped. Their replacements, of which we have already seen a sample model in mock up, will be in spiffy red, with built-in combination locks like those in hotel room safes or (as I imagine it) the offices of CIA bureaucrats. They will obviate the need for the clunky portable locks we all have now, so easily forgotten or accidentally attached to someone else’s locker.
All this will be part of Princeton’s Great Leap Forward in Fitness—except for one unfortunate consequence. A reconfigured gym will undoubtedly destroy the adventitious communities that have grown up over many years of people who for a variety of reasons happen to show up at the same long row of lockers each weekday at about the same time. I have mentioned “my” locker community several times over the years in the blog.
I had reason to think about all this last week. One morning Joan found resting on the windshield of her car in our open carport a copy of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. I understood immediately what for her had to be a puzzle. The book had been dropped off for me by one of my locker room buddies, Steve S., a financial expert in the Budget Office. He is one of a very large number of top professionals in many fields whose work enables the vast and intricate enterprise that is a university. In the normal course of events few faculty and fewer still students ever encounter these men and women—even though we couldn’t be here without them.
I have locker-room bonhomie to thank for meeting Steve, a sage and witty commentator on the current political scene and a voracious reader of interesting books. My conversation with him is usually limited to about forty-five seconds a day, though every six weeks or so he and another locker buddy and I spend forty-five minutes together over coffee and gab at Panera. It is he who had told me about American Ground, offering to let me have his old copy. I had forgotten about it, but he hadn’t, and he took the trouble to seek out our house and drop the book off. American Ground, which I think enjoyed a certain acclaim upon its publication in 2002, is about what happened at Ground Zero after the devastating attacks. What happened in a nutshell was one of the most humongous, technically challenging, and politically charged cleanups in world history.
I read it within forty-eight hours of posting my last blog entry, “Earth Works,” in which I had dramatized the difficulties of redistributing a cubic yard or two of topsoil over a couple of hundred square feet. The irony did not escape me. At Ground Zero the workers were faced with acres of dangerously unstable debris, mountainous in its contours, incalculable in its weight, containing an unknown number of rotting bodies. There were unremitting lethal threats of avalanche, flooding, and uncertain toxins. There were all sorts of things that you would never have thought of—at least I would never have thought of. There was the danger posed by the large quantities of Freon that had been needed to keep thousands of stock-brokers cool. A collapsing skyscraper, it turns out, is the world’s greatest pile-driver, requiring the expertise of mining engineers to redress. There were indeed heroes galore, but also major conflicts between policemen and firemen as to which were to be more heroic. This recalled to me the medieval fist-fights between Franciscans and Dominicans over the issue of which group should be given the humbler position in ecclesiastical processions. Looting was endemic, and of heroic proportion. There were after all computers and executive suite tchotchkes lying around everywhere. But above all there were the staggering piles of concrete, cement dust, and steel. How could you possibly pick it all up? What could you possible do with it if you could? But they did find a way, and I suppose that if the Financial District can get used to such a dramatic relocation of its neighborhood, I will eventually get used to a new locker room. But what will I do without my bibliographer Steve?