The Century

Farewell to a building—and a time

Langdon Hammer
Illustration by Tung Chau

For Joe Gordon

The century building stood on the corner of Grove and Church. When you entered through the revolving door on Church Street, there was a bank on your right, a diner on your left. The bank was always busy: people cashing or depositing checks, running in, running out.

I often ate in the diner during the two years I lived in the building. Charlie’s Place, as it was called, had plastic booths and spinning counter stools. Eggs in the morning and burgers at noon, thin gray patties pimpled with sizzling fat. The cook slapped his spatula on the grill with a bright, metallic zing! and slid it under the hash browns, pushing them this way and that. Sour black coffee was served in thick white cups on white saucers. The waitress bustled about in her paper apron taking orders, pouring refills. Between the grill and the cigarette smoke (people smoked before, after, and sometimes during their meals), it must have been hard to breathe, although I didn’t notice that at the time.

Red carpet led up the main stairs to a poorly lit interior. In the beauty parlor ladies in curlers sat thumbing magazines with their heads half-hidden in pink cones. Next door a law firm conducted its business behind clouded glass. Farther down the hall were the state marshals. In crisp shirts and creased trousers, with gold badges and revolvers on their hips, they strode forth to deliver their divorce papers, subpoenas, eviction notices, and garnishments.

Sometimes laughter or shouting hung about the halls with no definite source.

The Century Letter Shop was on the second floor. The women who worked there typed legal documents, commercial solicitations, scholarly books and papers, and soon-to-be-rejected novels. The shop featured a row of automatic typewriters. These magical machines worked like a player piano: when a perforated sheet was fed into them, they produced multiple copies of a letter or a contract—with no hands on the keys.

The businesses became fewer and less frequented from one floor to the next. There was a passport photographer, a coin collector, and a man who made dentures. The public defender was on the fifth floor, visited only by the desperate or determined: a freight elevator, operated by a lever, serviced that part of the building, and it tended to be in use by tradesmen and movers, or broken.

The upper floors of the building were residential—one-room studios, mostly, with a separate kitchen and a bath. The Century was designed for the new type of city worker who emerged around 1900. These were young people who had left their families and had yet to start their own, or never would: men and women employed in the courts, law offices, banks, trains, schools and colleges, hospitals, insurance agencies, City Hall, the big new department stores, restaurants, bars, and theaters. Between 1890 and 1920, the city’s population doubled. The same thing happened across the United States. For the first time in the nation’s history, more people resided in cities than in the country.

The businesses became fewer, visited only by the desperate or determined.

These new urban dwellers lived alone together on long corridors. In the Century, each door had a dead bolt, a small tin frame for the resident’s name to be inserted on a card, a brass knocker, and a peephole. Cooking smells, music from a radio, the vague surging crowd noise at a ballgame, and sometimes laughter or shouting, hung about the halls with no definite source. But more often there was a profound silence, a blankness.

i chose to live in the Century because the apartments were so cheap. It was also the closest thing to the Beaux-Arts New York City building I had just left in order to study literature. A vision of the metropolitan life I might have led clung faintly to it.

When I arrived to sign my lease, the building superintendent asked me if I would be interested in taking on a few duties in exchange for some reduction in the rent. My university stipend paid me $208 per month for four years while I took classes, wrote a dissertation, and taught several courses. Welcome as it was, the money did not cover all expenses. No questions were asked about my previous experience in building maintenance, implying that none was needed. Thus did I become the assistant building superintendent.

No questions were asked about my experience in building maintenance. None was needed.

Myron Pidskalny was my boss, the super. Myron was a tall, strong, broad-shouldered man, fair-haired and kindly. He was a veteran of the Second World War and a devout Roman Catholic, with a silver cross where his shirt opened at the neck. He kept photos of his wife and children in frames on his desk. His big, booming voice burst into laughter, then collapsed in a rich, stony cough.

When I wasn’t writing a paper on the grotesque in American literature, Wordsworth and memory, or Walter Benjamin’s concept of Messianic time, I did odd jobs around the building.

I called plumbers when the plumbing broke. When the building lost power, I took a flashlight, and went down to Malone’s. Set a half-flight below Grove Street, this place was the definition of a dive. Patrons looked out at passing legs and feet, and the tires of parked trucks and cars, while drinking Schaefer, “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” The fuse box was in a dank closet behind the bar, and there, very gingerly, I would change the blown fuse—to sodden applause from the blinking clientele.

I patched cracks in the walls and repainted them when apartments became vacant. Sometimes, as I investigated a crack, a wound would open, requiring more and more spackle until there was more patch than wall and the patch began to sag, threatening to crack all over again.

I slung bags of garbage into the dumpster that sat in the parking lot—a view half the building looked out on. Once a week a truck backed up, beeping to announce itself, locked its steel arms around the shoulders of the dumpster, and lifted the thing high in the air, emptying the waste in its churning maw, before banging the dumpster back on the ground in triumph.

cockroaches were a problem. Rather than small and scurrying, they were large and torpid, with an air of entitlement. I escorted the exterminator on his monthly visits, opening doors for him and observing his technique. This short, sober young man carried a heavy pack on his back from which a hose fed a long gun he held flush on his forearm, his index finger on the trigger. Once strapped on, the equipment became part of him, or he part of it, as he patrolled the halls squirting a clear liquid along the edge of the red carpet, across the seams, and here and there for emphasis, coughing powerfully as he did.

Occasionally, coming home late, I would find a man in the vestibule. He was familiar to me. But I was used to seeing him on the street, and it was surprising to find him indoors, even once I came to expect it. He had a neatly trimmed goatee and tightly curled black hair, which hung on his shoulders in a great mass. He wore white sneakers and a tan windbreaker in all seasons. On the street he stood motionless for long periods. Sometimes I saw him swaying and waving his arms very slowly, practicing Tai Chi.

A muffled rumble shook the building’s core. It stood for an instant like the hero in a duel.

I knew it was my business to eject him when I encountered him by the mailboxes lying on a bed of newspaper covered by a coarse blanket exuding rank, compacted odors. But his presence was so apparitional it was easier to tell myself he was not really there. The next day he would be back on the street, as if he had never been anywhere else.

Most of my fellow residents were older people. Dorothy and Margaret had lived in the Century longer than anyone could remember. They were identical twins, not five feet tall, and perfectly coiffed, thanks to the beauty parlor. They were like children with white hair, like paper dolls—or like a child’s idea of grown women, scaled to the child imagining them. They carried matching handbags and wore Peter Pan–collar blouses and pressed skirts as they went about their day on child-sized heels with purpose and authority no less than the marshals’.

Once, in a strong wind spitting sleet, I saw the sisters on the sidewalk bent forward in a single posture of resolve, under one umbrella, making for the refuge of their booth at the diner.

The cash register in the diner was a large upright machine. A bell chimed when the drawer sprang open, and the cashier impaled another check on the spindle. Beside a shiny rack of gum and candy were two daily newspapers, the local and The New York Post. I admired the art of the Post’s headline writers. For instance, during the first Mrs. Trump’s divorce: “IVANA BETTER DEAL!” Or another, justly famous banner I still find disturbing to contemplate: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.”

At the end of the day, I liked to take the freight elevator to the roof and watch the sun catch on water towers, chimneys, antennae. A chest-high parapet ran around the edge. Leaning over it, hunched on my elbows, I studied the city below like a map of itself.

unlikely as it was, with daffodils in bloom, a storm dumped a foot of snow on the city on April 20, 1983. I walked home from class down the middle of the street. Normally, Myron would have had the situation covered. But when I picked up my telephone early the next morning he asked if I would please shovel and salt the sidewalks in his place.

I never saw him again. Two months later he was dead from lung cancer. Googling now, I see he was fifty-nine, younger than I am today. In my innocence, I was shocked that a man could work with his hands every day of his life and die without rest or reward. I drove to the funeral, finding the address of the church in the local newspaper, but I got lost, and arrived after everyone had left.

My lease was up, and I moved soon after that. To make room for another, much taller building designed by a celebrated Argentinian architect, with no residences, only office space and a multilevel parking lot, the structure was razed a few years later. TV cameras and a crowd gathered at dawn, at a distance from the site. The diner and the bank had closed some weeks previously. Dorothy and Margaret must have been relocated. I see the exterminator carrying them off, respectfully, one under each arm.

A muffled rumble shook the building’s core. It stood for an instant like the hero in a duel realizing his adversary’s sword has just passed all the way through him. Then it fell on itself. A shroud of dust rose as seven floors of steel and brick tumbled down, crushing the empty halls with a roar. And as quickly as that, the Century was gone.

Langdon Hammer is the Niel Gray, Jr. Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of James Merrill: Life and Art and, with Stephen Yenser, co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
January 19, 2022


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