You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

20. Out of Control

Suddenly all the lights in the building went out, plunging the court in darkness save for the fearful illumination provided by the bursts of flame from the top-floor apartment. There was a deep murmur and a restless stir in the crowd. Several young smart alecks in evening clothes took this opportunity to go about among the dark mass of people, arrogantly throwing the beams of their flashlights into the faces of those they passed.

The police now began to move upon the crowd, and, good-naturedly but firmly, with outstretched arms, started to herd everybody back, out of the court, through the arches, and across the surrounding streets. The streets were laced and criss-crossed everywhere with bewildering skeins of hose, and all normal sounds were lost in the powerful throbbing of the fire-engines. Unceremoniously, like driven cattle, the residents of the great building were forced back to the opposite pavements, where they had to take their places among the humbler following of the general public.

Some of the ladies, finding themselves too thinly clad in the cold night air, sought refuge in the apartments of friends who lived in the neighbourhood. Others, tired of standing round, went to hotels to wait or to spend the night. But most of the people hung on, curious and eager to what the outcome might be. Mr. Jack took Edith, Alma, Amy, and two or three young people of Amy’s acquaintance to a near-by hotel for drinks. The others stayed and looked on curiously for a while. But presently Mrs. Jack, George Webber, Miss Mandell, and Stephen Hook repaired to a drug-store that was close at hand. They sat at the counter, ordered coffee and sandwiches, and engaged in eager chatter with other refugees who now filled the store.

The conversation of all these people was friendly and casual. Some were even gay. But in their talk there was also now a note of perturbation — of something troubled, puzzled, and uncertain. Men of wealth and power had been suddenly dispossessed from their snug nests with their wives, families, and dependents, and now there was nothing they could do but wait, herded homelessly into drug-stores and hotel lobbies, or huddled together in their wraps on street corners like shipwrecked voyagers, looking at one another with helpless eyes. Some of them felt, dimly, that they had been caught up by some mysterious and relentless force, and that they were being borne onwards as unwitting of the power that ruled them as blind flies fastened to a revolving wheel. To others came the image of a tremendous web in which they felt they had become enmeshed — a web whose ramifications were so vast and complicated that they had not the faintest notion where it began or what its pattern was.

For in the well-ordered world in which these people lived, something had gone suddenly wrong. Things had got out of control. They were the lords and masters of the earth, vested with authority and accustomed to command, but now the control had been taken from them. So they felt strangely helpless, no longer able to command the situation, no longer able even to find out what was happening.

But, in ways remote from their blind and troubled kenning, events had been moving to their inexorable conclusion.

In one of the smoky corridors of that enormous hive, two men in boots and helmets had met in earnest communion.

“Did you find it?”

“Yes.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in the basement, chief. It’s not on the roof at all — a draught is taking it up a vent. But it’s down there.” He pointed with his thumb.

“Well, then, go get it. You know what to do.”

“It looks bad, chief. It’s going to be hard to get.”

“What’s the trouble?”

“If we flood the basement, we’ll also flood two levels of railroad tracks. You know what that means.”

For a moment their eyes held each other steadily. Then the older man jerked his head and started for the stairs.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re going down.”

Down in the bowels of the earth there was a room where lights were burning and it was always night.

There, now, a telephone rang, and a man with a green eyeshade seated at a desk answered it.

“Hello . . . Oh, hello, Mike.”

He listened carefully for a moment, suddenly jerked forward taut with interest, and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth.

“The hell you say! . . . Where? Over track thirty-two? . . . They’re going to flood it! . . . Hell!”

Deep in the honeycombs of the rock the lights burned green and red and yellow, silent in the eternal dark, lovely, poignant as remembered grief. Suddenly, all up and down the faintly gleaming rails, the green and yellow eyes winked out and flashed to warning red.

A few blocks away, just where the network of that amazing underworld of railroad yards begins its mighty flare of burnished steel, the Limited halted swiftly, but so smoothly that the passengers, already standing to debark, felt only a slight jar and were unaware that anything unusual had happened.

Ahead, however, in the cab of the electric locomotive which had pulled the great train the last miles of its span along the Hudson River, the engineer peered out and read the signs. He saw the shifting patterns of hard light against the dark, and swore:

“Now what the hell?”

And as the great train slid to a stop, the current in the third rail was shut off and the low whine that always came from the powerful motors of the locomotive was suddenly silenced. Turning now across his instruments to another man, the engineer spoke quietly:

“I wonder what the hell has happened,” he said.

For a long time the Limited stood a silent and powerless thing of steel, while a short distance away the water flooded down and flowed between the tracks there like a river. And five hundred men and women who had been caught up from their lives and swiftly borne from cities, towns, and little hamlets all across the continent were imprisoned in the rock, weary, impatient, frustrated — only five minutes away from the great station that was the end and goal of their combined desire. And in the station itself other hundreds waited for them — and went on waiting — restless, wondering, anxious, knowing nothing about the why of it.

Meanwhile, on the seventh landing of the service stairs in the evacuated building, firemen had been working feverishly with axes. The place was dense with smoke. The sweating men wore masks, and the only, light they had was that provided by their torchlights.

They had battered open the doorway of the elevator shaft, and one of them had lowered himself down on to the roof of the imprisoned car half a floor below and was now cutting into the roof with his sharp axe.

“Have you got it, Ed?”

“Yeah — just about . . . I’m almost through . . . This next one does it, I think.”

The axe smashed down again. There was a splintering crash. And then:

“O.K . . . Wait a minute . . . Hand me down the flashlight, Tom.”

“See anything?”

In a moment, quietly:

“Yeah . . . I’m going in . . . Jim, you better come down, too. I’ll need you.”

There was a brief silence, then the man’s quiet voice again:

“O.K . . . I’ve got it . . . Here, Jim, reach down and get underneath the arms . . . Got it? . . . O.K . . . Tom, you better reach down and help Jim . . . Good.”

Together they lifted it from its imprisoned trap, looked at it for a moment in the flare of their flashlights, and laid it down, not ungently, on the floor — something old and tired and dead and very pitiful.

Mrs. Jack went to the window of the drug-store and peered out at the great building across the street.

“I wonder if anything’s happening over there,” she said to her friends with a puzzled look on her face. “Do you suppose it’s over? Have they got it out?”

The dark immensity of those towering walls told nothing, but there were signs that the fire was almost out. There were fewer lines of hose in the street, and one could see firemen pulling them in and putting them back in the trucks. Other firemen were coming from the building, bringing their tools and stowing them away. All the great engines were still throbbing powerfully, but the lines that had connected them with the hydrants were uncoupled, and the water they were pumping now came from somewhere else and was rushing in torrents down all the gutters. The police still held the crowd back and would not yet permit the tenants to return to their apartments.

The newspapermen, who had early arrived upon the scene, were now beginning to come into the drug-store to telephone their stories to the papers. They were a motley crew, a little shabby and threadbare, with battered hats in which their Press cards had been stuck, and some of them had the red noses which told of long hours spent in speak-easies.

One would have known that they were newspapermen even without their Press cards. The signs were unmistakable. There was something jaded in the eye, something a little worn and tarnished about the whole man, something that got into his face, his tone, the way he walked, the way he smoked a cigarette, even into the hang of his trousers, and especially into his battered hat, which revealed instantly that these were gentlemen of the Press.

It was something wearily receptive, wearily cynical, something that said wearily: “I know, I know. But what’s the story? What’s the racket?”

And yet it was something that one liked, too, something corrupted but still good, something that had once blazed with hope and aspiration, something that said: “Sure. I used to think I had it in me, too, and I’d have given my life to write something good. Now I’m just a whore. I’d sell my best friend out to get a story. I’d betray your trust, your faith, your friendliness, twist everything you say around until any sincerity, sense, or honesty that might be in your words was made to sound like the maunderings of a buffoon or a clown — if I thought it would make a better story. I don’t give a damn for truth, for accuracy, for facts, for telling anything about you people here, your lives, your speech, the way you look, the way you really are, the special quality, tone, and weather of this moment — of this fire — except insofar as they will help to make a story. What I went to get is the special ‘angle’ on it. There has been grief and love and fear and ecstasy and pain and death to-night: a whole universe of living has been here enacted. But all of it doesn’t matter a damn to me if I can only pick up something that will make the customers sit up tomorrow and rub their eyes — if I can tell ’em that in the excitement Miss Lena Ginster’s pet boa constrictor escaped from its cage and that the police and fire departments are still looking for it while Members of Fashionable Apartment House Dwell in Terror . . . So there I am, folks, with yellow fingers, weary eyeballs, a ginny breath, and what is left of last night’s hangover, and I wish to God I could get to that telephone to send this story in, so the boss would tell me to go home, and I could step round to Eddy’s place for a couple more highballs before I call it another day. But don’t be too hard on me. Sure, I’d sell you out, of course. No man’s name or any woman’s reputation is safe with me — if I can make a story out of it — but at bottom I’m not such a bad guy. I have violated the standards of decency again and again, but in my heart I’ve always wanted to be decent. I don’t tell the truth, but there’s a kind of bitter honesty in me for all that. I’m able to look myself in the face at times, and tell the truth about myself and see just what I am. And I hate sham and hypocrisy and pretence and fraud and crookedness, and if I could only be sure that tomorrow was going to be the last day of the world — oh, Christ! — what a paper we’d get out in the morning! And, too, I have a sense of humour, I love gaiety, food, drink, good talk, good companionship, the whole thrilling pageantry of life. So don’t be too severe on me. I’m really not as bad as some of the things I have to do.”

Such, indefinably yet plainly, were the markings of these men. It was as if the world which had so soiled them with its grimy touch had also left upon them some of its warm earthiness — the redeeming virtues of its rich experience, its wit and understanding, the homely fellowship of its pungent speech.

Two or three of them now went round among the people in the drug-store and began to interview them. The questions that they asked seemed ludicrously inappropriate. They approached some of the younger and prettier girls, found out if they lived in the building, and immediately asked, with naive eagerness, whether they were in the Social Register. Whenever any of the girls admitted that she was, the reporters would write down her name and the details of her parentage.

Meanwhile, one of the representatives of the Press, a rather seedy-looking gentleman with a bulbous red nose and infrequent teeth, had called his City Desk on the telephone and, sprawled in the booth with his hat pushed back on his head and his legs sticking out through the open door, was reporting his findings. George Webber was standing with a group of people at the back of the store, near the booth. He had noticed the reporter when he first came in, and had been fascinated by something in his seedy, hard-boiled look; and now, although George appeared to be listening to the casual chatter around him, he was really hanging with concentrated attention on every word the man was saying:

“ . . . Sure, that’s what I’m tellin’ yuh. Just take it down . . . The police arrived,” he went on importantly, as if fascinated by his own journalese —“the police arrived and threw a cordon round the building.” There was a moment’s pause, then the red-nosed man rasped out irritably: “No, no, no! Not a squadron! A cordon! . . . What’s ‘at? . . . Cordon, I say! C-o-r-d-o-n — cordon! . . . For Pete’s sake!” he went on in an aggrieved tone. “How long have you been workin’ on a newspaper, anyway? Didn’t yuh ever hear of a cordon before? . . . Now get this. Listen ——” he went on in a careful voice, glancing at some scrawled notes on a piece of paper in his hand. “Among the residents are included many Social Registerites and others prominent among the younger set . . . What? How’s that?” he said abruptly, rather puzzled. “Oh!”

He looked round quickly to see if he was being overheard, then lowered his voice and spoke again:

“Oh, sure! Two! . . . Nah, there was only two — that other story was all wrong. They found the old dame . . . But that’s what I’m tellin’ yuh! She was all alone when the fire started — see! Her family was out, and when they got back they thought she was trapped up there. But they found her. She was down in the crowd. That old dame was one of the first ones out . . . Yeh — only two. Both of ’em was elevator men.” He lowered his voice a little more, then, looking at his notes, he read carefully: “John Enborg . . . age sixty-four . . . married . . . three children . . . lives in Jamaica, Queens . . . You got that?” he said, then proceeded: “And Herbert Anderson . . . age twenty-five . . . unmarried . . . lives with his mother . . . 841 Southern Boulevard, the Bronx . . . Have yuh got it? Sure. Oh, sure!”

Once more he looked round, then lowered his voice before he spoke again:

“No, they couldn’t get ’em out. They was both on the elevators, goin’ up to get the tenants — see! — when some excited fool fumbled for the light switches and grabbed the wrong one and shut the current off on ’em . . . Sure. That’s the idea. They got caught between the floors . . . They just got Enborg out,” his voice sank lower. “They had to use axes . . . Sure. Sure.” He nodded into the mouthpiece. “That’s it — smoke. Too late when they got to him . . . No, that’s all. Just those two . . . No, they don’t know about it yet. Nobody knows. The management wants to keep it quiet if they can . . . What’s that? Hey! — speak louder, can’t yuh? You’re mumblin’ at me!”

He had shouted sharply, irritably, into the instrument, and now listened attentively for a moment.

“Yeh, it’s almost over. But it’s been tough. They had trouble gettin’ at it. It started in the basement, then it went up a flue and out at the top . . . Sure, I know,” he nodded. “That’s what made it so tough. Two levels of tracks are right below. They were afraid to flood the basement at first — afraid to risk it. They tried to get at it with chemicals, but couldn’t . . . Yeh, so they turned off the juice down there and put the water on it. They probably got trains backed up all the way to Albany by now . . . Sure, they’re pumpin’ it out. It’s about over, I guess, but it’s been tough . . . O.K., Mac. Want me to stick around? . . . O.K.,” he said, and hung up.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30