The Gargoyle Hunters

John Freeman Gill

March 31, 2017 
The following is from John Freeman Gill’s novel, The Gargoyle Hunters. Gill is the architecture and real estate editor of Avenue magazine. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Yale University, he received an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in New York City with his wife, three children, and a smattering of gargoyles.

Ghosts of New York

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Why do we stay? Why do we members of this oddball tribe known as native New Yorkers stick around, decade upon decade, as so much of the city we love, the city that shaped us in all of our wiseacre, top-of-the-heap eccentricity, is razed and made unrecognizable around us? We are inured to so much bedlam here, so many exotic daily distractions, yet are somehow inexplicably surprised and pained every time a new wound opens up in the streetscape. We barely notice the shrieking ambulance whizzing past or the man in the octopus suit struggling to get all his arms through the turnstile, but let them tear down the Times Square Howard Johnson’s or the Cedar Tavern or Rizzoli, let them shutter H&H Bagels or CBGB or the Ziegfeld, and we wince as if our own limb has been severed.

“There are too goddamned many ghosts here for me,” my big sister, Quigley, told me last year when she’d finally had enough and decided to leave town for good. “I’d rather miss New York from somewhere else than miss it from here.”

So why do I, whose ghosts are at least as obstreperous as hers, stay on? Why is this maddening, heartbreaking, self-cannibalizing city the only place where I feel like I’m me?

And what about you? If you’ve lived in New York long enough to resent some gleaming new condo that pulled a Godzilla vs. Bambi on a favorite restaurant or deli or bookstore, then this is your city, too, teeming with your own bespoke ghosts.

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As for me and mine, most of the things I need to tell you about happened in the seventies. But it was in late 1965, when I was about to turn five, that I first sensed what it is to love a city that never loves you back.

* * * *

We were not even in New York at the time. We were in our VW Bug, taking a predawn road trip to a mystery destination my father refused to reveal. It was the sharp left turn at the slaughterhouse that awakened me, the momentum burrowing my head deeper into the ribbed warmth of his corduroy armpit. Out the window of our little car, in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t pocket of yellow light, men in blood-smeared smocks hosed down the pavement, clouds of steam rising into the night. On a wide brick wall, our headlights gliding across it, the faded image of a grinning cartoon cow, its speech bubble saying, “Pleased to Meet You! Meat to Please You!”

We drove on another few minutes, the world still more dark than light. Mom and Quigley murmured groggily in the backseat. When we reached an enchanted point along the highway that looked exactly the same to me as every other part of the highway, Dad pulled off decisively and parked in a marshy softness. Another few cars, three or four, followed his lead, but Dad headed off on foot without hailing or waiting for the others. He preferred to make people keep up with him.

The marsh grasses were just the right height to keep hitting me in the face as we walked, and I didn’t much like the way the soggy ground sucked at my Keds. So Dad hoisted me up and let me doze on his shoulder, slobbering contentedly on the rise of muscle beneath his shirt. I was part of him, my whole limp body lifting and subsiding with his breaths. When I opened my eyes again, the darkness had thinned and we were moving through a shadow landscape strewn with hulking oblong shapes. They loomed all around us, tilting this way and that, one across the other like gargantuan pick-up sticks. The ground crunched beneath Dad’s feet as he picked his way carefully over the treacherous terrain, his broad hand flat against my back. The air smelled burnt.

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Daylight was seeping into the sky now from the marsh’s edge, faster every moment, until at last the colossal tilted shadows around us resolved themselves into the grand ruined forms of classical columns, dozens of them, toppled and smashed and abandoned here in an empire of rubble. Dad put me down. We were standing amid the wreckage of some magnificent lost civilization—even I, the runt of the party, could see that. And we were going to have a picnic.

Dad set a wicker basket on the ground, and Mom pulled out a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, which she spread on a broken cylinder of stone, a column section only a bit higher than our round kitchen table back in the city. Their friends, the rest of our extended clan, were beginning to straggle up now, picking their way across the majestic junkyard, huge goofy smiles on their faces as they took in their surroundings.

There was a lot to see, crushed bricks and tortured iron railings and enormous fragments of pink-white stone carved in the shapes of leaves and scrolls. Here and there, the place was smoldering, ribbons of smoke curling skyward from the debris. Poking diagonally from a rubble pile, not far from Mom’s makeshift picnic table, was a woman’s white, intricately veined stone arm, its middle and ring fingers snapped off at the second knuckle.

It was a terrific party. Quig and a couple of other big kids ran around and hopped from column to column, their arms outstretched for balance. A lanky bearded guy plucked at a guitar with silver claws. Mom, dark-eyed and grinning, wearing a short white sweater-dress cinched at the waist with a yellow scarf, handed round mismatched cups—some old freebie Mets glasses from the Polo Grounds and a bunch of those little mugs her favorite mustard came in. At the center of it all was Dad, the unmistakable leader of the expedition, pouring out the red wine, slicing hunks of chorizo, tossing people astonishingly sweet figs he’d found in Little Italy.

It was really something being his little guy. I was the smallest one here by far, but I was the princeling, sitting right beside him, basking in his reflected glow and helping him open wine bottles with a corkscrew that looked like a man doing jumping jacks. Everyone looked our way, vied for his attention. People ruffled my hair.

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Something important had been left behind in one of the cars, a casserole or a cooler. Mom headed back to get it. The silver-claw guy put down his guitar to go help. Someone started tossing around a Frisbee.

The grown-ups had a lot to talk about. They wandered among the ruins in groups of two or three, prodding half-buried objects with their shoe tips and venturing opinions. Dad was the only one who’d been here before. He led me and a married couple with matching curly hair along a road rutted with truck tracks, left and then right and then left, until he found what he was looking for: the biggest clockface I’d ever seen, jutting slantwise from a rubble heap like a crash-landed flying saucer. It was a great white disc with elegant black metal letters around its edge in the places the numbers should have been: the letter I mostly, with a few Vs and Xs mixed in. It had no hands.

Dad climbed up the rubble slope to the clock and took from his back pocket a vise grip, a pair of shiny locking pliers whose teeth always suggested to me the polished grin of an alligator. He adjusted its bite by turning a knob on one of the handles, then locked its teeth onto a letter I: the only one all by itself.

“See if you can’t snap that off to give to your mother,” he told me. “I can drill a hole in the top to run a chain through as a necklace.” Mom’s name was Ivy.

Half-buried along the flank of the rubble pile was what appeared to be the feathered stone wing of an eagle. Using its slant surface as a ramp, I clambered onto the clock, which was about twice my height. The clock had two black metal rings, one inside the other, running around the periphery of its face like a circular toy-train track. Suspended between these two tracks were the letters. They were cold and a little sharp in my palms, but they made pretty good handholds, so I climbed cautiously up the clock’s curved edge to the letter I on which Dad had clamped the vise grip. Up close, I could see that this I had been attached to the metal rings at top and bottom, until someone—Dad, surely, when he’d been here before—had sawed it loose at the top. All that was left to do was to wiggle the vise grip back and forth until the I snapped free at the bottom.

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Holding the tool with both hands, I rotated my wrists, left-right, left-right, while Dad explained to the curly-haired couple just how tricky it had been to find this dumping ground here on the other side of the Hudson: something about how the railroad’s Jersey-based wreckers—“Lipsett’s guys,” he called them—were keeping the location on the down-low, for safety reasons. My wrists were starting to get awfully sore, and after a while I complained to Dad, who excused himself to come help me.

My hands inside his, Dad took hold of the vise grip and worked it vigorously back and forth, then pretended to get tired out so I could give it the triumphant final twist all by myself. Off popped that stubborn letter I, right into my palm. It was cool along most of its length but hot where it had just broken loose. I couldn’t wait to give it to Mom. I knew she’d love it.

Together Dad and I started making our way back, taking care not to trip over a felled black post marked track 3. But we’d gone so far, and everything was so wildly disordered here, that I wasn’t sure how we would find the right route. One junk pile looked like another, and the truck roads running every which way all looked alike, too, and all the heaped debris and stone columns made it hard to see more than ten or fifteen feet in front of us. Still, Dad looked as handsome and as sure of himself as ever, and I loved roaming this broken landscape with him, no one around but us, the world’s two greatest living explorers conquering the unknown side by side.

Snatches of sound came to us now and then, the squawking of seagulls and the distant rumble of machinery layered upon the crunch of our footfalls. Dad kept up a steady pace, his usual certainty of gait, until an unfamiliar hesitation in his step, somewhere between a hitch and a stumble, caused me to stop and look up at him, at his face, where I saw at once that something had changed. He wore a look of weakness, of panic almost, that I’d never seen before. I followed his gaze, stared at the same debris he was staring at, but saw nothing, nothing but a hill of scarred rubble and several long, shiny marble rectangles—the shoe-burnished steps of a grand staircase, maybe.

Then I saw it. Amid a contortion of brass that might once have been a banister, Mom’s yellow scarf had wrapped itself around a bent post. From somewhere behind it, how far away I couldn’t tell, I thought I heard her laughter, a gasping stifled giggle. It was a joyous sound, but self-strangled somehow, shushed. I watched a long moment, hoping to spot something I could understand, but saw only my mother’s scarf wavering in the breeze, delicate and almost see-through now that it was no longer bunched at her waist.

When I looked up, to learn from my father’s face how to feel, I discovered something new. My father was no longer beside me.




From THE GARGOYLE HUNTERS.  Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2017 by John Freeman Gill.

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