Building Memories

A few summers ago I was driving down Euclid Avenue near the sprawling termite tower that is the Cleveland Clinic. In the distance, I spotted a wrecking ball suspended from a tall crane. Somewhere a building was going down. Out of curiosity, I pulled over and parked at a drugstore across the street from the demolition site.

The enormous crane stood only 100 feet from me. The operator, inside his little glass cage, was dwarfed by the huge machine he was controlling. I sat down on a small square of grass and watched him as he worked.

He was facing an old apartment building, brick and delicate terra cotta. Three floors high. The kind of turn-of-the-century Cleveland building you don't see often anymore. A keystone at its base said it had been built in 1905. And carved in the granite stone above the doorway was the building's name: it was the LaSalle.

And it was beautiful. Dark and solid and full of history. It seemed somehow far more permanent than the glass and steel boxes of the Cleveland Clinic arranged around it. But more and more people are getting sick nowadays, and the Clinic needs to expand, so the old LaSalle had to go.

I sat on the lawn and admired the artistry of the wrecking ball operator. He swung the ball in short, gentle arcs to knock off a chimney or lop off a 100-year-old gargoyle.

He swung it again and a wall on the third floor fell away with a crash, exposing a sink and a bathtub. They gleamed nakedly in the sunlight, almost obscenely, as if a woman's blouse had suddenly been ripped open.

And then the ball swung again and the kitchen was laid bare with its ancient floral wallpaper, the cabinets no one had bothered to save.

I thought of all the meals that had been cooked in that room by the generations of families who had lived there. I thought of all the conversations between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters — all the talk that had happened under that naked electric bulb now dangling in the daylight.

I imagined a man and woman eating dinner in 1916 on a cool evening in October, talking about how many British and German soldiers had died that week in the Battle of the Somme. I imagined a couple of newlyweds in 1934, talking over their day while eating pork chops and drinking Blatz as the streetcars passed beneath them.

The wrecking ball made its little arc and knocked away the bedroom wall, and I thought of a young couple in 1942, lying there on a sweltering night in July. They've just made love, and they're smoking a cigarette, passing it back and forth in the darkness. They don't realize it — but they've just made a baby.

The husband's about to go off to war. He'll fight on Guam and Bougainville and even Iwo Jima. And he'll see terrible things, and he'll do terrible things. But finally he'll come home in his neat khaki uniform and she'll be waiting at the train station, holding their son. And they'll sit up for hours in that kitchen, just talking and talking.

And I thought of the wrecking ball operator going home at the end of the day. He lives in a little house on the West Side. He'll be tired, and his wife will bring him a cold beer.

"How was your day?" she'll ask.

"Well," he'll say. "I knocked down an old building by the Cleveland Clinic. An old three-story brick place. Piece of cake. I had the whole thing down by midafternoon."

And then he'll say, "What's for dinner?"

"Pork chops," she'll reply.

He'll smile, because he loves the way she cooks pork chops, and they'll sit together in the little kitchen in the old house they bought last year when they got married. The little house they plan to raise a family in.

And finally I thought of the air, the empty air three floors above the hole in the ground that used to be the LaSalle. How the pigeons must have flown down at twilight that evening and circled for a long time in confusion before they finally flew away.

A year later that air was filled with a new parking garage. And a block away, in the Cleveland Clinic heart center, perhaps a very old man lay in his bed and looked out the window at the garage that used to be the LaSalle. Maybe he fought on Guam and Bougainville and Iwo Jima. Maybe he once lived in the LaSalle and even made a baby there. At his age, it's hard to remember things.

Anyway, no sense in thinking about the past. It's 7 o'clock. Time for Wheel of Fortune.

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