When the ash began to dribble from a simple sky that day, people ran to the Square in troves.
I remained frozen at the southwest corner of the hill. I leaned on the fence below Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. I leaned in awe.
I shuttered while gaping at the sky above.
The lowest level of a large cloud formation that hovered between the blaring Sun and two of the colossal Zeckendorf Towers dripped out bits of ash.
There was a staggering instant of lightning, revealing a grim exoskeleton inside. What was left of the thick haze had vanished in the first few seconds. The top of the cloud then vanished, but managed to make a puttering sound after flaring a crimson spark.
The sides dissolved inward, leaving a mustard gas where the cloud floated before. The bottom rained ash for the next thirty minutes.
This all reminded me of when an accident happens on a road. I think Dad used to call them “Rubber-Neckers”—people who slow their cars down while passing a formidable accident on the highway.
While going the “Minimum Speed”—which is really the only time in ones life when you are not considered a Fucking Idiot! to administer—you deliberately pivot your head about 35 degrees (just enough so that you can still keep your eyes halfway on the road and halfway curious). And in a very rubber-like motion, you unhinge your head from the road, and all reality, and say to yourself “Jezuus,” or something more spectacular, and after having completed what’s aptly-named “rubber-necking,” you return to the required “Speed Limit” and continue having felt better that you had forgotten your wallet as you walked out the door, because if you hadn’t forget your wallet as you walked out the door, you wouldn’t have walked back inside, realized it was in your coat pocket all along, and wasted about one minute’s worth of driving time and, whoa—that may have been you, right there, having the Jaws of Life rip you out of a your tin can car that now looks like it had been smooshed through a cheese grater.
People do this. We thrive. Schadenfreude. Enough said.
So, people came out in spades. Ostensibly, because of the Noise. This ash was just a bonus issue at the time.
We were all bemused. The shop owners, the kids that jump and fall with their skateboards over the giant Square steps, the chess players, the saxophone player with his band, et al.
Is this another attack?—some said out loud, in blurts, in unison, in terror.
No, no. It has to be from something else.—another piped in. Where were these voices coming from?
A myriad of this Noise now—no, these were whispers—they bounced around the Square in a straitjacket.
Too close to the last one.—we collectively thought.
—This is all too soon.
There were different degrees of ash on display that day in Union Square. Firewood-leftovers-black ash. Paper-plate-white ash. And the typical dirty-snow-grey ash.
But then some of the ash I noticed, mainly the kind found in the gutters and in between sidewalk cracks, had a few hues. Like a Dalmatian dog—some ash was black and white and that dirt-snow-grey.
It was slightly beautiful in a way. You know, in a dark, dark way, of course.
Regardless, after pulling a bit of the multi-hued ash from my inner-earlobe, where the Noise broke the levees of my mind beforehand, I noticed something extraordinary.
Hey, look!—I was Sherlock-fucking-Holmes.—Holy shit, these are all letters!
I was shivering. It was considerably hotter now.
What?—a massive, shaken stare. And God, more whispers. Or was it still that insipid Noise.
Look!—I clamored. I felt like I was annoying people now. No time for delusions.
I gasped for air. The oxygen was leaving our little snow globe. Full of clear, sparkling gelatin—our lungs full of it.
Had I just stolen the show from a large-scale attack, right square in the middle of the attack?
I thought about this for a split-moment.
…No, this is evidence. This is substantial evidence. What happened down here, on the ground, today could conceivably explain just what the fuck was happening up there.
This took little convincing. People began to notice what I was doing. They joined me in the gutters.
They plucked bits out of their hair and off their shirts and their baby’s little noses. And they collected these little bits. Like fucking CSI, it was—an enormous crime scene. The power lines may as well have been that yellow tape they use. Who has the white chalk? Where are the Polaroid cameras?
I was thriving in this dirty-snow-grey globe. There were people bending down all around me now. They dumped their groceries out of their recyclable bags and went ape-shit on the ash.
It was a fire sale. It was five cents a can for the homeless that day. And we were all homeless.
I found larger bits of ash on the bottom layers. And even larger ones below those. Some had only one black letter on them, some two or four. Others had full words and thick, black borders with lighter black text.
It was a mass movement of strangers. We looked like one of those college flash mobs—we all did some sort of motion in unison, while others stared in bewilderment.
But we were no mob; we had an intelligent purpose. We were an underground movement. We would piece this together.
And we had to keep this to ourselves. People disregarded the melting sky above.
Maybe that was a good thing.