After the summer you’ll see hoards of lonely Brooklynites pack into bars that boast fireplaces. In SoHo you’ll see layers of clothes never paired before and in the Financial District you’ll see office windows lit up a little longer than usual. You’ll see college students hauling their lives back into dorms and you’ll see high-schoolers loitering on corners with their backpacks, screaming at each other from confused libidos. Up in Harlem, you might notice that things are quieter, which is a mystery. And in Queens you’ll see a stadium with a ghostly sea of empty seats, like injured pews after some disastrous wedding.
If you walked over a bridge right after summer you might notice that the sun creates a softer orange when it falls over New Jersey, as if it’s slowly baking Passaic. You could stare into it and be fine, wholly opposite to the cruel face-of-God searing you get on a July noon. Despite the warnings from the news, the sky and sun are on our side in the fall, and the weather finally diplomatic.
But this year, after the summer, on a recent September day, on a certain south-facing corner of Barrow Street, you’d have seen Gloria Banks do something no one’s ever seen before.
For thirty-five years, from nine to ten a.m., Gloria sat on her stoop, facing downtown, taking in each fall morning, which she claimed were always the best mornings of the year. At sixty-eight years old, Gloria had lived in Manhattan most of her life– although she was born in New Hampshire, where she would head in November to visit her cousin. Before she retired, she worked at the American Museum of Natural History, which she’d tell you is now much less impressive than it used to be.
If you asked Gloria what she thought of history she’d tell you that autumn is the only season it belongs in. She’d explain that the past has a funny way of reviving itself when leaves fall; that things that have passed have better stories than their dreamy, saccharine counterparts.
Even though they lacked a little compassion, she always preferred the bits of life that were more concrete and muscular, like the city she belonged to. She’d take pavement over dirt, any day. She didn’t necessarily like the lifeless modernism of the midtown skyscrapers but nor was she fully wooed by the undulating curves of their rebellious offspring. More important than a structure’s shape was its substance. The city was a sturdy old place. That’s why she liked it.
It was for this same reason that she always read the obituaries before any other section of the paper. They were, of course, the most objectively reported part of a newspaper. Obituaries read more like durable facts. Death was a certainty. And for Gloria, there was no news worth reading that wasn’t certain.
When she read the obituaries on her stoop, she would do so out loud to passing strangers with the boldness of an insane person, though she was far from unstable. She would orate the death directly to one person, as if her recitation was the only task of a town crier in a city-for-one. She would give weight to the ones that made her sad, and laugh through the ones that she thought funny, but she was never flippant. There was a reverence in her ritual that brought honor to every story, even those that earned a chuckle. She wasn’t there to rebuke or entertain or even venerate. For Gloria, remembrance was an enjoyable hobby, and best when done out loud, in public.
If you passed her it wouldn’t be unusual to be shouted at with something like, “Burt Garrison, 81, died of lung cancer this Tuesday. Burt was born in Syracuse, New York and served in the Second World War as an aircraft engineer. He was known for his relentless positivity and diehard work ethic. Burt leaves behind a wife and four children who love and miss him dearly. Farewell Burt, you done good.”
She would tell you herself that her hobby was a strange one. But that wasn’t the point. ‘If we could start our days with substance,’ she thought, ‘we’d all be a little less pissy.’ Besides, very few people ever reacted negatively to hearing an obituary. How could you? Most just walked by, either in fear or amusement.
She once became hysterical with laughter when reading the obituary of Newt Balinski, a self-proclaimed adventurist and risk-taker whose final words were “Watch this.” Gloria laughed for so long that someone called the police, for fear that her hilarity would suddenly turn into something tragic.
Or there was the obituary of a woman named Heddi Trolley, who committed suicide by traveling to San Francisco to actually jump in front of a trolley car. Gloria was enamored of the story, and wondered why on earth her obituary would not make reference to something so curious. Trolley killed herself, in the most conceivably literal sense. That was something. Gloria sat wondering for hours, staring at the downtown skyscrapers. Was she the only one struck with such catharsis by Heddi’s elaborate orchestration? Or do these types of things just sometimes happen?
On September 11, 2001, Gloria sat with her paper as usual, facing downtown, but couldn’t say a word. She only watched. From nine to ten that morning nothing was as it had ever been and her stoop felt oddly hollow. From then on, she stopped reading aloud. Her morning ritual ended, and for the next ten years she wouldn’t find remembrance a worthy hobby.
But on a recent Sunday in September, something changed. The soft autumn sun prompted Gloria to revisit her old custom. She dusted off four newspapers that she had collected from ten years prior, sat down on her stoop, and read aloud every obituary printed of the two thousand nine hundred seventy-eight lives that were lost that day. She read aloud through the entire morning, into the afternoon, and continued into dusk.
At seven o’clock, the sun set across the edge of her cheek, as she faced south and the violet evening turned dark and empty, her voice still resounding, now with an elderly tremble, oscillating between a broken yowl and a soft lullaby. When the darkness closed in and turned to night she was the only sound in the West Village and knew it and felt it and incanted with a holiness that would pause the furthest planet.
She continued to read aloud, for hours and hours through the night, until her voice became hoarse and her hunched and aching spine felt like a fossil. At six a.m. her pace had slowed to a drag as the dawn broke on the crest of her nose.
She finished reading the obituaries at seven a.m., but decided to stay outside to greet the grocery deliverymen and the dog walkers. A young woman stopped with her labrador and said hello as the dog shat on the sidewalk between them. Gloria politely disregarded the awkward incident, as she always did, thinking to herself that ‘petty unpleasantries like this give the city its skin.’ When the young woman didn’t clean it up, Gloria did, and threw it out and then walked up the stairs and stood at the top of her stoop. From there she noticed a new crane had appeared above the other buildings. Newly erected iron beams reached mysteriously into the sky and she wondered what they might look like once covered and how high they might reach.
The morning stayed its soft orange for what seemed longer than usual, as if it decided to contemplate its own function. A cold, crisp breeze leapt off the Hudson and somebody began shouting off in the distance. A cab sped by and honked at an eager jogger. Gloria went inside her apartment, her voice still reverberate in lingering retrograde amidst the morning chorus of Barrow Street.