New York City, 1927
Every city is a ghost.
New buildings rise upon the bones of the old so that each shiny steel beam, each tower of brick carries within it the memories of what has gone before, an architectural haunting. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of these former incarnations in the awkward angle of a street or a filigreed gate, an old oak door peeking out from a new facade, the plaque commemorating the spot that was once a battleground, which became a saloon and is now a park.
Underground, it’s no different.
Beneath the streets, this city grows. Tracks push farther out into Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Tunnels connect one place to another, closing the distance between impossible and possible. So many people to move. The city’s aspirations do not stop at ground level. The whine of the drill and the clank of the pickax serenade the workers as they clear out rock for a new subway tunnel. Sweat binds layers of dust to the men till it’s hard to tell where they leave off and the gloom begins. The drill bites away bedrock in small mouthfuls. It’s hard, tedious work. And then suddenly, they’re breaking through the rock too fast.
“Watch it! Watch it, now!”
A wall of earth drops away. The men cough and cough, choking on the thick air. One of them, an Irish immigrant named Padraic, wipes a dirty forearm across his sweaty brow and peers into the large hole the drill has made. On the other side is a tall wrought-iron gate gone to rust, one of those ghosts of an earlier time. Padraic shines his flashlight through the gate’s bars, and the rusty coating brightens like the dried blood of an old wound.
“I’ll be,” he says and grins at the others. “Might be somet’ing worth havin’ inside.”
He tugs and the rusted gate shrieks open, and then the men are inside the dust-choked hole of a forgotten part of the city’s past. The Irishman whistles as his beam bounces around the tomblike room, revealing wooden panels grayed with cobwebs, tile mosaics obscured by layers of grime, a light fixture dangling precariously from a broken chain. A train car sits half-buried under a mountain of fallen dirt. Its wheels are silenced, but in the darkness, it’s almost as if the workers can hear the faint whine of metal on metal lingering in the preserved air. Padraic’s flashlight beam shines across the tracks, tracing them backward to a dead tunnel. The men move close and peer into the murkiness. It’s like looking into hell’s gaping mouth, tracks for tongue. The tunnel seems to go on forever, but that’s just the dark talking.
“What’s in here, then?” Padraic asks.
“A speakeasy,” says another man, Michael, chuckling.
“Grand. I could use a drink,” Padraic jokes as he heads inside, still hopeful of some lost treasure. The workers follow. These men are the unseen builders of the city, like ghosts themselves, and they’ve no need to fear the dark.
Only Sun Yu hesitates. He hates the dark, actually, but he needs the job, and jobs are hard to come by when you’re Chinese. As it is, he only got the job because he shares a cold-water flat with Padraic and several others in Chinatown, and the Irishman put in a word for him with the boss. It wouldn’t do to make waves. So he, too, follows. As Sun Yu navigates the mounds of fallen dirt and brick on the tracks, he stumbles over something. Padraic swings his flashlight beam over the tracks again and finds a pretty little music box with a hand crank on top. Padraic lifts the music box, admiring the workmanship. They don’t make them like that anymore. He turns the crank on the cylinder. A song plinks out note by note. It’s one he’s heard before, an old song, but he can’t really remember it.
He considers taking the music box but puts it back. “Let’s see what other treasures are down here.”
Padraic swings the flashlight. The beam finds a skeletal foot. At the base of the curved wall is a mummified corpse mostly eaten away by rot and rats and time. The men fall quiet. They stare at the tufts of hair gone as thin as candy floss, and at the mouth, which is open as if in a final scream. A few of the men cross themselves. They left a lot behind to come to this country, but not their superstitions.
Sun Yu is uneasy, but he doesn’t have the words in English to communicate his feelings. This woman met a very bad end. If he were back in China, he’d see to the proper prayers and burial. For everyone knows a spirit can’t rest without that. But this is America. Things are different here.
“Bad luck,” he says at last, and no one disagrees.
“Right. We best be back at it, lads,” Padraic says with a heavy sigh.
The men pile out of the hole. As Padraic closes the gate, he regards the unearthed station with pity. It’ll be gone soon enough, knocked out to make way for new subway lines for the growing city. Progress keeps progressing.