The Science of Fiction, Oct-Nov 2008

“Reclamation”  by Joseph Grant

Despite what you may read on the matter, the way it happened was slow and arbitrary. You may have already read or have heard of the occurrence in the media, portraying it as some sort of celebrated, almost overnight event, but in reality, it began without much notoriety and only a few educated minds took scant, if any notice.

In the way the wind gently pushes a child’s toy sailboat across the thin surface of a translucent pond, so too did it occur. In the way a rare flower pushes up through the soil to reach the sun, so too did it occur. Whereas the sailboat sets in motion the almost indiscernible ripples from under its tiny bow towards the banks did it reach our shores and the flower, long ago thought dead, thus did rise again into the new city.

All over the city it was taking place, although in small increments, taking its time, the way time always does. Seismologists, it would be fair to say, took note of it almost immediately in the weeks leading up to the big event. For weeks there had been the clusters of tiny tremors beneath the earth’s surface, slight but deep enough so as not to alarm the masses, just adequate to rattle their cupboards. The seismologists knew different; a strong earthquake was on its way.  Remnants of the 1906 quake, an echo from the past, it would later be determined.

But there had been other, more important matters at hand; war, terrorism, work, falling in and out of love, paying bills, the usual mediocrities that make up living and dying in one’s life. Then, as seismologists had been predicting, there occurred the moderate earthquake that literally shook the city from its day-to-day stupor.

To the masses, it had been an unexpected shock; as such incidences were rare, as the Mayor himself pointed out in his televised speech directly following the tremor. There had been a few injuries, but miraculously, no casualties, it was reported. The police, fire and other emergency departments were all put on tactical alert to meet a demand that never fully materialized. There were minor acts of lawlessness in the city, but this was due more to broken storefront windows and some structural damage, rather than any malfeasance on behalf of the citizenry. The National Guard, called out the minute the asphalt stopped shaking, were subsequently dispatched to the Armory to assist with dazed homeless that never showed.

The newspapers reported the big story and praised its readership with every accolade for having shown such fortitude in what clearly could have been much more of a disaster. For weeks, the newspapers squeezed the earthquake and its many sub-stories and characters dry but failed to cover the real story lying just beneath the still trembling surface.

Harold Pinter had noticed what the papers had not. But then again, he would have, having been an antiques dealer and now an employee of the New York Historical Society. Given his eye for detail, he was acutely aware if his surroundings, distastefully modern though they were.

Every day on his way to work, Pinter observed the ugly modernity that was encroaching upon his once lovely city. Things had changed dramatically in just his lifetime, alone; zoning laws had been rewritten and in some cases, eradicated altogether. Entire blocks of brownstones were being irreplaceably razed to make way for the new East Side Highway. In the momentous case of the State of New York vs. the Landmark Commission of the State of New York, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State that it did, in fact have the entitlement to impose eminent domain and seize the homes and properties of those impeding the progress of a highway in an already overcrowded and constantly gridlocked city. Heated arguments raged on both sides over the proposed mega-roadway, none of which altered any outcome until the earthquake put an end to construction for the time being

Pinter noticed the change in a rather opaque way. With his nose stuck in a historical thriller as always, he tripped right over his own two feet crossing Broadway. Perplexed, he peered up from his glasses and saw a peculiar sight. Train tracks in the middle of Broadway?

The lines were not entirely protruding from the uneven patchwork of asphalt that was Broadway, but there they were. He stood staring and scratching his head and wondered how these train tracks came into being. It was only by the frantic horn of an oncoming taxi that he was brought back to his senses. He darted out of the way and onto the relative safety of a New York City sidewalk; relative as it was New York City after all.

As he wandered away, the thought again meandered into his always curious mind: “Train tracks on Broadway?”

If this had been the only incident, then events might have gone unnoticed throughout the city, but wherever Pinter went, he discovered inconsistencies that had not existed prior to that particular date and time. Apparently, the earthquake had stirred up a strange liquefaction in the earth beneath the city. Pinter observed bizarre disturbances to the terra firma around him. Dirt having been stirred and sidewalks having been uprooted by the quake showed evidence of a strange reaction. For beneath corporate plazas and citizen walkways, existing steel and wooden frames jutted up and out where none had existed before. Further complicating this unexplained phenomena were the red bricks and terra cotta that had been exposed by freak rainstorms that had pounded the city and had vanished almost as soon as they came. The National Weather Bureau had no explanation for these weather anomalies nor did the city planners who were suddenly being besieged with confused and irate telephone calls from city inspectors as to why building had commenced on properties and closed lots without construction permits.

Pinter researched the mysterious tracks at the New York Historical Society Archives Room. After a few false starts, he hit pay dirt with a revealing photo. There had been a set of train tracks down Broadway, but these had been trolley tracks, to be exact. Ostensibly, the tremors shook the old line loose from its confines and pushed it up into for the sunshine for the first time since 1957, the date of their asphalt entombment. The lines themselves dated from farther back in time to around 1897, he was able to deduce from another photo. It fascinated Pinter that this relic of the past be exposed once again, but his fascination did not last long, as there seemed to be a commotion in the Great Hall before him.

Pinter peered at the crowd assembled at a plot plan desk and walked over. He observed the Historical Society Chairman, Lawrence Phillips III engaged in a highly-charged conversation with three men; the Assistant City Deputy, the City Planner and the Zoning Tsar, all trying to articulate their unique situation over the other.

“Larry, I’ve got these guys and City Hall breathing down my back, trying to get me to clear those couple of rowhouses down on First.” The Zoning Tsar, Walt Civlek spat.

“Yes, I remember, Walter. Quite a shame those had to go. Eighteenth-Century pair of rowhouses, some of the last in the City, you don’t need to remind me. It damned near broke my heart when you tore those down a few weeks back. What’s City Hall on your case for now? Work not moving because of the tremors?”

“That’s just it. We tore those down before the quake.”

“Well, then…”Phillips harrumphed. “What’s the problem? Did your boys find something of importance below the foundation? A couple of Revolutionary War items, a few skeletons? If you need us to go down there and check it out we can dig through the dirt for you, like we always do.”

“The problem is…”Civlek cleared his throat and shrugged. “…is that they’re back.”

“What’s back?”

“The rowhouses.”

“Come now, don’t joke around. I saw them torn down myself. Is this your idea of some sort of joke? What do you mean, they’re back?” He sighed. “Surely, someone down at City Hall must be in error. Sorry, Deputy Commissioner Rodriguez.”

“No need for apologies, Larry.” The Assistant Deputy to the Mayor nodded. “We’ve been known to make a few mistakes.” He winked with a smile. “But please know that this is no mistake. I have been down to the site myself this morning. I saw the rowhouses torn down on the news myself. There can be no doubt, no room for mistake. Inexplicably, the rowhouses were still extant. I offer no explanation. The City offers no explanation, gentlemen.” He quickly added, looking at each one of them.

“That’s preposterous.” The City Planner bellowed. “Buildings don’t just reappear overnight after they’ve been knocked down, let’s be serious, for Pete’s sake.”

“Allow me if I may, gentlemen.” Pinter spoke up nervously at first. “I have been observing, with some reservation, some rather odd occurrences throughout our city. I, myself, tripped over trolley tracks that were not there a week before. I fear that the earthquake has disturbed the city in more ways than one.”

“Larry, who is this man?” The City Planner snapped. “I have no idea what you and Walt are trying to pull here, what has got you both in league here with each other, but all I know is the Mayor is pretty ticked that those rowhouses are impeding his highway bridge after having been told that they had been torn down weeks ago. Now, I don’t know what kind of trick you’re trying to pull here, Larry, but these buildings, as historically precious they may have been or are, actually, they still must come down or there will be the Mayor to answer to.”

“If I may interject, gentlemen, just for a moment.” Pinter said and realigned his glasses. “These train tracks…”

“I thought you said they were trolley tracks?”

“Well, I…”

“Larry, who is this person?”

“I’ll speak to you later, Pinter that will be all.”

“But…” Pinter stammered. “The trolley tracks…”

“Pinter, we have important matters to discuss. We can meet in the morning.” Phillips said with a stern voice.

The next morning, Pinter showed up at Phillips’ door as expected. Not expected, was the sight of his boss holding his head and pressed against his head, a makeshift and bloodied ice pack.

“What on earth happened to you?” Pinter asked, alarmed by the scene.

“It was the damndest thing.” Phillips recounted. “I got on the subway and there was absolutely no air on the car. Then the conductor mumbled something about police activity up ahead and how the train would be delayed and so I thought I’d walk it as it was a nice morning, you know?” He said and shook his head. “Owwww. So, I get out of the subway at Canal but it doesn’t look like Canal, it looks more like the idiot train conductor didn’t know where he was going and made up that story about police activity, I’ll bet. So, I spot a young man standing on the corner and while he’s in tattered clothes, I don’t think anything of it and I ask him if he knows where I can take the Number 2 line up to Grand Central and then switch over and you know what this nutcase does? He holds up a stick with a dead rabbit impaled upon it, of all things and starts clubbing me with it. I ran for my life!”

“Wait a minute.” Pinter held up his hand, concerned. “Are you trying to tell me that some guy had a rabbit impaled on a pole?”

“I’m not trying to tell you that, I’m telling you that.”

“The Dead Rabbits Gang.” Pinter blurted. You say you couldn’t recognize the area, but the conductor said it was Canal?”

“Oh, come now.” Phillips retorted. “It was some homeless mental patient pretending to be his own Gangs of New York.”

“How come you didn’t recognize the area? You worked down on Canal for twenty years.”

“Don’t tell me what I already know, Pinter.” He barked. “The conductor must have hit his head or something, maybe that was the police emergency, I don’t know, but what I do know for a fact is that the idiot did not stop at Canal Street. I may have been hit on the head a few times, but I know what I know.”

“What did the subway sign say again?”

“Canal Street.” Phillips said slowly. “But that can’t be. That just can’t be, I tell ya!”

“Something strange is going on.” Pinter digressed.

“You’re telling me.” Phillips said and passed his ice pack to his other hand and held it back against his head. “I’ve been getting the most off-the-wall calls this morning.” He stood unevenly and touched the edge of his desk with thumb, index and middle finger to steady himself as he carefully walked around the desk. “The Mayor’s Office calling me first thing this morning and telling me they got buildings missing.”

“Missing?” Pinter echoed.

“Yes, missing.” Phillips said as if it were the sanest concept in the world. “Now, I don’t care to clarify what such a statement even means. I have received crackpot calls by people I highly respected before this morning, telling me that they’re standing in front of the Singer Building or are looking up at what sounds like and standing in front what is apparently the Ninth Street El only its back and currently running! My wife just called me and told me she was outside the Hippodrome and Jenkins himself called and told me he was standing in front of Madison Square Garden.”

“Slow down, slow down.” Pinter said and halted the agitated man. “You’re gonna give yourself another heart attack.” Pinter guided the troubled man back to his seat behind the desk. He wondered if the bump on his head was worse than suspected and if he should take him to the hospital, as he wasn’t making any sense. “Now, there must be some logical explanation behind all of this. Maybe some radio prank or university initiation or something.”

“But that’s just it. If that was it, I wouldn’t be so bothered by it. My wife calling me telling me that about the Hippodrome, I have to believe her, she’s my wife and Jenkins, he’s a long-time employee; I’m the godfather to his kid, for crissakes. But when he calls me and tells me he’s standing in front of Madison Square Garden, I have to suspend my belief and well, believe him, too.”

“What’s so difficult to believe that he’s standing outside the Garden? I hit a Knicks game there with you three weeks ago.”

Phillips gave him a hard look with a very bloodshot right eye. “At Fifth and Madison Avenue?”

“Madison Square Garden hasn’t been at that location since 1925!”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Phillips said. “All morning long since I got here at six, I’ve been getting news of the impossible. I don’t quite understand what’s going on.” He said and read his email with a confused look.

“What is it?”

“I’ll be damned. I just got this email from Heather. She says the City Hall Subway is running again, but not only is it running again, it’s running to and from the old Pennsylvania Station. Look, here’s another one from Bill Tildon’s cell phone. He says I’m not going to believe this but he’s at Saint Paul’s, he just got done with his meeting down at City Hall and says he was almost hit by a cable car going up Broadway heading towards Barclay Street!”

“A cable car?”

“A cable car.” Phillips mopped his now sweaty brow with the watery ice pack. “He texts me that he’s currently watching a horse drawn omnibus heading the opposite direction and asks me what an omnibus is!”


“Look at this. Now I got Claire Davis texting me that she’ll have to find another route to work because there’s some problem they’re telling her on the subway line.” He said and started to read. “She says they’re saying that there are a lot of confused passengers down there because they’re telling them that the subway doesn’t run past 23rd Street any longer. What in the world is going on?? Pinter, I want you to go out and give me a status report. Has everyone in this city lost their minds? Is this a terrorist plot, some sort of poisonous gas or hallucinogenic in the air or some sort of mass delusion, would you, Pinter?” He waved him off. “Go ahead; go…the Mayor will no doubt be calling me. Keep your cell phone on.”

“Yes, sir.” He nodded but then wondered what kind of a boss would so cavalierly send their employee out into potentially poisonous gas.

“Oh, just great!” Phillips growled.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think the city has gone off the deep end. Some joker delivered the wrong paper.”

“Wrong paper?”

“Yes, wrong. Since when do I get this newspaper? I always get the Daily News.”

Pinter looked down at the newspaper spread over the jumble that was Phillip’s desk. It alarmed him as he glared at the masthead. “The Sun”, it read. More alarming was the date. “August 13, 1897”. Things were indeed out of sorts, thought Pinter. Out of time and out of place, he said to himself. It was time he got to the bottom of things, he told himself.

As Pinter wandered out of the building, he recalled the odd blurbs in the newspapers over the past few days detailing how citizens were being accosted by strange sights and sounds that defied logic, but thought little to nothing of it. New York was always full of strange and fantastic stories from the days of Washington Irving. Pinter started to piece the stories together in his mind. He had heard about certain pockets of known terra firma that were seemingly swallowed up and in their place, a Beaux Arts building or two would spring up, but thought these were just fabrications. At the bar the night before, he had overheard a conversation where a drunken customer spoke of standing outside of Merrill Lynch Building Downtown where the building should have been, yet from his description, it sounded like the Singer Building, torn down in 1967, stood proud, but no longer so tall among the steel canyons of Lower Manhattan. The guy said he had heard of losing a job but not a whole building. Pinter shrugged it off to drunken misspeak from some soused patron. It was so far-fetched; no wonder news organizations completely ignored the main story.

Up until the last week or so, it had been occurring at an almost imperceptible level, but there had been additional tremors recently and Pinter believed that these had something to do with the measured increase in the strange phenomena around the city. He started to make note of the old–fashioned newsstands, that mixed with the new, odd-looking subway kiosks, the gas lamps, corner stores, the sanitation men and their ashcans, the building sides with their painted billboards brightly blazing once again from their once dull brick memory, but most alarming of all was the shut down of the Brooklyn Bridge. Whereas most of the New Yorkers thought the newsstands, lamplights, subway entrances were an affectation of a city celebrating its past; the closure of the Brooklyn Bridge woke the city from its languor.

When police and city officials went down to investigate such an outrageous claim, they were met by their own personal disbelief. Walking over from the Singer Building, Pinter literally sidelined down Fulton Street towards the South Street Seaport and the East River. What sights met him, astounded him.

“Where did all of these clipper ships come from?” He asked a stranger as he looked around the Seaport. It was filled with antique sailing vessels.

The man looked at him warily and spat black chaw from his blackened lip. “From the sea, ya damned fool.”

Pinter shot the man a dirty look, but the man was already hobbling away over the wet cobblestones.

Pinter had not been to the Seaport in a number of years and was surprised to see how much it had changed. Pier 17 looked entirely different. But what shocked him the most besides the sudden re-emergence of the Fulton Fish market alive in Manhattan again was the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge and now agreed how much of a prudent idea it had been to close it; for half of it was gone!

“Where did it go?” Pinter asked a longshoreman as he passed by. “Was there an attack?”

“Where did what go?” The man growled wearily. “What kind of an attack you mean? Anarchists??”

“The Bridge, where did it go??” Pinter chastised the man. “Where’s the rest of the damned thing?”

“Whaddya mean, where did it go? Where’s the rest of it?” The man pushed a woolen cap back on his forehead and eyed Pinter as if he were crazy. “They’re building it, can’t you see?”

“Building it?” Pinter parroted the man. “Building it?? It’s already been built, a hundred years ago!”

“Mister, you go the yellow fever on the brain or something?” He said and scratched at an overgrowth of graying whiskers.

“You’re the one who’s telling me they’re building it, not me. I think you have a screw loose or something.”

“Oh yeah?” The man turned and said: “We’ll see about that and blindsided Pinter with a devastating backhand.

The next thing Pinter knew, he was crumpled on his side upon the wet pavement near the docks, his money splayed about him and heard the man walking away, muttering something about how nearly breaking his black jack over some nut with useless money. Nothing made sense anymore thought Pinter but it wouldn’t as he dizzily struggled to his feet and held a handkerchief to the throbbing bump at the back of his skull.

Pinter called his boss in vain, as there was absolutely no reception. He was not certain if it was the crack to the skull or the odd fog that was coming in off the Harbor, but Pinter began to get frightened; he did not recognize the city at all. It was as if the city had changed while he was momentarily knocked out.

In a panic, he raced uptown on foot; passing old dance halls and livery stables that seemed to be growing from the ground itself. He lived in Manhattan all of his life, but never remembered these places and furthermore, he was beginning to feel like a stranger in his own city.

Fevered, he reached a newsstand and plunked down a dollar and took a newspaper. Maybe the papers would explain what was going on, he thought. As he walked off, he could hear the proprietor call after him. Nonchalantly, he called over his shoulder: “Keep the change!” and quickened his step, as he did not like the man’s reaction. Had everyone in New York City lost their minds?

That’s strange, he thought, I could have sworn I picked up the Times. He thumbed through the paper. The Globe??

He was not about to retrace his steps a few blocks back and get the correct paper. The masthead reads: “The Globe and Commercial Advertiser-New York’s Oldest Newspaper, 1797.” Over the name, it notes in bold type that it is the “10 O’clock Final Edition”. The headline exclaims “Planes Fly; Balloons Fall” while the front page and for some odd reason, the sports page recounted Wilbur Wright’s spectacular flight over Manhattan that very day. The news, whether it was for the city or the world made no sense to him and made mention of the then novelty of curious flying machines. This was ridiculous, he thought, what were they smoking down at The Globe, whatever that was, he smirked. As he scanned the pages, he wondered if it was a commemorative newspaper he picked up by mistake. He wondered if the present-day paper was inside. Then it hit him as he read the date, September 29, 1909. Chillingly, he came to the realization that he was no longer in his own time.

As he wandered along the cobblestones where none had existed before, he was certain of that, he wondered if he was being swallowed up by this reclamation of things past and pondered the notion if this was akin to being in a maze or a set trap and all he had to do was find his way out.

What didn’t make sense was that he could see his every day surroundings. It was as if things were changing just enough to keep ahead of him. It was as if he was underwater and could plainly discern things just past the surface but could not reach it. He could see landmarks such as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler, but by the time he reached them; they were gone, replaced by the unfamiliar.

It was the same as when he got to his apartment house, a building that dated from 1895. When he reached his fifth floor walk-up, which had never been a fifth-floor walk up, but the elevator was inexplicably no longer there, he opened the unlocked door to his apartment only to be met by a family of immigrants putting together paper flowers on the kitchen table who loudly and most likely profanely chased Pinter from the building, as he no longer lived there and would not live there for another one hundred plus years.

In the irony to end all ironies, for Harold Pinter, working at the New York Historical Society, the past had always been his present, the future certainly did not exist and the modern day present was useless and meaningless to him. He had never felt he fit in, had not a sustained love affair to keep him from chasing ahead of the mysterious elements changing his city literally in front of him, so instead, he stopped running, stopped racing to be on time and let the past finally, catch up with him.

The entire episode was never fully disclosed in the media, nor was it ever challenged, although some conspiracy theorists desperately tried to tie it to matters such as global warming or nuclear testing. It was soon relegated to the dustbin of conspiracy theories, along with Loch Ness, UFO’s, 9/11 and JFK. But, there had been too many witnesses, too many changes, too many cell phone cameras the government couldn’t contain, too much in the way of physical evidence such as incongruity like the Crystal Palace near the New York City Reservoir where the New York Public Library should have been but was not, to let the matters fully rest.

The Mayor’s Office at City Hall tried to ignore the facts, but instead fabricated a story on “Victorian Beautification”, but it was as far as they were going to publicly admit. As far as the government was concerned, it rounded up as many confused Victorians as it could find and sent them live among the Amish, deep within the mountains of Pennsylvania.

Just as quickly as the entire strange episode evolved, it quickly and mysteriously deconstructed itself, sparing the city a full-blown explanation and more than enough embarrassment. Little by little, as if two battling weather fronts, the past ebbed from the present, receding to where it belonged, setting things right once again.

As for Pinter, he remained in the past he had always loved but like that long lost love, could only address in memory, until now. For once, his present was a delight of every one of his senses, as he roamed actual Victorian New York in his strange new clothes. An anomaly left him stranded in the past, which was just fine by him. For while all he had ever known and all the places he had ever gone remained as the past had once been, out of touch and years aloft and the past, for those who nervously watched such things, remained exactly where it had always been; in the past.


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