34. 70 Fifth Avenue
The Tower, Rivers and the Soul
Langston Hughes was a leading exponent of the Harlem Renaissance. His first published poem was The Negro Speaks of Rivers in the June 1921 edition of The Crisis Magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois at offices in 70 Fifth Avenue. Hughes lived at 20 East 127th Street from 1948 until his death in 1967.
Welcome to Reading the City.
Langston Hughes was 17 years old — 17! — when he wrote:
I had these words in my mind as I walked to the location where W.E.B. DuBois edited this marvelous poem. Read it. If you live near a river, walk to the river and read it.
I arrived to discover that 70 Fifth Avenue appears to have disappeared. 68 is there. 72 is there. In the spot where I thought it would be, I found this.
Parsons Printmaking Book Arts, with a press visible from the window, the same technology used to press grapes into wine. I know this because I spent the last seven years writing a novel featuring a woman named Vittoria Colonna, the first Italian woman to publish a book of her own poetry in the midst of noble men arguing — I mean, having an intellectual debate — about whether women are even people. She was the daughter of warlords, the first to bring handheld firearms to the battlefields of Europe. If you click that link you’ll see she died with Michelangelo at her side. My book is full of their secrets. I bring this up because it is related to the location in this post. When I arrived at Parson’s Printmaking Book Arts, I saw this in the window.
The Tower came into my life with a bang, as it does. In August, my friend Shannon sent me a picture of The Tower and told me she pulled the card that morning. Shannon is also the person who gave me the map that sent me on this journey of Reading the City.
I was obsessed with Tarot when I was twelve years old, but I haven’t gotten into it since. This card, though, gave me pause.
“The card keeps turning up for everybody,” Shannon said.
Whereas the Death card is usually the people hate to see, The Tower is the one you really need to brace for. It represents chaos, destruction, sudden upheaval and unexpected change. But it can also reveal false beliefs and lead to renewal and creation. You may find that you are the lightning. The Tower may be warning you that it’s time to start acting more responsibly.
It can also warn of natural disasters.
On July 30, I was on the roof watering flowers I planted from seeds at the beginning of the pandemic. In the gravel, I saw a small piece of plastic and picked it up to throw it away. When I turned it over I was shocked to see this:
I immediately sent Shannon a picture of this tiny piece of plastic WITH A TOWER ON IT. The thing is, the building is not located near enough to any others for this to have easily blown on the roof. Nobody has come over since March 4. Where did it come from?
“It looks like a Lego,” Shannon said.
I asked my Lego-obsessed nephew and he affirmed, it is indeed a limited edition Lego fortuneteller minifig with two Tarot cards, The Sun and The Tower, released in 2013.
Later that same day, I spoke with my brilliant friend Danielle Oteri as I always do before embarking on major book revisions. Before I could tell her about The Tower, she asked me if I considered giving Vittoria Colonna her own personal saint. She recommended Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen, because of the Colonna connection to artillery and explosions. She is also the patron saint of mathematics, a connection to Michelangelo to is less an artist and more a mathematician who used the geometry of the body to communicate his ideas about fleeting life within infinity.
“I’ll check St. Barbara out,” I said.
“Her father locked her in a tower,” Danielle said. “She prayed so hard to be liberated that lightning came and blew the wall of the tower apart.”
“She is invoked by thunderstorms. Her symbol is a tiny tower. She carries it around.”
At this point, as you might imagine, I was shaking from the sheer joy of the serendipity but also from wondering whether pandemic solitude was causing me to absolutely LOSE MY MIND.
Little did I know it was barely beginning.
The next night, July 31, a spectacular thunderstorm passed through New York, lighting up the sky in such bright blazes that I captured multiple videos of the entire skyline whitening as I held my tiny Tower Lego and marveled at the weirdness of life. But I was also afraid. The Tower is a warning of destruction and natural disaster.
The storm dazzled me with wonder, then passed.
Two weeks later, on August 16, however, my friends, relatives and so many other people were not so lucky when lightning struck the Bay Area. Shannon, our very same Tower Shannon, wrote this piece in Esquire about it. 12,000 lightning strikes were recorded over the next few days, and many of them started fires on the ground. Climate scientist Daniel Swain told her, “I don’t think many folks have yet grasped how far outside of historical experience these wildfire events are, collectively.”
My niece and nephew and so many other children were already struggling to learn remotely during the pandemic when the storm blew in. Fires blazed. Flames turned the smoky air turned orange in the middle of the day. The power went in and out.
By then I was well into the new draft of my book. Saint Barbara’s tower was in it. I stopped to take a walk. I went down a block I’ve walked a thousand times. A church on the corner has a gate that’s almost always locked. On this day it was open and when I looked into the tiny courtyard as we passed, I noticed that Jesus Christ didn’t have hands.
I asked my husband if this seemed odd to him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You don’t know whether Jesus had hands before now?”
He shrugged while I went back through my camera roll. I had photographed the statue through the bars of the gate before. Indeed, he had hands.
I went into the small courtyard to investigate. No hands anywhere. The thing that struck me about this, aside from the fact that someone had the nerve to steal them, is that the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel is the backdrop for the mystery between Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo in my book. I won’t say more about that for now. The important part here is that Jesus’ hands are how you know whether you’re going to everlasting paradise or hell on the final day of humanity. I shivered at the sight of the stumps. I still had goosebumps when I turned around and saw a mosaic on the outer wall of the church, facing the statue.
LOOK WHO IT IS. LOOK WHAT SHE’S HOLDING.
As I stood in front of the location of W.E.B. DuBois’ old office looking at The Tower hanging there, this entire chain of events flashed through my mind with their full magic. The Crisis is the official publication of the NAACP, and since 1910, when DuBois founded it, the publication has had a mission to speak truth to power. I recommend reading the current stories it includes, because every one of them is part of the shattered tower of American myths and realities.
And more than that — this city is a ship that floats between two rivers.
Books are the ghosts of the inhabitants who came before us. Poems are a haunting, a way for us to erase the edges between our minds and souls and merge. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young, a 17-year-old Langston Hughes once wrote. He held the ancient wisdom of the rivers in himself and he offered it to us, if we know how to accept it, how to build on it in this city that we share in different eras.
PS. I went back to see what happened to Jesus after he lost his hands and discovered this.
That’s right. Jesus was GONE and replaced by a — pumpkin?
I went back again tonight and found a second coming in plaster.
He’s back, hands and all.