In downtown Philadelphia, a sinkhole opened at 22nd and Market and swallowed a Salvation Army building. A number of people died, including a nineteen-year-old girl who was shopping for furniture.
I’m getting my nails done in the Philadelphia suburb of Narberth, PA, in preparation for the wedding shower of a childhood friend. The sinkhole is all anyone in the salon can talk about. Sinkholes have been dotting the map for a while now, but so far they hadn’t killed anyone. There is a protocol for discussing what happened: first, state what a tragedy it is. Then recount the details, which are familiar by now to everyone: a college student, stocking her first apartment. Other people died as well but this is the victim I hear about the most.
It’s Spring Break, and the city college where I teach in New York is not the type to send its students to Cabo for a tequila-soaked week in the sun. So we have scattered to visit our families, though many of my students confess they still live at home anyway. Narberth is a real town, despite the incredulity of an ex-boyfriend who thought it was a portmanteau of “Nora” and “birth,” that whatever town I actually grew up in I renamed in honor of my ejection into this world, a sort of reverse sinkhole.
“I wasn’t born there,” I told him, as if it mattered. He would make up any number of things for far more trivial reasons, so it was natural to him that other people might invent their histories. As of now, Narberth is on the map.
“You in college?” the esthetician asks me as she files.
“No, I teach,” I tell her, and she nods. Whatever befell that young girl, I am, by virtue of my vocation, exempt, as are these women settled into massage chairs, gold bracelets dragging their wrists as they flip the pages of Redbook.
“Pretty color,” she says, turning the small glass lacquer bottle I’ve selected in the light.
The news suggests that acid rain is to blame. Years of acid rain falling unchecked, seeping into the ground and doing what acid does, eating away at everything it touches. Scientists point to plastic models, removable chunks revealing concavities in the earth, the surface too thin to support what’s on top.
Acid rain strikes me as an environmental problem from the nineties. If it was our carbon footprint that was causing the sinkholes—if they could be attributed to a preponderance of plastic bags—people might respond, organize awareness days, preach from the bumpers of their cars. Everyone has moved on from acid rain, panda bears. These assertions sound outdated, as if the research was done on computers with green screens and floppy disks and no mice.
I watch five minutes of CNN before moving on. This is the only cable I’ll see for a while, and I do not want to spend it on a guy in a lab coat.
While I am scanning the channels, my father calls me to dinner: roasted vegetables, pasta, green salad. There is bakery bread, and three cheeses set out on a cutting board. Ridiculous, these dinners, in comparison to the leftovers I scarf while scrolling through my e-mail, the Chinese take-out I consume cross-legged on the floor in front of my TV at home.
I’ve brought my dog with me to Narberth, and in the evenings we walk, avoiding the smaller sinkholes, the ones at corners marked by traffic cones. Sometimes they are not too deep and the dog tries to lap at the standing water in them after a rain, but I don’t let her. We do not know what the sinkholes are filled with. At the very least, they are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos.
“Are you worried?” I ask my family while we eat. “They seem to be everywhere.” My parents are rigorous people, but not hysterical. They have recently refinished the living room, tearing up the musty old rug and replacing it with wood. They would not spend so much if they thought a sinkhole might eat up the house.
“Just watch your feet when you’re out with the dog,” my stepmother cautions. Down the street, a section of sidewalk juts in the air, like modern architecture, but when I lean over to see how deep the hole goes, all I see is murky black.
Sinkholes may be new to the area, but they are not new to the country. The New Yorker publishes a lengthy piece about southern states, where sinkholes have been a problem for years. Florida, apparently, is riddled with them. One in every ten Floridians is at risk of waking up one morning and finding a six-foot-deep hole in their yard. The problem is starting to creep up the coast and that’s why, the writer implies, we are only now becoming concerned. When sinkholes start jamming traffic in Washington, the politicians may finally sit up.
One in ten is not so great, I think. If I had ten friends, and nine of us were unaffected, I wouldn’t call it an epidemic. The Floridians should stop whining.
The wedding shower is taking place in a small town in South Jersey, near where I actually grew up. There is a three-foot-wide sinkhole in the bride’s mother’s front yard, which is otherwise a trimmed and nourished green, leading up to an immaculate white house. Guests seem not to notice the hole as they traipse to the front door, bearing packages in pearly paper.
“That’s some lawn ornament,” I say to my friend when we are standing around, sipping mimosas in our heels. The woman next to me is wearing a coral dress and tan shoes. Her fingernails are painted tan, her toenails coral. I spend a long moment wondering if she got her nails done for this specific occasion, or whether she has a lot of tan and coral in her wardrobe and can make the nails work on several days of the week. I have a present for the bride but forgot a card, and scratched on the tag that I am not yet a complete grown-up.
“That thing,” the bride-to-be says. She waves her hand towards the yard, as if to say, I’ve been meaning to take care of it. When I leave, I try not to think it’s gotten bigger. On the drive back I pass an enormous sinkhole on the side of the highway. Cars have pulled into the shoulder and people are standing around, taking pictures with their cell phones.
New York City real estate agents are being asked to provide notarized documents stating that the land around the building has been tested and certified stable. In Brooklyn, homeowners are required to report sinkholes immediately, and the hunt for them becomes part of pre-closing inspections.
I imagine returning to school, the excuses my students will give: I was late because my car was in a sinkhole. A sinkhole took out part of the 2 line and all the trains are backed up. My essay fell into a sinkhole. Electrical poles angled towards the ground, the wires dangerously stretched.
I think about those Southerners, the ones who have been living with sinkholes for years. What do they think of us, flailing Northerners, unable to deal with what has become, for them, rather commonplace? They must imagine us pale Magoos, noses tilted towards iPhones, in a perfect moment of stillness before we look down, realize there’s nothing under our feet, and then fall.
I don’t know, though, if I’ll have a job in September. The English department is being cagey about it. I have gotten strong evaluations from my students, but I’m not a name they can put in ads for the college. Part of me wonders, restlessly roaming the narrow sidewalks, restraining the dog when squirrels dart by, if I’m here to test the living conditions. What would it be like to take a step backward, move in with the folks. Would the HBO, the nightly selection of cheeses, make up for the twin bed and compunction I would feel about dating? I am thirty-one years old and renting, unmarried, adjuncting, uninsured, and the world, I’ve discovered, seems largely indifferent to helping me out. When my friends were 25, coolly assessing the men in their radar for marriage potential, my primary criteria for taking a man home was that he’d read Infinite Jest. These men, it turned out, were largely able to finish long novels in the absence of other distractions such as gainful employment. I quit every job I ever had as soon as I started to get bored, and now that I’ve found one I enjoy, I may lose it because I am not widely published.
The walks with the dog get longer and longer as the week goes on. We meet other dogs, stand around for increasing periods of mutual sniffing. Sometimes these other owners and I walk for a block or two, side by side. We give berth to the holes, exchange polite gallows humor. This is how communities are built, I think. This is how a life begins to feel normal.
Staff meetings. Mandatory trainings. Pamphlets in plexiglass holders outside campus offices. How to talk to students who have been affected, lists of resources. Federal aid applications, crashing websites, automated messages, helplines that put you on hold. Food drives, neighborhood efforts to deliver blankets and flashlights, cots set up in elementary school gyms. Support groups, lingering resentments, hoaxes that draw attention to the government’s failure to address the problem. Months later and thousands still displaced, living with relatives or in FEMA trailers or gone altogether, unaccounted for, checks arriving too late to mailboxes that no longer exist.
My last night in Narberth I cannot sleep. The suitcase is packed and the dog attempts sleeping on top of it, to ensure she is not forgotten in the morning. I hook her up to her leash and we go out, after midnight in a town that’s tucked in by 9 p.m.
We turn a corner and a sinkhole that was there yesterday is suddenly much larger, the cones that were marking it off fallen in when the hole expanded. I wonder how this happens: noisily? With the sound of bricks collapsing around used mid-century modern, racks of shoulder-padded blouses, teacups perched on chipped saucers? Or maybe it’s more of a sci-fi sound, an airless sucking, the circumference suddenly doubled through some CGI effect.
I lean over. It’s a perfect black. The longer I stand there the more likely it is the hole will grow, and there’s no one around to save me. But people don’t die on Spring Break like this. They die in Aruba, at the hands of European DJs, dumped into the ocean after partying with the wrong crowd.
I tie the dog’s leash to a stop sign and go back. I want to sit on the edge and stick my feet in, like a kiddie pool, feel the air whirling beneath the street, moving in its own rhythms and patterns, seeking out soft spots, weaknesses to prod at on the surface. The day was hotter than normal and the surface of the road is warm, slightly sticky, the tar holding the heat for a few minutes more. I press my palms on either side of the hole and lean over, my fingertips gripping the underside of the road, an alarmingly thin, crumbly surface. The smell wafting up is parking lots, pending rain, neither fully organic nor chemical, the smell of humans clashing with their environment.
The dog is peering at me from six feet away, waiting for her cue to follow. As I slide forward on my butt and feel the last of the ground slip behind me, her tilted face—her eyes impossibly knowing—is the last thing I see.