Don Kentop

The Brown Building

We smoked cigarettes at NYU, spoke
of Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Joe McCarthy.
Before the Beats, before Elvis, we puffed
on Camels, flicked our ashes on the floor,
and rode elevators to our classes
in what was known once as the Asch Building.

There were no markers to commemorate,
or to even whisper of the fire
of nineteen-eleven. Today, three are mounted
on the building. Cast from molten bronze,
they tell the story, yet are placed too high
to run your fingers on the frozen names.
In different times, instead of sewing shirts
Molly Gerstein might have sat beside us
during freshman English; Ida Brodsky,
a sleeve setter — or a science major? —
and Jacob Klein might have been a friend.
Kate Leone was too young for college.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sewed
the high necked blouses worn by Gibson Girls.
The shop took up the top three floors, the eighth,
the ninth, and tenth, which were consumed by flames
one Saturday in March at quitting time.
The holocaust still radiates today.
One hundred and forty-six, immigrant men
and women, were burned or jumped to death. Some leapt
in twos and threes while holding hands, their skirts
on fire, from the same window spaces
we looked through for spring in Greenwich Village,
impatient for McSorley’s nickel ale.

 

 

Don Kentop attended NYU in the mid 1950’s before the fiftieth anniversary of the Triangle fire, at a time when public interest in the fire was at a low. He writes, “There were no markers on the building at the time. The discovery, decades later, of the fact that I attended classes in the very building the fire took place, caused me to write ‘The Brown Building.’ However, there was so much more to say, and I was hooked. The next year was spent writing ‘Frozen In Fire. A Documentary In Verse.'” Don lives now in Seattle.


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