Behold Invisibility

The explosive force beneath New York City's steam clouds

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Thunderclouds gathered in the late afternoon as I climbed the subway stairs and bumped into Polly, a former Jackie Gleason dancer now living in a shelter I helped run on the Upper West Side. Belting “Unforgettable”with abandon, her raspy, world-weary voice revealed undercurrents of tenderness and longing. Pigeons jerkily pecked the ground at her feet, and steam billowed like something feral and alive behind her, slicing the dark gray sky into rays of light. It felt like Polly had enough goodwill to energize the whole city that night. I stopped to listen. This was the early nineties, before I had a husband or kids. Before I’d had much opportunity to contemplate loss and loneliness.

Singing strangers home seems to me one of the loveliest things you could do.

New York’s infrastructure helps shape and define the rhythm of the city. While bridges, subway stations, and revolving doors are visible features, there is also a labyrinth of unnoticed systems—water, sewer, electric, and steam. Sturdy workhorses, their apparatuses lie in the periphery or underneath the skin of the city, like organs of a body, sustaining life on the island.

The most visible and poetic of these mostly underground networks is steam. With its operatic, rebellious temperament, steam evokes the very hue of the city, the same way its softer, more demure cousin, fog, might define a sea town. Fog and steam clouds are scene stealers. It has to do with the way mindless mist catches slivers of light, swirls, and changes shape. In New York, the steam ascends from manholes as if the underground muses are working around a large, bubbling cauldron, linking us in a collective dream that ties us together across time and death. In the dream we reassure one another that our homes will always be safe and warm.

With its operatic, rebellious temperament, steam evokes the very hue of the city

If not for the steam system, each building in Manhattan would have its own chimney, and the iconic skyline would look very different. District steam, an underground 100-plus-mile grid of pipeline, is the least sexy direct-heating source in NYC. The roughly twenty-three square miles that make up Manhattan have been built on steam since 1881, when the first piping was laid beneath the streets to deliver water vapor to buildings. The original boiler house in lower Manhattan would eventually replace individual coal-burning boilers. Today, the antiquated yet sturdy piping system still distributes up to ten million pounds of steam per hour to heat and cool more than 1,800 commercial and residential structures, offsetting the demand for electric power. New York’s steam system is the largest in the world; the next nine systems across the country combined do not surpass it. The pipes built under our feet to channel the steam—rushing, soaring, never resting—hold fast under the pressure. We might hear a primordial hum if we were to press our ear to the ground. 

I was born in a trailer in North Carolina because my World War II merchant-marine father moved around the country building boiler plants for what was then one of the largest industrial boiler manufacturers, Babcock and Wilcox. The plants my father built generated steam for the facilities that made America an international leader in manufacturing. No one did what our country did back then, manufacturing-wise, and steam was integral to our success. Before steam power, back in the seventeenth century, factories and mills were powered by hand, water, wind, or horse, and most were located near a water source. Once steam power was developed, manufacturing plants could instead be located anywhere, forever changing the way we live and work as cities and towns developed around new manufacturing facilities. Even today, except in cases of solar panels, wind turbines, or hydro-power, most of the watts of power we consume—to charge phones, power TVs, cool our houses—come from a power plant that generates electricity from old-fashioned steam. It’s a mostly safe energy source. Accidents are rare, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

Polly’s hair, gray-blonde dyed purple, was teased into a French twist, and her makeup had been applied with the heavy hand of someone who wants to be noticed. Her tired, swollen feet were pressed into thin fabric shoes. She paused once to scream, I’m still here, as if her past were slipping away while she moved forward. When she finished her song, I went up to her to say hello as the sun set and people bustled past us. For some, this was their destination, for others, their point of origin. All of us strangers, finding our ways. I ended up staying for nearly an hour. There was no one waiting for me at home, and Polly was never boring.

That night she said to me, “I used to be a starlet. A showstopper. Legs up to here.” She pointed to someplace up around her ears. “Now everybody walks right by me like they don’t see me.” I thought about how uncomfortable, guilty, and complicit we feel when we see someone living on the streets. How we fear that with a slight change of luck we could be them.

In and out of psychiatric hospitals for a large part of her adult life, Polly had lost most of her teeth. She sometimes introduced herself as Doris Day or Elizabeth Taylor, but that night, she was just Polly. While we were talking, she walked over to her knockoff Gucci bag, pulled out two mints, and offered me one with a Liz-Taylor-slow-smoking kind of grace. 

Illustrations by Anna Hall

I moved to NYC from Virginia in the late eighties to study psychology in graduate school. I was in my twenties and able to afford city life by working as a live-in nanny. I saw my neighbors living on the street far more frequently than I did the ones living in my building. I knew the names of the regulars I passed on the stoops, street corners, and benches near my apartment, and they knew mine. I marveled at their resilience and wondered how long I could last facing daunting challenges and harsh indignities, what skills, grit, or street smarts I might discover within myself. I wondered if I could make room for all that grief, loss, fear, and occasional joy. 

After I graduated I stopped nannying and took a job with a program that originated in what was then called the Columbia University School of Social Work. The program worked to house homeless people and provide them with services so that they could successfully remain housed. I worked in the basement of a public-housing facility on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I arrived many days to find our front door littered with trash and leftover syringes. One morning there was a smashed-up car. I squeezed around the abandoned vehicle and went inside to find one of my coworkers, Margarita, making calls to track down the car’s owner. Later that day, I looked up from my desk and laid eyes on something I’d never seen in that basement: a young, healthy, handsome, hip, joking, flirty male, talking to Margarita. I jumped up, and she introduced me to Steve, the owner of the abandoned car and my future husband.

When Steve and I first started dating and he asked how I had chosen my line of work, I said something offhand about how I helped others for the same reason any of us did, to distract myself from my own problems. I think of that now, and it still seems mostly true. It was a surprising choice given my sarcastic, short-tempered, and self-indulgent nature. I was choosy about where I directed my empathy. I had attended graduate school planning to work as a therapist, but quickly realized that I had little patience for privileged people like myself who paid experts to listen to their problems. I was more interested in working with people who were struggling with the kinds of hardships I had only experienced through books and films, people I had a chance to really help. It is a gift, only fully understood in action, to be of service to another person. I told Steve that the lives of homeless people were often sliced in half, marked by the time before and after they lost the ability to secure the most basic of needs: a place to safely close their eyes.

Steve was a singer-songwriter turned engineer who made his living telling NYC building managers how to efficiently operate their steam systems. His father, a Chilean immigrant, was also an engineer and had influenced his son’s choice to embark upon the unusual steam management career path. Our friends call Steve the Steam God. If I made a meme of him I would place a light-infused halo of steam around his head. When he was not yet my husband and I was trying to get on his wavelength, I said to him, “Don’t you love the way steam is romantically portrayed in so many pictures of the city, like light transformed into something you might hold, something collecting an intelligence within.” 

“Steam is actually invisible,” Steve said, interestingly but also unromantically. He explained that steam is just water in its gaseous state. This takes a great deal of energy, which is released when it is used as a heating source and condenses back into liquid. That change is the key to the power of steam. He told me that most of what we call steam, the clouds we see billowing up onto the streets, the foggy veil that the yellow cab emerges from in the opening of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver,is actually condensate—minuscule water droplets, each one a fraction the size of a raindrop. The island of Manhattan has a high water table, and most of this “steam” is caused by underground fresh water that rises when it rains, or as a result of flooding, that hits the steam pipes.

In heating systems like the ones Steve works on, steam always exists as a bi-phase flow, with vapor and liquid fighting for dominance. When liquid is allowed to build, it creates instability, which can cause the pipes to explode—visible to all and destructive to anything in its path.

After hearing about the bi-phase flow and liquid business, I started noticing and connecting more things like that, things on the brink of becoming something else. Everyone in Manhattan seemed to be preparing for the starring role they hoped to play in their own lives. As a social worker, I saw people build new selves out of whatever indestructible raw material they contained. Their transformations were predicated on loss—of group affiliations, home, family, personal identity, or sense of self.

I worked with many people who were transforming into new versions of themselves, people looking backward and forward at the same time, people who dug inward to discover the self must be created, not found. People whose safety required them to hide when so many of them hoped to be found.

When raw, piercing, private pain is made public, filters and masks finally fall away. But how fierce it is, our need to conceal the parts that don’t fit the self we’ve constructed.

Wallace, one of the homeless men I worked with in the nineties, was not an angry man, but he could be provoked. I’d seen him explode on occasion. He was usually funny and charming, had a certain way of saying my name, Aye-Ann, twisting it into two syllables. In some ways he was very visible—six foot seven, skinny as a needle, African American, and usually dressed flamboyantly in women’s clothing—but he was also often dismissed, mocked, or told that his body was not made for public places. He claimed a spot sleeping on a steam grate in my Upper West Side neighborhood, and I saw him as often as I saw any of my friends over a five- or six-year period before he fatally overdosed. 

One hot afternoon, Wallace had followed me into a bodega, wearing tight electric-blue shorts under a short, gauzy orange dress. The store owner took one look at his bare feet and told Wallace he had to leave. 

He did leave, and returned a moment later, clickity-clacking in women’s heels that appeared three sizes too small. The store owner told us both to get out. Wallace’s humiliation and anger ricocheted around his body, around the bodega. Before I could reach the door, he’d pulled a gun from the waistband of his blue shorts and pointed it squarely at the owner.

We say we are “letting off steam”; we “vent” our feelings. As a menopausal woman, I know about sudden rage. I used to be so pleasing and accommodating. But these days I rarely hold my tongue. I’ve yelled at strangers who tailgated me, cursed at able-bodied people who didn’t give up their subway seats to less able ones, and once punched Donald Trump’s face on the TV.

Boundless, steam expands. Without narrow, fixed pipes to direct its flow, it dissipates and is absorbed into the air. Steam guys know that when vapor escapes a pipe and you hear the ominous hiss of it leaking, like deafening static on a TV, you must stop everything and find the leak immediately. A thin jet of scalding hot high-pressure steam cannot be seen by the naked eye. To find it, you need a broom or other long-handled tool to wave around in search of the invisible machete. Because even a thin leak can pack enough pressure to slice your broom, or you, in half.

Time turned hyper-real. The bodega owner went pale and started apologizing, begging for mercy. I grabbed Wallace and pulled him outside. He returned to himself—kooky, kind, spontaneous—and buried the gun in a corner trashcan while I tried not to contemplate the implications. 

“You got to understand. No one listens to me until I have a gun,” he said softly. “Then . . . everybody listens.”

Wallace knew something that I’m just beginning to understand about how power can be exerted over people, how they can be silenced, and how humanity can be erased from an individual, no matter how large or conspicuous he might be. No matter how capable she thinks she still is. It is one thing to be looked at, another to be seen.

In the early nineties, while Steve was testing steam traps, measuring flow, and helping to make commercial buildings like the World Trade Center more energy efficient, I was a social worker reaching out to people living on the streets and inviting them to our shelter. I visited shanty towns in the abandoned train tunnels under Manhattan, where everything smells like wet stone. 

Like all communities, underground camps have their own rituals and rules.

There, hidden from view, subterranean dwellers made their camps in the recesses of a narrow dirt-tube with no natural light. The buried passages provided a natural roof, less chance of harassment, and a cocoon of safety. A muting of the constant chorus of noise above, while comforting, also blurred their connection to reality. Like all communities, underground camps have their own rituals and rules. Most of the people living there are introverted and don’t welcome strangers. I was visiting an older man who had to vouch for me every time someone questioned what I was doing there. 

The rats ran from me but didn’t seem to mind the people who lived there, who made their homes from cardboard and newspapers and blankets and coats and roots and dirt and dark matter and music and dollars and drugs and whisky and bones and wings and swords and cups and wands and protection and resilience and courage and compassion and forgiveness and knives and guns. To be homeless is to use everything you’ve got.

When I started writing this essay, I visited the steam room in the basement of the Empire State Building. It features a lovely panel of polished brass gauges, a remnant of the original 1931 installation that evokes Downton Abbey’s bell system in the servants’ quarters. The spotlessly clean open space gleams in fluorescent light, and rows of brightly painted pipes line the ceiling—blue for chilled water, yellow for steam, and red for hot condensate. The pipes contain the infinity that is steam and are as beautiful as any modern art exhibition. The basement steam room is the heart of a building, the pipes its energy-delivering arteries. The system still heats the Empire State Building as it has done since the building first opened in 1931. Something so old and hidden, still meticulously maintained.

Urban planners are keen to phase out fossil-fuel consumption at the building level in favor of renewable electricity. We might have to find new uses for steam.

In a dream I had the other night I am deep underground in the basement of a large commercial building. I’m walking along when I step on a three-quarter-inch pipe, snapping it in two, accidentally triggering a steam leak. Unlike the thin, invisible-machete leak, this is what the engineers would call a catastrophic system breach.

Disaster rolls in like a fog, and the basement fills with furiously darting molecules. A thick cloud of vapor reduces visibility, and I find myself lost in a blinding stew of whiteness. A raw display of extreme energy. My ears swell with the deafening thunder of escaping vapor. My heart pounds and my eyes tear; I could just as well close them for all I can see. Trying to find a way out seems futile, but I crawl on the ground. Miraculously, I find things are clear enough down low for me to see the glow of the exit light. Sometimes a change of perspective is all you need to find your way.

Other times, through no fault of your own, you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On July 18, 2007, it rained so heavily in New York City that water flooded the area underground around some of the steam pipes near Grand Central Terminal. By the time the evening rush hour rolled around and people were running to their trains and busses, condensate caused by the flood water exceeded the capacity of the steam traps that had been designed to filter it out. Water on the outside of a pipe caused condensation inside of it, leading to a dangerous condition called water hammer. Steam penetrated the water inside the pipe, collapsed violently, and caused an explosion. The burst pipe resulted in a geyser of hot steam contaminated with mud, flying debris, and asbestos from piping insulation; the force blew a hole roughly thirty-five-feet wide and fifteen feet deep in the street, leaving one woman dead from a heart attack and dozens more injured. People thought it was a terrorist attack. They were screaming and running in all directions, trying to escape the next possible phase of disaster.

Following the explosion, sensors were installed in the steam labyrinth. Today, automated technologies are in place to measure condensation and pressure and to alert emergency personnel to problems before they become critical. 

I am now sixty, heading into old age, and realize we’re—all of us—always becoming. To be ignored or erased, as we older women so often are, is to experience a kind of death. To be seen again can be a resurrection, an idea the cosmetic industry is more than happy to cash in on.

The science behind camouflage involves scattering light away from an object so it can’t be detected, much as some makeup is designed using light-diffusing technology to mask the signs of aging.

Examining my own transformations—from daughter and girl to woman and mother, and to old lady—I think perhaps every life shift requires a loss that must be mourned. In my twenties and thirties, jobs were easy to come by. Now that my kids have grown and I again have time to devote to meaningful work outside of the house, I find the work world has washed its hands of me. I’m moving on the natural currents these days. I’ve taken up writing, weaving, and collaging, not with any direction or endgame in mind, but rather because I enjoy these activities—free-flowing, spontaneous, and uncontained. I use recycled materials in both my visual art and my writing, borrowing from those who came before and imagining myself leaving something for those who come after me. I like giving new life to things deemed past their prime.

Polly was staying in our shelter back in the nineties when she told me about a bizarre dream she’d had. In it, a staff of people were working on her hair and makeup, like they had back when she’d been a chorus-line dancer. I said that sounded glamorous, and she agreed that it was. “But,” she said, “they weren’t preparing me for a show. No. They were prepping me for my funeral!” She seemed to find the dream amusing, so I went along with her, though I found it disconcerting. 

She was in her sixties and healthy then. But a few mornings later an aide knocked at my office door and said, in a frantic voice, “Polly is cold. I can’t warm her. She won’t get up.” 

I followed the aide up to Polly’s room. She looked peaceful, as if she were asleep. But she was gone.

I’d like to tell you that I sang Polly home, the same way she had sung so many tired, cold, let-down and worn-out New Yorkers home. But it was the first time I’d ever touched a dead body, and I was in shock. While the aide stood in the doorway softly crying, she repeated the phrase, “She’s so cold, I couldn’t warm her.” I crouched by Polly’s bedside, my hand on her icy forehead. When I think of her now, I hum the “Unforgettable” tune in my head and imagine her young, gorgeous, and dressed in her sequined showgirl getup. 

I think about all the people living on the streets, many with special needs, through this pandemic. How frightening the lockdowns, overcrowded shelters, and increased deaths have been for all of us, let alone for those without a safety net. Many were left outside and alone while our nation braced for the spread of COVID and those with resources took shelter. We could ensure that no person in our country had to make their home in a box or go without food, if we had the political will.

Age sneaks up on humans and city infrastructures. It reminds us to look beneath the surface, where there are layers upon layers still undiscovered. It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly.

Steam is a pure substance: its chemical composition is always H2O. We’re about 60 percent water ourselves, and like steam, we go through different phases. We are sometimes seen, sometimes not. Sometimes beheld, sometimes ignored. We act differently when we are being observed, and for all we know so does steam. 

Rolling clouds of steam look light and fluffy when seen from a distance. You can walk right through the mist without considering the larger unseen forces underground carrying the kind of heat and power that can energize whole cities.

About the Author

Anne McGrath

Anne McGrath is a Hudson Valley–based writer and visual artist. She is a Best American Essays 2020 Notable, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of fellowships from Vermont College of Fine Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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