It all started before the fire.
For months, the man had kicked his spouse awake with the same recurring nightmare. In the dream, he arrives at Times Square in New York City on the Number 2 train he had boarded at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. He is the first violinist and founding member of the respected Arch String Quartet. He maintains a blossoming parallel career as a soloist and chamber musician. He is at the peak of his profession. His violin is a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin, a long-term loan from the Gothamburg Family Trust for the Arts. The Strad magazine judged his instrument one of the finest examples of the Golden Age of Cremonese violin-making. It is insured for eight million dollars.
In the nightmare, the man is wearing a suit and carrying his violin case. He changes to the 42nd Street Shuttle to Grand Central Station; but when he arrives at the end of the Shuttle tunnel, there are no stairwells, only a gaping hole in the floor thirty feet above the Lexington Avenue IRT tracks. He can see a train in the station on the express tracks. Wherever he looks, there are shattered walls, twisted girders, and piles of broken concrete. On the other side of a pile of rubble, he sees a column of people, six-deep, walking in orderly lock-step fashion. They look odd, but secure, as if there is a destination in their step.
Standing in the wreckage-strewn subway concourse, he weighs whether to join the line. He notices that all the travelers’ heads are covered with brown paper bags. Their other accouterments are typical of urban commuters—backpacks, folded newspapers, books, cell phones, purses, shoulder bags, rolling luggage, umbrellas. But unlike New Yorkers, this file of sojourners walks with military precision up a steep temporary wooden ramp. Their footsteps kick up a fine white dust.
Ah, the dust must be why they are wearing paper bags on their heads. It’s also why they are marching in step: they can’t see. That’s it. They can’t see where they’re going. Blind mice.
In the dream, he pulls a white handkerchief from his suit jacket and ties it over his mouth and nose. It’s then that he becomes aware of a droning sound. The marchers are humming. The enveloping paper bags give the sound a buzzing quality. He can discern no tune, only a continuous monotone buzz—maddening in its sameness.
No one in the moving line seems to notice that the station has been bombed or suffered a catastrophic structural failure. If they do, they give no indication of anything unusual. They ignore the collapsed walls and piles of rubble. They march on.
Just like blasé, thick-skinned New Yorkers. Or maybe some authority has forced them to don the paper bags so they wouldn’t see the extent of whatever happened here.
Just then, in the dream, he loses his New York cool. Suddenly, a panic attack. There is no place to run. No escape. His heart pounds erratically. His mouth is dry, his throat parched, his shirt soaked with sweat.
Clutching the violin case close to his body, the man watches the phalanx of travelers. If he can get to an exit, he can grab a cab or an Uber to his 10 o’clock rehearsal in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s already 9:30. Hemmed in by boxcar-size holes and surrounded by towering piles of debris, he has no choice but to join the line of commuters walking up the temporary ramp.
In the dream, there is no signage to indicate where the ramp leads. Then, without warning, a large chunk of concrete falls from a broken ledge and strikes the young woman walking alongside him. The woman stumbles and falls onto the ramp. A length of rebar protruding from the chunk pierces her head. She utters a short scream and falls silent. Her collapse wrenches the violin case from his arm, and the sharp edge of the concrete slices open his violin case. His irreplaceable Guarneri is exposed to the mayhem and dirt of the ramp. Torn between assisting the woman and attending to his damaged violin case, he hesitates. Before he can act, a girl in a school uniform kneels beside the fallen woman, closes her legs and pulls her skirt down. The good Samaritan has barely finished when two men in hazmat suits pour a liquid on the dead woman. Instantly, she dissolves into a puddle of bright green viscous goop. The men put the woman’s clothing and purse in the torn bag that had covered her head. They leave the bag where the woman died.
The man works his way to the side of the moving tide to inspect his violin. Meanwhile, at the site of the accident, the marching crowd tramples his music to Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and Dvorak’s Dumky Trio.
Impatient to retrieve his scores, the man dashes out to the middle of the ramp. On hands and knees, he gathers up the scuffed sheets, only to be stomped by the buzzing army. When he returns to where he left his violin case, he sees that it has been kicked up the ramp. When he recovers his case, it is empty. His treasured instrument, gone.
But that can’t be. Where is it? Madly scanning the scene, he doesn’t see anyone holding a violin. Now he is confused. Did he put his instrument in the case, or did he leave it on the piano in his practice studio? And where is the bow? His violin must have fallen from the case when the woman grabbed it during her fatal fall. No, that can’t be it. He remembered that it appeared to be unharmed in its damaged case. He turns, forcing his way against the throng, and moves down the ramp. When he spots the bag with the dead woman’s clothing, there is no violin, only his damaged bow and splayed horsehairs.
—Christ! he screams. A despair so dark envelopes him that it stops his heart. He wakes up, shuddering. His wife shakes him.
—Another nightmare? Get a hold of yourself, will you? This is getting really old.
—It was the worst one yet. A subway crowd trampled my violin and bow.
—My god, you are soaked with sweat.
—And my heart is pounding.
—You drink too goddamn much. That’s why you have these crazy night terrors. You’re dehydrated.
He didn’t answer. He drank because his marriage was in shambles. And because he felt a general decline in his love for music. No longer the jovial virtuoso and amiable leader of a world-class string quartet, he had become a neurotic paranoid. He was exhausted by a demanding schedule and the sacred responsibility of caring for an irreplaceable violin.
—Was it the Grand Central dream again? she asked in annoyance.
—I was on a ramp in Grand Central and the ceiling had collapsed. A chunk of falling concrete ripped my violin from my arms, and the people trampled my 283-year-old treasure.
—That’s the same nightmare you have most nights, she said with a bored sigh. You and that violin. Just get rid of that thing, will you? It’s an albatross. Return it.
—I can’t. I love that violin more than anything in the world.
—Thanks. So, what am I, chopped liver? Listen to me: For your sanity, return it. It’s killing you.
—But it’s an honor to play such an instrument. Fritz Kreisler, one of the most famous violinist played it. I love playing this violin. And the sound is nonpareil.
He threw the bedding aside and padded into the kitchen, took a bottle of Scotch from the liquor cabinet and chugged directly from the bottle. He went into his music room, put the Guarneri under his chin and played through the last movement of Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata. He loved this instrument. It sang for him. Just drawing the bow over the strings was a thrill.
When he returned to the bed, his wife was feigning sleep.
—Drinking won’t help, she scolded.
He tried to clear his mind. He hated upsetting his wife. She put up with a lot from him. It was nearly an hour before he fell asleep. He didn’t want to dream, but he re-entered the nightmare.
Back in the dream, he now hopes that at the end of the ramp he will find himself in the main concourse of Grand Central Station. From there, he knows where to exit and grab a cab.
Instead, he finds himself staring down a shattered wall, thirty feet above the IRT tracks. Commuters stand on the platform, unaware of anything strange. A train arrives, there is the usual chaotic exchange of passengers. Then the announcements: Step all the way into the car. Followed by: Watch the closing doors. After many tries, the conductor closes all the train doors, and the train leaves the station. So, the 4 train is running. If he could find a way to that platform, those trains would get him close to the Metropolitan Museum for his rehearsal. But how to get to the platform?
A fireman with a light on his helmet and armed with a large bullhorn is ordering people out of the area.
—But I gotta catch an uptown 4 train.
—You must leave, now! Get booking. Move!
—Look, mister, youse gotta get outta here now! This area ain’t safe. Falling concrete crushed a woman, and a piece of the ceiling fell and broke a man’s violin.
—But my violin is right here, sir.
—Oh, yeah? Look in your case, fella. And, say, is this your music? We found these loose sheets.
He handed the man torn and soiled copies of the Beethoven and Dvorak. The man opened his case: No violin, no bow, no music.
—Stop it! shouted his wife, shaking him. You’re screaming in your sleep. Wake up! You’re losing it!
Again, he was sweating. The sheets on his side of the bed were soaked.
—I was back in the nightmare at Grand Central. My violin was broken and the bow missing.
—I’ll make you some Chamomile tea. It will calm you. Christ, you’ve got to get over this.
—Let me draw you a bath and make tea.
—Fuck that hippy-dippy shit.
—Well, your whiskey sure as hell didn’t work. I heard you take the bottle from the liquor cabinet.
—For chrissakes, shut up about the drinking. It’s my only comfort these days.
—I’m only trying to help. It’s three in the morning. You can sleep for four hours. Should I draw you a bath and make tea?
—No, I’ll take a shower and then have your New Age tea.
—Good. I’ll put on a kettle. God Almighty, I’m up-to-here with this nightly drama. I need sleep, too. I’m so sleep deprived I can’t concentrate on my writing. I’m missing deadlines, losing income.
He didn’t know which was worse: His nightmares about losing a priceless violin, or the upset he caused his wife.
When sleep came, he dreamed of playing the evening’s concert with no right arm, his invisible bow magically moving by his thoughts.
—Sweetheart, he heard his wife say, shaking him. Wake up! Wake up! Someone is knocking on the front door.
—What time is it?
—Who the hell would be knocking our door at 5:30 a.m.!
Then he heard the smoke alarm in the outside hallway.
—Shit! Get dressed, he ordered. We gotta get outta here. There’s a fire.
—But shouldn’t you see who it is?
—There’s a fire somewhere in the building. Get dressed. Find Stretch, put him in the cat carrier. Get your coat.
He pulled on jeans, shoes and a flannel shirt.
—All right already, I’m coming! he shouted.
When he opened the door, three firefighters were standing there with big pry bars.
—Sorry to bother you, sir. There’s a fire in the building two floors above you. Don’t be alarmed. How many people live in this apartment?
—Me, my wife, and Kidd Stretch, our cat.
—Who lives across the hall?
—A deaf grandmother. She lives alone, but she also babysits her grandchildren there.
—What about the other two apartments on this floor?
—Two guys live next door. They’re on vacation in Bermuda. The woman in the other apartment is a night ER surgeon, I believe at Maimonides Medical Center. She works six to six.
—We order you to stay in your apartment. Stuff wet towels around the doors. Keep all doors closed, even inside ones. DO NOT LOCK YOUR OUTSIDE DOORS.
He watched a big fireman force the door across the hall with his heavy pry bar, bending the metal door frame and warping the door until it snapped open. In the open doorway, the man saw two small boys in Pooh Bear pajamas staring up at the fireman.
—Where is your grandmother? asked the fireman.
—She’s sleeping. Are we on fire?
One of the firemen volunteered to wake up the grandmother.
—You boys get dressed, said the burly fireman. Hurry.
The firefighter who appeared to be in charge turned to the man.
—Sir, be a hero, take these children and their grandmother into your apartment until it’s safe. If the fire makes its way down here, their broken door will not protect them.
Didn’t this clown realize his men just broke grandma’s door? Christ, as if having nightmares about catastrophes wasn’t bad enough, now I’m saddled with the care of two kids and their deaf grandmother. Fucking A. All I want is to get me and the del Gesù out of this burning building.
—Sure, my wife and I will take ’em, but I don’t believe it’s safe to stay here. Why can’t one of your men just lead us down to the street, safely away from the building? We watched people die on 9/11 because they followed firemen’s orders and stayed in the building.
—This building ain’t the Twin Towers, mister. It can withstand hours of burning flames.
—Yeah, right, I’ve heard that one before.
—Believe it. Don’t argue with me. Do what I tell you.
When the firefighters left, the two children sat watching cartoons on the television. Grandma and his wife prepared breakfast.
—This is crazy, raved the man. I’m not staying here. You people can, but I won’t. We’re only on the fifth floor. How long can it take to go down five flights of stairs? I’m leaving.
—Sweetheart, don’t. You heard what the fireman said, cautioned his wife.
—And from that window, right here in our apartment, did you and I not watch two thousand people die on 9/11 because they stayed put, just like the firemen told them?
—The fireman claims our building won’t collapse. Remember two years ago? A tornado hit the building, it swayed, but not one window broke.
—Well, I wasn’t here, you were. Look, I’m not going down in history as the man who lost a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin in a fire because he followed some smoke-addled fireman’s orders. We can easily escape; the fire is two floors above us.
—But what if smoke traps you in the stairwell, and you lose the violin? How will history treat you then?
—You’re not thinking right. Smoke rises. We all gotta leave, now!
—No, honey, we’re staying here, like the fireman said.
—Well, I’m outta here. See you later, when those geniuses put out the fire.
He threw on an overcoat, put the Guarneri in its case, filled a satchel with music and left the apartment by the back door. The stairwell was empty. When he arrived at the lobby, residents and firefighters were arguing. The firemen were telling skeptical residents that it was a small fire and to return to their apartments. Shaking his head in disbelief, he left the building, walked around the corner and sat on a park bench. Red-orange flames shot from the rear apartment on the seventh floor. That unit was undergoing renovation, who knew what chemicals were in the apartment.
He could see that this was no simple fire extinguisher conflagration. It could easily become a serious high-rise fire. If the antiquated gas lines broke or leaked, it was curtains for the building and the poor suckers who listened to the firemen. He counted fourteen fire trucks and a half-dozen ambulances parked near and around the building. The fire department was gearing up in case the fire got out of control.
Suddenly, a massive gas explosion. Bricks, glass, and furnishings flew out the rear of the building. The explosion knocked him to the ground. A piece of flying glass sliced his violin case. His hands and face were bleeding from minor cuts.
Frantically, he opened the damaged case. The violin appeared to be okay. It was intact. The lesser of his two bows was damaged.
—Fucking lucky, he said aloud. Thank God, the del Gesù still lives.
He closed the case as best he could, wrapped it in his overcoat. His nightmares were coming true.
Why me? Is this violin cursed? Am I cursed? He broke down and wept.
When the smoke and dust settled, he lifted his tear-streaked face and saw an opening that exposed the eighth floor down to the fourth floor. Through the hole in the facade, the man could see fires burning in all the apartments where the blast blew the outside wall out. The fire could now spread to the seventeenth-floor penthouse. Fearful for his wife and neighbors, he left the bench, crossed the street, now filled with emergency vehicles and circled to the front of the building. He saw that his own apartment was now on fire. To his horror, he saw his wife, the grandmother, and the two children leaning out the window, screaming and waving towels. A ladder truck maneuvered to rescue them.
Suddenly, a second explosion. Window glass rained down on the street. The two firefighters on the extended ladder were thrown to the sidewalk. When the smoke and debris cleared, he saw that his wife, the grandmother, and the children were no longer at the window.
And his cat, Stretch? Was he killed in the blast? Maybe he hid in some safe place.
The blaze burned for 12 hours and the building smoldered for a week. The toll: 1 building destroyed, 65 injured, 60 families homeless, and 14 dead, including three firefighters. The cause of the second explosion: bombs, and bomb-making materials in the sixth-floor apartment above his.
The man buried his wife and cat in their family plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. For weeks, his mind and spirit were numb with grief.
After the fire came the stories. He was the hero who saved a priceless violin. He was the coward who left his wife, two small children, and a grandmother to die in a high-rise fire. The New York press had a field day. In a televised interview on NY1, he mentioned the tragedy of 9/11 as the reason he didn’t follow the fireman’s orders. He told the police and the press that his wife refused to leave the apartment. No one listened to his story. Cowardly Fiddler Saves Instrument. Wife and Children Die in Blaze. (As if they were his children!) This became the clarion call of the yellow press. Whacko conspiracy theorists Tweeted that he was a co-conspirator with the bomb maker.
His career was ruined. He returned the Guarneri to the Gothamburg Family Trust for the Arts. He disbanded the Arch String Quartet and canceled what few engagements organizers hadn’t canceled due to social media pressure. But the nightmares continued. Conspiracy rumors persisted. President Trump Tweeted: Rachmann is a conspirator. Bad. Very bad. Therapy didn’t work. Despair was a constant companion. He lodged in a cheap room off 125 Street in Harlem around the corner from the Apollo Theater. He lost 40 pounds. He rarely slept. He walked the night streets to avoid his sleep terrors. His face changed from chubby to the chiseled, sunken-eyed visage of a theatrical Mephistopheles.
Then, two years after the fire, the Metropolitan section of The New York Times for Friday, October 9, 2020, ran the following obituary:
Viktor Rachmann, Virtuoso Violinist
One of the victims of last month’s horrific terrorist attack on Grand Central Terminal was Viktor Rachmann, 47, the famous virtuoso and first violinist and founder of the highly-regarded Arch String Quartet. He achieved a mixed celebrity when he saved a priceless 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin from certain destruction in a tragic 2018 fire in his apartment building. Among the many fatalities in that blaze was his wife, Maura Mulvaney, a frequent contributor to this newspaper.
The deceased is survived by two brothers, Dr. David Rachmann and Dr. Yehudi Rachmann. His brother Yehudi, a psychiatrist, disclosed that mental health treatments did not cure Viktor’s serial bouts of depression and PTSD. His brother David said, “He never recovered from having to give up the 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin he had on long-term loan from the Gothamburg Family Trust for the Arts. And he was devastated by the loss of his wife and his extraordinary Maine Coon cat, Kidd Stretch. The social media attacks on his character made him an eccentric recluse. But, Viktor never lost his passion for the violin and violin-playing.”
Victor Rachmann found a measure of solace as a regular busker on the subway transfer concourse in Grand Central Terminal and in Central Park. He had a large following and was known as the Subway Virtuoso for his flamboyant performances, dressed in white tie and tails, of the most demanding violin repertory. He became the inspiration for dozens of young children who heard him and took up the violin. He donated all his busker earnings to the Musicians Foundation for distressed musicians. Rescuers say that when they found Viktor Rachmann’s body this week, it was sheltering a carbon fiber violin. The price tag from a pawn shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown had not been removed: $165. Despite debilitating personal sorrow, his love for the violin never faltered. His legacy will live in the musical lore of this city. For many, he was a legend.