I had all I needed around me on the living room floor, which was carpeted to wall to wall in a dark green floral pattern, comfortable enough for an eight year old to spend all day on it. There were baseball cards in piles, waiting for me to divide into teams and position them in the field. I had two good pencils long enough to serve as bats, and I had two marbles for baseballs. Using my right hand, I would toss the marble into the air, and with my left hand swing the pencil on the axis of my forefinger held down by my thumb. I was sole judge of what happened when the marble landed: out, base hit or homerun. I was pitcher, batter, umpire, and announcer in one person, doing the Holy Trinity one better because I was one baseball god in four persons.
All of that was waiting to be played because before that I had my Jon Nagy Learn To Draw tracing book out and my art pencils ready to go. The tracing task in the book occupied my attention although the ballgame to be played was next in mind. Thus prepared, my full attention on what I had chosen to do, I was in the world of my imagination.
It wasn’t just an internal world. It was important that I had to use my hands. All day long, whether in school or at home, I was doing something with my hands: drawing, doodling, setting up miniature soldiers behind table legs and refrigerators vents to shoot down, flipping baseball cards. Hand dexterity was what I could develop without breathing hard because breathing hard meant summoning an asthma attack. I was an asthmatic who was often ill with bronchitis. At times, the attacks were so severe that I lay on my parents’ open sofa bed unable to move and unable to take more than short quick gasps of breath. I felt much like a goldfish that leapt out of his bowl and struggled in the air even though life-giving water was nearby. No, I felt even worse because the air everyone breathed in without problem was there for me, too. Only I could not take enough into my lungs to move.
The February day was cold gray outside. I was home, semi-sick from school. My mother left me in the apartment for a bit while she went out shopping for dinner at the butcher’s and the grocer’s, less than a block away.. The TV was turned to an afternoon variety show. I didn’t pay much attention. My mother had turned it on only to keep me company.
I began to smell smoke, but paid it no mind. The smell got stronger, so I stopped my tracing and went to the hallway door. The smell was very strong, but what concerned me were the noises I began to hear. There were whacking and pounding noises. I had no idea what they were. In our Brooklyn apartment world of sound, noises such as these were alien to us, not like people slamming doors, bottles breaking, garbage being dumped into a truck or any of the other common noises that were the every day chorus of city living. The noises seemed to come closer to the hall door, so I moved away from them, back into the living room. I had no idea what to do. I only hoped that returning to one of my routines would stop these aberrations of smell and sound from continuing. But they didn’t. Instead, they grew more powerful.
Once again, I got up and ran to see what new intrusion was invading our floor of apartments. There was a pounding on our door. This frightened me, so I ran back into the living room. I was without any understanding of what was happening. That soon changed.
Back in the living room, I turned at the sound of broken glass. The living room window was shattered and I had no idea of why. Scared to move, I stood rooted until a black uniformed fireman crawled off the fire escape into our apartment. He grabbed me although I don’t remember him calling to me or me going to him. With one arm, he carried me down the fire escape to the sidewalk below.
As we descended I could see a crowd of people in the street and on the sidewalk, looking up at this display of heroic rescue. They cheered when they saw the fireman making his way down with me in tow. I noticed a police car on the corner with its back door open. In that back seat, looking up at me was my mother. I could see her eyes were red and she was dabbing at them with a tissue. At the sight of me, she jumped up, and called out to me, moving forward so quickly that she almost fell face first on the asphalt.
As soon as I got to the ground, she was on me with one question after another.
“Didn’t you smell the smoke?”
“Yes, but not right away.”
“Didn’t you see the fire?”
“Wasn’t there noise from firemen clearing the apartments? Didn’t you hear it?”
“Yes, but I didn’t know…”
“You didn’t know? What were you thinking?”
“I was tracing in my book. The TV was on. You left it on. I went back and forth to the hallway when I heard pounding, but I didn’t see anything because I didn’t open the door. You told me never to open the door if you weren’t there.”
“But the firemen…”
“He came through our window. He broke it.”
“He rescued you.”
“Yes, your asthma could have gotten worse from the smoke. Did you thank him?”
“I don’t know. They all look the same in those long coats and fire helmets.”
Then I walked over to where the firemen were taking a break. The fire had been put out and the smoke was dissipating. A few of the men had taken off their protective helmets and coats. I walked up to one tall brawny fireman and asked him if he had rescued me from the apartment. He said no, but pointed to another fireman, sitting in the gutter, having a smoke.
“Thank you, sir.”
“For what, sonny?”
“For rescuing me from the fire.”
“Wasn’t much of one, was there?”
“I didn’t see it at all. Where was it?”
“Just on your floor in one of the apartments. No one was home, so we had to break down the door. Do you want to be a fireman when you grow up?”
“No sir. I want to be a shortstop for the Dodgers or a famous artist.”
“That sounds better than sucking smoke in your lungs most days.”
“Thanks again, sir.”
“You got it, sonny.”
In less than an hour, an all clear was given and we were allowed to return to our apartments. Mom put cardboard in front of the broken living room window, and said that the super would come to fix it the next day.
When I went to sleep that night, I had the smell of smoke in my nose and I couldn’t get rid of it. I felt a little cheated. I had been in a fire, but hadn’t seen any flames. I wondered what the firemen saw, whether it scared them, whether they wanted to run from the fire instead of to it. Before I fell asleep, I pictured myself carrying Mom down the fire escape and everyone cheering for me.
After 9/11, everyone’s talking about the heroes of the New York City Fire Department. I find myself walking over the BQE, now the Gowanus Expressway, that links Brooklyn to the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island and to the Belt Parkway out to Long Island. I look down at the cars speeding to and from Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Long Island, Staten Island, all linked now via expressways. The wind plays with some fast food wrappers, blowing them near my face. I step on an unused ketchup container. I stumble over a paper bag filled with empty beer bottles and soda cans. This is where friends once lived. Right where I am walking at the moment. Instead of them, there is this concrete and steel overpass and beneath me, six lanes of traffic moving quickly in opposite directions.
It is a cold, unforgiving February morning, and I am unemployed. I have twenty dollars in my wallet and no prospects. I live alone in the same apartment I once shared with my mother and father, both gone before the turn of the century. It is a life unlived that I lead. My face is burrowed into my aging green ski jacket, the down feathers leaking out a bit at a time from the underarm seam, the zipper balky and often unmanageable. I am wearing an old banana yellow corduroy shirt and pair of brown corduroy trousers. Work boots on my feet, well worn walking these streets. I am nearly in middle age. My hair is thinning. My forehead has permanent frown lines. I often neglect to shave.
“What is there for me in this world?” It’s a question I keep asking myself. I don’t know the answer, but I keep hoping that one day the answer will come. I pass the apartment building opposite mine, and something clicks. “There’s something going on. Something is wrong,” I say to myself, almost aloud. Curiosity pushes me in the direction of the large glass and steel double doors of the entrance. I step inside. It’s quiet, but there is an odor, something smells different.
The farther into the builidng I move, the more certain I am that something is wrong. Then it comes to me. There must be a fire. What I smell is smoke. Something is burning for sure, and it’s not down in the basement where the incinerator is. Besides superintendents are not allowed to use such things these days. Not like when I was a kid. Inside the lobby, its old marble floor still intact enough to show an art deco pattern, I look right and left. Like my apartment building, this one has two wings with six apartments each on four floors. There is no elevator. I choose the right stairway out of habit, and take the steps two at a time.
The second floor has a stronger smoke odor than the first floor did, but as I touch each door and listen, I can feel no sense of a fire within.
I move to the third floor and there I find the fire. I can see flames licking out under an apartment door. I assume no one is inside. For the most part, these apartments are occupied by working class families. During the day, their kids are in school and the parents at their jobs. I go to the door of the next apartment. I pound on the door, but no one answers. I don’t have a cell phone, so I can’t call the fire department or the police. I knock on every door on that floor, trying to get someone’s attention. No one answers. That’s when I start to scream, “Fire, Fire! Get out of your apartments right away!”
A floor below, doors open. People look up, unbelieving. “How do you know there’s a fire?” an old man asks me.
“Can’t you smell it? It’s right here on the third floor in this apartment.”
“I don’t smell nothin’,” he answers, and goes inside.
A woman in a housedress comes halfway to the third floor. She stands in the landing and asks, “Who are you?”
“I live in the building across the street,” I answer. “I’ve been in a fire and I know what it smells like. And I can see flames coming out of an apartment here. Call the fire department, will you?”
She does and within minutes a team of firemen surround me with their axes in hand. They begin to hack away at the door of the apartment that is on fire. Using chemical spray, they rapidly get the flames under control. A bad heater wire started the fire in an electrical outlet. The damage is confined to the hallway only. No one was in the apartment. All this I learned as they escort me down the stairs and check me for smoke inhalation.
One or two firemen remain on the third floor doing safety checks. The superintendent has come to unlock each apartment. No strong smell of smoke. No damage done. But in the last apartment, there is a boy in front of a computer screen.
He tells a fireman that he didn’t hear or smell anything. His mother told him to stay in the apartment until she returns from a short shopping trip and not to open the door to anyone while she is out. This I hear from the superintendent when he comes to thank me for first spotting the fire.
As I walked home, I thought about my fire, my rescue, my baseball cards, my pencils and my tracing book. And I hoped with all my heart that that little boy in front of his computer playing games would have a future in which remembering the time he was near fire wasn’t such a big deal. There would other things in his life so much more important.