after we graduated from NYU, my best friend Ben and I decided to
share a small apartment on Avenue A and Seventh Street in the East
Village. Before we moved in together we knew what our biggest challenge
would be. Let me put it this way: Ben had a little sign that said
"A place for everything and everything in its place,"
but he kept it in his filing cabinet in a folder marked "Witty
Signage." Likewise, I had a place for everything: The floor.
We both knew the disorganization in my life made small tasks, like
getting ready for work in the morning, more dramatic than a television
miniseries. Ben was nervous. "It'll be okay," I reassured
him, "I'll change." And I did, sort of. I managed to keep
the common areas clean, made easier by the fact that we had no living
room. The problem was that keeping everything neat killed me. I
feared I was dulling my creative edge. So finally when, after nearly
three years, Ben bravely chose to break his routine and go away
for a long weekend, I decided to get back my roots.
That first evening, when I opened our front door I called out "hello?"
just in case. I took off my jacket and turned to hang it on my designated
hook, but when I heard no reply, I threw it on the floor. That pleased
me so much I liberated the other neatly hung jackets. With a mischievous
smile I stepped over them and as I walked past the hallway mirror
I reached out and moved it off center. I caught my reflection; my
eyes were wild with excitement. I was free. So free I need not wear
clothing. I tore off my Banana Republic casual separates and let
them fall where they may. Then I danced through the apartment looking
for things I could mess up. I started small -- knocking over a neat
stack of mail with my cat-like paw. Next I boldly overturned our
bar stools and then I de-alphabetized our CD & video collections
by strewing them across the carpet. Out of breath from laughter,
I surveyed the damage. Having to clean this all up seemed a small
price to pay for such joy.
Then I thought of one last rule I could break. I could smoke inside.
I wasn't even a smoker; I only lit up when I wanted to feel a little
bad ass. For such occasions, we kept a pack of cigarettes and a
lighter in the linen closet in a recipe box that Ben had labeled
"Cigarettes & a Lighter." I picked up an ashtray,
plunked down on the couch, but right before I lit up I realized
the "no smoking in the house" rule was my own. I didn't
want the place to smell icky so I dressed and crawled onto the fire
escape. So much for being a bad ass.
As I took in the crisp city night air, I wished I were a real smoker;
smokers take much more advantage of the outdoors. By East Village
standards, our building was considered fancy because it had an elevator
and the apartments had been remodeled in the '70s, but I preferred
the buildings behind ours -- charming old tenements with miniscule
backyards. Sure those buildings were infested with rats and in general
disrepair. But to me they seemed like authentic, artistic city dwellings.
So I was looking that way as I took a final drag, sputtered a little,
and bent down to put out my smoke. That's when I noticed more smoke,
but this was billowing from the basement window of one of those
genuine tenements. For the first time that evening I wished Ben
were home; he'd know what to do.
I thought about screaming for help, grabbing a neighbor. Instead
I sauntered inside and called a friend in Chico, California. She
"Sounds like a fire," she said slowly.
"It looks like a fire," I said. Suddenly realizing that
meant I had to do something.
We hung up, and I called 911.
The 911 operator was exactly what you would expect -- her voice
nasal, her Long Island accent strong, and she seemed annoyed her
phone had rung at all. "Emergency 911," she said. "Hello,"
I said apologetically. "It looks like there might be a fire
in the building behind mine."
She asked for the building number.
"I don't have one because I'm looking at the back of the building.
But I can tell you exactly where it is. Sixth Street between A &
B, north side, four buildings east of a gay club called Wonder Bar."
"Anything else?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said, "I'm not sure what's happening so
I'd say just send one truck; a small one if you have it." We
Minutes later my phone rang -- my operator calling back. "The
firemen are on their way."
I was impressed by the courtesy call. I thanked her, and then, before
I could hang up she said, "Meet them on the corner of A &
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