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Fire Escape
By Gemma Roskam

Right 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 was high.

"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 hung up.

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 & 6th."

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