never before called 911, I assumed my civic duty ended with my original
call, and the fact that I was now expected to play host to this
fire was alarming. I flew out the door, stopping only to brush my
hair, apply lipstick and gargle mouthwash. Just the way any single
woman would if she knew in advance she was going to encounter firemen.
Before I even reached the corner I could see that Avenue A was aglow
with flashing red lights. When I turned the corner, I was disappointed
to see that the operator hadn't heeded my advice but had, instead,
dispatched four enormous full-sized trucks. I hoped the fire was
big, but in a safe way.
I raced down the block toward the trucks.
I noticed, just ahead, at the corner of Sixth, a smolderingly hot
fireman looking my way. When he saw me running towards him, he began
to run towards me. "You the woman who reported the fire?"
he asked, desperation gleaming in his hazel eyes.
I nodded with a humble smile as if to say "Thank me later,
let's go save some lives."
"My name's Tony," he said, and then he turned to the driver
of the first truck. "This is the woman who reported the fire."
The driver, an older man with a bushy mustache, a kind smile and
twinkling eyes, saluted me and turned on the blaring sirens. As
I blazed up Sixth, leading Tony, eight firemen on foot and four
screaming fire engines, I prayed silently, please God, please make
Tony be the one. This would be the best "So how did you two
meet?" story ever.
By the time we reached the Wonder Bar, residents were peering out
of every window on the block. People were standing on fire escapes
and rooftops, and all the diners in the French bistro had their
noses pressed to the window; two festive drag queens were screaming
in terror, and the sparks were flying between Tony and me. I wondered
if later, when I rode one of the trucks to the after-party back
at the station I would have to sit up front or if they'd let me
stand in the back. I wondered if we could drive by my ex-boyfriend's
house. No, wait. It'd be better if he just saw me on the TV news.
Tony was looking at me with those eyes again. "Which building?"
he asked. I carefully counted the buildings and pointed to the fourth.
Tony reached for the buzzer, and I put my hand on his arm. "I'm
not sure what I saw," I said softly. "I don't want to
scare everyone." He nodded, and I knew he understood. He'd
buzz just one person, keep this calm. And then -- he ran his thumb
up and down all the buttons, shouting "Fire!" and I knew
we'd have to work on our non-verbal communication.
Someone buzzed us in immediately.
The building had no lobby, just some mailboxes, a rickety staircase
and a long hallway with a door to the backyard. I moved to guide
Tony and his comrades to that back door, but they had it from there.
Suddenly all eight firemen were running down the hall, shouting
The door to the first apartment in the hallway opened and an elderly
woman wearing a pastel nightgown and track socks, curlers in her
hair and a well-fed cat in her arms began to scream in a thick Ukrainian
accent, "What is problem?"
One fireman stopped to tell her that there was a fire in the building.
"Luckily a woman reported the fire," he said pointing
"Thank God for her!" the woman gasped.
This building, like most in the neighborhood, housed a cross section
of people from the old country, NYU students and methadone clinic
outpatients. Representatives of each were now helping each other
down the stairs, demanding to know what was happening. The old woman
explained about me. "She saved us," she told each one.
Two coeds in NYU sweatshirts waved at me, and a man with a tattooed
face and metal studs in his cheeks gave me a thumbs up.
Then suddenly the clamoring in the backyard stopped and I heard
Tony calling for me.
"Yeah Tone?" I called back, giving the tenants a knowing
"Come out here," he said.
I politely excused myself and ran out back where, to my surprise,
all eight firemen were just standing around.
As I walked down the few steps into the barren yard, Tony looked
hard at me. "There's nothing here," he said.
Sixteen eyes were on me.
My heart sank. Had I gotten the yard wrong? No. "It was definitely
this one. At least, I mean, I think it was this one," I stammered.
Two firemen clambered over the fence on either side of the yard
to check. A tiny flicker of hope that I might yet be redeemed was
extinguished a minute later when they both called "nothing
We stood there, silent again. I looked around the yard to see if
there was any way I could possibly start a fire.
By then the tenants had gathered near the back door, and as the
firemen announced their verdict, the crowd parted and the captain,
a frail, wrinkled prune of a man, pushed his way through. He strode
to Tony's side and, nodding in my direction asked, "Is she
I noticed immediately that I had been demoted from "the woman
who reported the fire" to "the caller." Which I later
figured out probably stood for "Crazy-Ass Lying Lady Everyone
Resents." He asked me where I lived, and I pointed behind us,
up to my window.
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