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
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."
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
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 orders.
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 to me.
"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
"Yeah Tone?" I called back, giving the tenants a knowing look.
"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 here."
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 the caller?"
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.
were you doing right before you saw the fire?" he asked, and I told
him how I'd been out on the fire escape smoking.
"Is it possible that the smoke you saw was from your own cigarette?"
I shook my head hard. "No." And then I wondered if it had been,
and I said no again, more to reassure myself than anyone else.
"Are you on medication?" he asked.
"No," I said, but I figured now I'd need some kind of pill to
help me get over this debacle.
After a few more questions the captain concluded that I was not malicious,
just not particularly bright. He called his men inside, and we filed through
the endless hallway. I hung my head, my cheeks burning with shame. Right
before the door closed behind us the old lady asked, "Why would she
do this to us?" Tattoo face put his arm around her. "People
are strange, Elsa," he said. Tony walked me to the corner, slapped
my back and smiled warmly. "Take care of yourself," he said
in an extremely genuine way that made it clear that our affair would not
be taking place on account of my mental state.
When I neared my apartment I saw the door was open, and I heard voices
on the other side. I cautiously stepped inside and a large police officer
with a furrowed brow met me in our narrow hallway. "Ma'am, do you
live here?" I told him I did.
I wondered if, before he arrested me for calling in a false alarm, he'd
let me change out of my Juicy Couture sweatsuit into something a little
more rugged and Riker's Island-ready.
"I hate to tell you this, but you've been robbed." I felt relief
and then horror. Perhaps in my haste I had forgotten to lock the door.
"Oh no!" I said, and the cop nodded. "My partner and I
responded to a 911 call from this number, but when we got here we had
to call for back-up."
Who knew when you place a 911 call of any kind, all sorts of emergency
personnel show up at that address?
"I have to prepare you," the cop said. "The thieves really
trashed your place."
Now I saw six cops moving through my apartment, taking notes and snapping
pictures, looking for clues that might help solve the case of who could
have done this terrible thing to my apartment.
My cheeks burned still hotter. "Um," I interrupted, "I
did this." And I gestured lamely at the mess. I didn't go into how
I didn't think of it as a mess, exactly, that really it was an artistic
expression, the work of a suffocated artist finally freed. I did tell
them that I called 911 about what turned out to be a nonexistent fire.
I walked to the window and pointed, and then I gasped.
"There it is!" I cried, delighted to see after all I hadn't
hallucinated. There was the smoke. "Yes!" I said. "See
there it is!"
The cop walked to my side, put his hand on my shoulder and looked a little
sad. "Lady," he said gently, "that's just steam from a
That night I cleaned until 4 a.m., searching for the source of my woe.
I tried to find a place to lay blame for my seeming madness. I chose the
government. There should be a step between doing nothing and a full-blown
emergency. There should be another number to call for those mini-problems.
Instead of a hotline there could be a lukewarm line. 910. Maybe a number
answered by a giggly operator who'd say, "910, maybe it's somethin'
but maybe not." That would be someone I could tell about a possible
emergency. Someone who'd dispatch a thin man with a painter's cap in a
souped-up golf cart who would come out and take a quick look.
I decided I wouldn't tell Ben about the events that had transpired in
his absence, but the instant I heard his key in the lock I raced to the
door and began my impassioned confession. He carefully hung up his jacket,
brushed a piece of lint off his jeans, and then we sat on our barstools
and he squealed with delight as I told him every last detail, down to
Tony's desperate hazel eyes.
As Ben laughed, my shame evaporated, and when I was finished, he smiled
and said, "Only you, Gemma," and I heard it the way he meant
it, as a compliment. After all, he understood that my living in a state
of emergency -- by oversleeping, losing my house keys every day, getting
lost, being chronically late, writing important notes on tiny shreds of
napkins, canceling all the credit cards in a wallet that turns out not
to stolen after all, in short -- infusing drama into every moment of life
-- enriched not only my life, but his.
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