Monday, June 20, 2016


90. FIRE!
One day there was a fire along
one of the tenement units on
St. Marks. I'd never really seen
one before. It was an eye-opener.
First off, it was a zillion degrees 
out already  -  that kind of NYC
heat where the bottle caps and
pennies and stuff, even nuts and
bolts, just get impressed into the
soft surface of the streets. You
see them afterwards for years, or
until the next paving anyway. It's
an urban phenomenon, like some
obvious and placed-visible form 
of archeology  -  and these fire
guys were traipsing around in
their 40 pounds of heavy and
fire-proofed outerwear. They 
had like axes and hatchets, 
and were going around blasting 
down doors and stuff. It wasn't a
raging blaze, not flames licking
out the windows or anything, or
not right then anyway. Instead it
was a thick, yellowish smoke that
sort of hugged everything. Outside
there were three firetrucks, running,
with water hoses and all that, and
hooked up to hydrants all along
the street. What was weird was that,
even with all the sweaty onlookers,
craning up, four, five floors, there
was lots of activity but everyone 
was calm. Even the fireguys; they
just went about their work with a
stolid determination, no noise or
anything that I could see or hear.
On the sidewalk was a captain or
squad leader, in radio contact, I
guess, with firemen inside, about
rooms and doorways and all that.
You could see firemen up on the roof,
and on adjoining roofs too. It was
more like 'where is this damn
fire anyway?'  No much hassle.
Just trying to find flames or source.
No one seemed trapped, or hurt.
It was all calm and steady. Other 
than the retch of smoke, there 
wasn't anything else to signify
'trouble brewing.' It was odd, for 
me. I was newly arrived. Never 
before had I witnessed this kind
of fire-scene. Back in Avenel, a
long time ago, Kathy Jones' 
house, on Clark Place, had 
burned. It was still new then,
maybe three or four years old.
That fire, as I recall, seemed
pretty fierce  -  hot flames and
smoke everywhere, and it took
the house down pretty good. And
another time, I remembered, there
was a huge oil field fire of some
sort in Staten Island, just over the
Perth Amboy Bridge. I must have
been six or seven years old, my
father and I drove over to see it. 
He'd thrown me in the car and went 
to it like it was an attraction in 
some amusement park. I remembered
a hundred or more people, police lines,
barricades, etc., everyone looking out
in the evening light at these great
arcs of fire, tanks collapsed inward, 
flames and smoke everywhere. I
can still remember myself, at some
water fountain there, with little
water pressure, almost mouthing the
nozzle to get a drink-flow, and then
my father came over with some kid
in leg braces and a wheel-chair, the 
kid was a polio victim  -  back then 
they used to be around  -  and him 
lifting the kid up out of the chair 
and holding him, like a toy, over 
the fountain, so he too could get 
a drink. It was weird, and sudden; 
I wasn't sure what had gone on. 
Turned out, the kid wanted a drink 
of water, my father somehow
heard of that, and just lifted the 
kid and brought him over. All 
this, while the fire was still 
raging. Weird memory. Anyway, 
when I witnessed this tenement
fire on St. Marks it kind of
confused me because there 
was really hardly any activity 
at all. No crazed or frenetic 
stuff going on, just a real 
business-as-usual thing
like it was everyday 
stuff. I figured
maybe it was.
That was only one of the 
things, in those first weeks, 
that I saw and referred to as 
strange and odd and different.
You have to understand, again,
from what I'd come; certainly
nothing like this. Right off
the bat, the entire sleeping 
in the park thing was bizarre.
I learned quickly to be wary of
certain sorts of people, to be
aware of and conscious of my
immediate surroundings and 
where my stuff was -   like a
detective, the eyes just began
scanning and taking everything
in. Never before, either, had I
ever been so conscious of my
body. The little personal 
schedule that gets established, 
somehow about the smallest
thing, taking a crap, peeing. 
Those aren't the sorts of things 
you can just publicly do 
anywhere, I mean not for 
me anyway  -  some guys did.
Every so often you'd see 
something gross  -  some 
dishevelled, really beat-looking 
bum or loser, dropping a load 
alongside a building, or in the
grass somewhere. That stuff
used to scare me  -  I never
wanted to reach that point. 
Loose pants, falling down, 
filthy, grease and dirt, stained,
they'd walk along, these guys,
half sideways, holding their 
own pants up, belt long gone,
shirt a mess. It was horrible
stuff and you sort of knew 
they were just headed for 
some sort of street-death. 
Tough to take : It all just
made me sad, knowing they
were probably someone's son,
or father, or even mother or
daughter. Life sometimes did
just get me down.
For myself, I had really no plans,
figuring, as I saw it, at least two 
months of street living to get me
started. There was some sort of
free food everywhere, dumpsters
and restaurants, and then a few
places I learned about too, that 
gave free food when something
was really needed. By the park,
the Diggers, I soon learned,
often would dispense whatever
free and leftover food they'd 
collect. It kept a lot of kids and
runaways alive. I was never at
quite that level, but I knew about
it. As I've written, I did soon
enough get some things going
and by the time the September
Studio School term got me going, I 
was OK. My previous chapters
here have dealt with a lot of that.
Another cool thing I want to 
mention, and this goes back to
Avenel and my younger days 
there, but even in NYC these 
were only just being phased 
out. When workmen cut the 
street, or some sort of digging 
or excavation was going on, 
they didn't use plastic cones
and barricades and stuff like 
now. There used to be these 
little round-shaped fire-pots 
everywhere. They had a little 
open-flare top thing, out
of which a really nice orange 
flame would be gently burning. 
They were often called tar-pots, 
or smudge-pots or fire-pots. 
They sometimes gave off a 
black smoke too, maybe filled
with kerosene or some sort of
a jelled Sterno. I don't know, 
but they'd just be left around; 
sometimes hanging from hooks, 
other times just on the ground.
It was the way drivers and walkers
were signified of digging and of
construction. No one ever seemed
to take them or mess with them, 
or get or burned or injured, and
certainly no one ever complained
about them : pollution, smoke,
open flames. The world was so
different. Nowadays, everyone 
complains and whines about 
everything. And if that was today,
too, there'd probably be a hundred 
Heeb lawyers chasing down cases
of supposed shock or injury or
damage to sue for claims over.
Everything's messed up. I really
used to love those old flame-pots;
just like any old railroad lantern or
something like that, they carried
along a nice sense of comfort and
complacency, a sort of rightness of
being, the idea that the whole real
world could safely and quietly
run on its own. No screechers,
no whiners, no people screaming 
at scenes of fire and mayhem.
Inside my own head, it was as if I
lived in a personal library  -  a library 
of place and memory, filled with 
thousands of volumes, and I was
steadily adding new ones as I went
along seeing and learning. Somehow
I'd developed ways of being
voracious for new information and
learning, never wanting to stop,
unceasingly headed out for new 
things. When the books got too
many, when the room got too 
filled, I'd just punch open another 
wall and find another room awaiting 
me  -  into which I'd add my new info 
while taking in all that the room itself 
had, also, to offer to me.

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