Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Thanking Mrs. Kelly

Eight years ago yesterday, my apartment burned down. Mrs. Kelly, elderly and paranoid, set fire to #60, her apartment, which was littered with teetering piles of papers and ashtrays overflowing with cigarillo butts. Her freezer was filled with chilled beer mugs for her long dead, wife-beater of a husband. The fire quickly spread through the roof space, and by the time the ceiling fell into #64, my apartment, five trucks were on the scene, and the elevated subway line that runs beside the building was closed down. It was a Saturday, in summer, and the neighbourhood turned out to watch the building burn. I’ve told the story many times since: how Mrs. Kelly scratched and fought us, how Mayor Giuliani’s eyes glazed over when I asked if we could stay at Gracie Mansion, how Mr. History narrated the whole trip down to the Red Cross in a commandeered city bus, as if we’d all decided to take a field trip.

There was a welcome lightness walking in the East Village later that night, stopping to buy toothbrushes at a bodega, not caring that I wasn’t wearing a bra. I recognized my apartment on the television, flames shooting out the windows. I couldn’t imagine getting over it. Unable to sleep, I called the New York Times to cancel my subscription and the person wanted to know why. When I told him, he laughed.

Perhaps I’m wrong that I’m a tenth as happy now as I was ten years ago. Perhaps when we look back we can’t help but imagine ourselves as generalisations, without remembering the particularities of individual days, hours, moments. Since Monday, the mail’s included a parcel from the UK, a card including cash and the latest New Yorker. All were unexpected.


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