it happened one night

Of all my stories from 20 years of living in the city it is this one, which I was reminded of this past week, that may be the New Yorkiest.

Parent teacher conference night can last a long time, if you attend a school, as we did, with a procedure where you sign in on arrival and then wait your turn.  It was our second grading period and this time I was going to be prepared for the possible long wait, bringing snacks and drinks for the boys and a sandwich for T, who would be coming to meet us straight from work. 

It wasn’t the most efficient policy – why not give a specific time for each meeting, like they did at other schools? – yet it illuminated something about PS 9 that belied its reputation among so many of my new neighbors, who I had been talking to since B started Pre-K there. It was a great program and free, unlike the other private preschools in the area (one of which B had attended until a neighbor highly recommended PS 9). “‘They’ don’t care about their kids’ education”; “‘They’ don’t have the right middle class values”  were comments I heard frequently from parents who were so pleased to be living in such a diverse neighborhood yet wanted nothing to do with the local school, which was for other kids.  If only they had been there with us, seeing the many dozens of parent all waiting patiently for their time with the teacher to discuss their childrens’ progress, all invested in their kids’ success as much as any parent at the expensive private schools that many in our neighborhood chose to attend instead.

Yes, it was loud and cramped but not altogether unpleasant – people cheerfully chatted, kids played together, people who planned ahead brought snacks or dinner, knowing from experience what this night was like. Only when I went to pull out our food early in the evening and I saw that the sandwich wasn’t there. Could I have left it in the toaster oven on the broiler setting? Was the sandwich burnt to a crisp perhaps?  It was a vague idea but nothing I was too worried about – there were no open flames or hot oil, it was a small serving in an enclosed setting.  

We spent the next hour or so waiting, chatting, finally having our 15 minutes with the teacher Ms B, who gave a glowing report – not surprising – of how B was doing, both academically and socially.  I left in good spirits, glad that no matter what some of my neighbors thought, we were attending our local school and having such a positive experience.  

It was a nice evening – all these years later I can’t remember the month, only the year – 2001 – and that we weren’t wearing heavy coats or carrying extra layers in the school, and that there wasn’t rain or snow on the way home.  I felt unburdened, in many ways. And the school is so close, I thought happily. Then as I rounded the corner my spirits got a gut punch as I saw the entire street filled with fire trucks and flashing lights. Could it be from the sandwich I left in the toaster oven? No, even if it was burnt it couldn’t have caused this sort of damage. Still, I was anxious, grabbing V’s stroller and racing to get to our building midway down the street, and when I got to the lobby it was filled with firemen! Oh no!

I ran into the elevator with V, pressed the button for the 6th floor with my heart palpitating. Then when I got to our apartment I saw that the door was off the hinges, with marks that looked like it had been hacked open with an ax!  Inside totally stunned I walked into our little kitchen where I saw  2 tiny pieces of black shriveled toast and cheese in the sink, the toaster oven door open.  To think this was overkill – literally a dozen or more fire trucks and a hatcheted door for one burnt sandwich – was an understatement.  Why the person who smelled smoke hadn’t first contacted the super, who could have easily opened our door and checked things out, it’s not like there was smoke streaming out onto the hallway…but instead someone had called the fire department and they had come, boy had they come. 

I went back down to the lobby in a state of shock, a state similar to that which was still gripping the entire city so recently after 9/11, when right on the other side of the river we watched the bombing of the first tower from our bedroom window. T said that the building was on fire but I had a hard time believing what had happened. By the time the second plane hit I was at a doctors appointment, standing in a waiting room filled with people all looking out the window with a perfect view of the bombing. By the second one we knew that this was no accident, and we tried to wrap our heads around what had happened. The receptionist insisted we watch, saying “This is life. Don’t look away’” then minutes later said that our appointments might be delayed as helicopters might be landing on the roof with survivors who needed medical care. We didn’t know then how few survivors there would be, that over 2,700 people would be killed. That first responders ran into the buildings and over 300 firefighters died.

Months later the city was still in shock, still coming to terms with what had happened. Firemen, already revered by kids and crushed on by women, were now true rock stars. I know that term is overused now but it really was like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder  were all milling about in my building lobby with their rock star friends as well as the woman in 6E and about 20 other neighbors, who looked ecstatic to be in their company.  The atmosphere in the lobby was not so different from that at PS 9, neighbors happily chatting with each other, although instead of teachers it was firemen who were the star of the show. 

I felt both irate – a block full of fire trucks for one burnt sandwich? – and sheepish – there had been the smell of smoke and I was to blame. I found T and B in the lobby and prepared them for our doorless apartment. “Is that your place?” a gorgeous Mick, overhearing me asked, and I braced myself for what was to come, a lecture about how I should check my appliances before I went out or something like that. Instead he exclaimed, “I love that big colorful picture on your wall! Who painted it?”

Dumbfounded I said, “My friend Florence Sillen. Yes, it’s a beautiful painting, thanks.” And with that we left the firemen and neighbors in the lobby and went upstairs to get ready for bed, the end of a night in the city I’d never forget.

(F. S. 1938-2021 ❤️)

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