It is fall in London, where I now live, but I spent ten years in Manhattan so it comes as no surprise that I would remember early dark evenings, dark so suddenly that you know with a flash that summer has gone, and that I would think of crisp mornings when leaves first shuddered at my feet and then scattered around my knees, a gust blown from some avenue or canyon. I sit here, however, in a big house, married, pregnant, learning a new city, and remember not the old days but one fall day in particular.
I lived on Macdougal Street in 350 square feet with two dogs who I got because I was lonely. I got the first dog, Edie, because I was lonely, that is, and the second, Albert, because I thought Edie might be as lonely as I; a fireplace which, I believe, made the rent so high; and an Italian restaurant beneath. The landlord Peter, sweet and attentive, was the chef and owner of Villa Mosconi, a dark place with the smell of garlic, pasta boiling coming from the windows and where mafia men sat with their girlfriends under paintings of cherubs and gondolas.
I walked the dogs every night up to crowded Bleeker Street and then I would turn down Sixth Avenue, cross Houston, and take them past the fire station there. Even late at night it was safe with its large garage door open, the firemen playing ping pong next to the trucks, or talking, laughing, leaning against the wall, waiting. They had biscuits for the dogs, they would pull them out of their pockets or from behind brightly lit places in the station. Edie, who looked like a blond Toto, would roll over on her back while Albert would dance and perform. The firemen, three of them young and smiling, always laughed as I managed the leashes that tangled with scattered dog joy, they would lean and pet one belly, tease Albert with his treat, and they would say to my dogs almost every night, “Hi little girl, you jump high big boy.” The firemen became my odd kind of New York friends: faces recognized but names unknown.
I had three windows on Macdougal Street– each lined close to the other, all facing a playground beneath, Sixth Avenue beyond it— and on the fall day in question I saw that cars were parked on the basketball court. I woke up with leaves beating against the windows, trapped in the metal coverings, and I looked down on a makeshift parking lot that I had never seen before, ominous in its strangeness and quiet. That morning I took the dogs on their night walk, on a crisp autumn day, seven years gone and 3,000 miles away. We turned on Sixth Avenue and saw the black banner flying above the fire station, flapping somehow in the wind meant for leaves.
I turned back and bought The New York Post from the deli next to the station, the man behind the counter was gray as the sky, which pounded so hard from the night turned to morning, and I walked past the chained link fence of the playground and by all of those cars parked there like soldiers, so still in their perfect formation.
Three fireman had died the night before, I would recognize each face in the paper, (their captain would die later from his burns so severe that no one could believe any one had that kind of life to fight) and in a week thousands of fireman would be in formal dress, they would march up Fifth Avenue silently past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the mayor would say “It is only a hero who can walk into a burning building and save a stranger.”
I looked out my three windows at the cars parked on my playground view, cars of the family of those men gone from across the street and felt not lonely but as if all the leaves swirled suddenly and, just for one instant, upward in one same direction.