Broken Glass

by

02/13/2022

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Last January, days before I was due to return to New Orleans from New York, a fire broke out in my parents’ apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had come to the city in the midst of the pandemic to repopulate my life, albeit temporarily: the first week belonged to my then-girlfriend, the second to my parents, the third, once my parents had left town, to a handful of close friends. The fire occurred during the final week of my stay; I was alone in the apartment in which I had lived as a teenager and again as a young man, the apartment that, not long after graduating college, I left in haste following a dispute with my father.

My memory of the fire begins at roughly nine o’clock. I was lying on the sofa in the living room of my parents’ apartment when my vision started to flicker, as if I were rapidly blinking my eyes. I was disconcerted and examined the lights, but I could detect no sign of a problem. I resolved to keep my eyes open; and yet my vision continued to waver. Being prone to hypochondria, I called a friend who was soon to start medical school. With sobriety, she said that I should seek help only if I began to lose my vision, but that in all likelihood I was fine. We hung up. Through the window the red and blue strobe light of an emergency vehicle was visible.

Not long later I received a call from a neighbor, who explained that a small electrical fire had broken out in the building next door — hence the flickering lights and emergency vehicles. As a precaution we had been advised to unplug our appliances, for the wiring of our building was connected to that of the adjacent building. There was little cause for concern; apparently the nearby fire was already under control. Fire — what a relief! The optical illusion was not in fact an optical illusion; I was neither on the verge of a stroke nor an hallucinatory episode.

I began disconnecting plugs from sockets. Like many homes in Manhattan, the apartment faced two directions: the living room and master bedroom looked out onto the street while my father’s study and my childhood bedroom looked in on the neighbors’ apartments. In the cramped study I attempted to disentangle a rat’s nest of cords and cables and found myself cursing my parents for being untidy. Soon I began to smell smoke which seemed to come from the courtyard. I abandoned the cords and went into my childhood bedroom, where I could more easily open the window. Again I smelled smoke. But now, in addition to the fumes, I could hear voices and shouts. The shouts were masculine and unintelligible; and they reverberated in the courtyard.

I decided to take stock of the possessions with which I should flee, if, indeed, I needed to flee. Quickly I determined that the paintings hanging in the living room were to be prioritized. But how to transport them? In the kitchen I found two Duane Reade shopping bags; and so, returning to the living room with bags in hand, I began to dismount numerous paintings (the most valuable work, a yellow interior by Larry Rivers, was far too unwieldy). Carefully I placed the paintings in the bags. While doing so I spotted a loose-leaf photograph of my grandfather propped up against the wall. I decided to take that as well.

At this point a commotion could be heard on the sixth-floor landing. Holding the photograph of my grandfather, I walked to the foyer, where I had already put a backpack containing my laptop, notebooks, and a cheap edition of Melville’s Benito Cereno. I looked through the peephole: two neighbors hurried down the stairs. I opened the door: smoke billowed into the apartment. Immediately I forgot about the paintings; instead, I grabbed the backpack containing my own possessions and, still holding the photograph of my grandfather, swiftly exited the apartment.

Since the events described, I have been under the impression that a direct line of thought led from exiting the apartment to running down the stairs. But in writing this piece I have recalled two intervening perceptions, both unstable: the first is of a private, momentary debate as to whether I should lock the apartment (how ridiculous!) and the second is of an image — an image in which a fireman, unmoving, clad in helmet, jacket, and boots, stands in profile several feet from the top of the stairs, as if supervising the evacuation. What was he doing? He did not yell, “Everybody out!” No, he said nothing — and so in my memory he is not only unmoving but silent, almost like a sentinel.

I made for the stairs. Someone was directly behind me, another tenant, someone who could keep pace with my rapid descent. On the fifth-floor landing the smoke was yet denser; and as we scrambled from the fifth to the fourth floor, we being myself and the unknown person in back of me, the smoke became so thick and so black that we lost visibility altogether. For a moment, perhaps two or three, I couldn’t breathe; and in this split-second of asphyxiation I experienced a sudden panic, death being palpable and no longer abstract. I calculated how much oxygen was in my lungs and how many flights were left to descend; I figured, even if the smoke persisted as such, that I would be able to escape the building, though just barely.

We kept to the right side of the stairs, as when driving; and good that we did, for between the fourth and third floors firemen rushed past us in the opposite direction. The opposite direction! Valor. By the third floor I could again take a breath; and by the second the smoke was almost entirely absent. In the lobby a second-floor resident who served on the board of the building stood by the door to the courtyard. I told him that evidently a serious fire had started on the fourth floor and that everyone should be evacuated immediately. “Holy shit,” he said. “My son is playing Xbox in his bedroom.”

So communication had been weak. I had received a call from my neighbor regarding the fire next door, and I would come to learn that around the same time an email had circulated amongst residents. But no word reached me once the fire spread to my parents’ building; and clearly I was not alone in my ignorance. Typically communication of this sort falls under the purview of the doorman. But the doorman was relatively new, and he had been overwhelmed by the sequence of events. He had not done well — later, not without guilt, he would tell me that he left during the fire: with so many people directing their attention on the building, he decided to go home, for he had a long commute back to the Bronx (why not get a headstart?) — and yet he should not be scapegoated, partly because I have a half-fictive memory of hearing him knock on other tenants’ doors, and partly because the nature of this fire was weird and unpredictable. The problem was electrical, which meant that the fire was in the walls and could flare up at random: a television set had apparently exploded in a first-floor apartment prior to the fire on the fourth floor.

In the lobby I saw the person with whom I had run downstairs, an eighteen-year-old boy named Vivaan, roughly ten years my junior. Vivaan was small and his face was young. His youthful appearance was exaggerated by the clothing he had on: windbreaker over button-down shirt; fitted jeans; suede shoes. He looked almost like a child dressed as an adult. But his presence was not at all that of a child. Despite shyness, he had always struck me as oddly mature, as thoughtful and sensitive. This quiet intelligence gave him a sort of dignity — it always had.

Vivaan and I walked out of the building. On the other side of the street the majority of our neighbors had gathered. Many people were accompanied by animals: a dog on a leash or a carrier from which the low moan of a cat could be heard. They looked like refugees. I crossed the street and began to greet various neighbors, most of whom I had known since childhood but had not seen in at least a year, due to the pandemic and the fact that I lived elsewhere. People were surprised to see me. But, as we said hello and traded information about the fire, it occurred to me that, because of the rigors of confinement, some tenants, despite living only several floors apart, had also not seen one another in months, perhaps even in a year; and so, while a fire burned inside the building, outside on the street something of a reunion was taking place. A joke started to circulate: we escaped fire only to find ourselves in ideal circumstances to contract coronavirus.

Hardly anyone had had time to grab a mask; and amongst the scores of firemen who would arrive over the next few minutes not one covered his face. The reason, I suspect, was twofold: such a vocation no doubt required as much oxygen as possible, but there was a touch of defiance, too, as if to say: we risk our lives to save yours — and you want me to wear a little piece of cloth over my mouth? The firemen had names like Murphy and McDonough and Davidson; and each individual was not only tall and thickset but made enormous by his protective gear. Several dozen filed into the building, but most remained on the sidewalk or in the street, where two firetrucks had been stationed. A second alarm was called in, bringing more men and more trucks, until the crowd stretched around the block. And while the mood between the neighbors was tense, the atmosphere between the firemen was convivial, even jolly; they, too, were having a reunion of sorts.

Behind me I overheard one fireman say to another: “Did you catch the one in Staten Island the other night?” This question caught me by surprise. Just two colleagues talking shop, with fire as the métier. Perhaps such nonchalance begins to explain the earlier image of the sentinel-fireman. Had he seen enough blazes to know that the emergency was not in fact dire? Our crisis was his quotidian reality. Then again, I am unsure the sentinel-fireman existed at all: the image has the texture of both witness and invention.

So we waited, neighbors and firemen alike. I realized that I was still holding the photograph of my grandfather, and so I unzipped my backpack and delicately slipped it inside. While waiting I offered my jacket to Vivaan. He refused. We continued to wait. It was cold and dark and the building was on fire. But for what were we waiting? Surely we wanted to be told that everything was under control and soon we could re-enter the building. But intermingled with concern was curiosity. Fire promised spectacle — what might we see? I found myself transfixed by the possibility of damage, even destruction. As with a roadside accident everyone looked. As tenants we had a right to look. But, regardless, everyone looked.

In the windows of the darkened fourth floor apartment beams of white light could be seen. The apartment was hazy, and these beams cut through the haze in unpredictable movements. Occasionally a fireman would become visible. Then one appeared by the window; he was holding a tool; and with a series of swift motions he started to smash the glass. The broken glass had four flights to fall; and, in the interval between when the window was shattered and when its shards clattered onto the pavement, there was a caesura, a silence. There were multiple windows. Efficiently, methodically, the firemen broke them. Numerous neighbors took out their phones and started to record videos. It went on for several minutes: first the smash of glass, then the second or two of silence, at last the crash onto the sidewalk. It was violent; and it took me a long time to understand that the firemen’s brutality was in service of preservation, that they were breaking the windows to let out smoke.

———

At some point Vivaan and I agreed to go for a walk. I had decided to keep Vivaan company until his mother arrived (his parents had been in Rhinebeck; his mother was currently driving back to the city), not because Vivaan needed company, but because doing so allowed me to feel helpful, as if I had some sort of responsibility, and because I liked Vivaan, though I barely knew him. Perhaps I was the one who needed company, needed help; after all, Vivaan, not I, had had the wherewithal when fleeing to use the flashlight on his phone and thereby illuminate the stairs. Had he not done so a misstep would have been likely; and though firemen began to sprint past us on the third floor, firemen who no doubt would have found anyone in distress in the stairwell, a slip-up was nonetheless dangerous, given the stampede up and down the stairs, and given that we could no longer breathe.

We walked north one block and hung a right, where we could see the backside of the eight-story building. From this angle, were it not for the squadron of FDNY vehicles on Broadway (for three blocks the street was packed with bright red vans and trucks), you would never know there was a fire. Vivaan and I marvelled at what had transpired, at the extent of the response. Eventually the conversation turned away from the events of the evening. Vivaan told me he was enrolled in architecture school; and as we walked through the neighborhood he would occasionally point out an architectural detail that caught his eye. We spoke of his experience at Stuyvesant and the remote corners of the city — Parkchester, Flushing, Brighton Beach — from which the student body came. And he mentioned that as a child he would visit India every summer, India, where much of his family continued to live.

I had never spoken to Vivaan at such length. There had been a fire; but amidst the fire there was a walk, a conversation.

We circled back to Broadway. Soon Vivaan’s mother arrived. We shared our most recent update: a fourth floor apartment was burning; no one was in danger; the status of the rest of the building was unclear. His mother asked if I had somewhere to sleep. I said that I did, though in truth I did not. Vivaan got into the passenger seat, at which point his mother drove off towards the river. Manhattan — no matter the calamity one still had to find parking. I considered my sleeping options: I could contact one of numerous family friends who lived nearby; I could make the trek to Brooklyn to sleep on a friend’s couch; or I could book a room in a cheap hotel.

I decided I would collect more information. Across the street a crew of ConEd repairmen had gathered around a gap in the sidewalk, a pit from which smoke was rising. I walked over to them and asked what had happened. One of the workers, outfitted in blue hardhat and yellow reflective vest, replied that the opening in front of us was a power station providing electricity to the block, and that several hours ago a transformer had exploded. Apparently, he said, the pavement had gone up in flames; then a fire had broken out in the building on the corner; and finally a third, more serious fire had started in the building next to that.

I thanked him and rejoined the crowd of neighbors and firemen. After several moments I spotted a man with a thick mustache around whom members of both ConEd and the fire department had convened. He seemed to be giving orders; and once the group around him had dispersed I caught his attention. To my surprise he told me that the fire was under control, that his men had moved on from the fourth floor and were now making sure that the rest of the building was safe. Soon, he continued, residents would be permitted to return to their homes. He slapped me on the back. It would not be necessary to sleep elsewhere tonight. As we spoke several firemen exited the building. They moved leisurely, without urgency. Then the man with whom I was speaking was called away; I was by myself; the door to the lobby was open; and I walked into the building.

I could say that the lobby was in a state of disrepair or that liquid filth covered the floor, for a large hose would have run from the street through the entrance of the building and then down the hallway towards the staircase; I could say, too, that upon setting foot inside I felt the water on the ground seep through the leather of my shoes, for I would have been wearing loafers — I could say these things, could recreate a convincing entrance, one not without truth, but one not entirely truthful either, because in reality my memory skips to the sight of a fireman descending the final flight of stairs. He had removed his helmet, and he walked down the steps with the fatigue of an athlete who has just completed a bruising match, his gait heavy and laborious, but endowed with the satisfaction that attends success. He looked exhausted; and he said nothing as he passed.

When he had exited the building I mounted the stairs. The hose was running up the steps and black water was cascading down. In the stairwell the windows had been shattered; debris was strewn on the second and third floor landings; and on both those floors the doors of the A-line apartment had been forced open, offering a glimpse into each home. I followed the hose to the fourth floor and stopped. To my left the door of the A-line apartment had been broken down. In place of it was a black rectangle. From this opening extended a radius of damage: liquid filth flowed towards the stairs and the section of the landing nearest the apartment — ceiling and wall — was badly singed. I walked up to the dark threshold and paused. I glanced over my shoulder. Then, with trepidation, I stepped inside.

The apartment was at once smoldering and dripping with water; and on the left side of the foyer the internal piping was exposed through a hole in the wall, as if the plaster had been smashed by a battering ram. I took several more steps into the apartment, navigating around the rubble that had accumulated in the entrance hall, and at the edge of the living room saw that furniture had been knocked over and crushed underfoot, that objects had been destroyed. A word surfaced in my mind’s ear: ruination — and despite the irrationality of such a feeling I found myself offended by the firemen’s brutality. Ruination — the fire had been a public ordeal; but the blackened apartment was a private matter. Suddenly I was overcome by a sense of trespassing, of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to; and, almost as if frightened (of having transgressed? of what I had seen?), I quickly turned and exited the apartment.

At the foot of the stairs I encountered a neighbor named Micha, a slim, dapper man in late middle-age. Micha was originally from Portugal and worked as a hairdresser. Aside from these biographical tidbits I knew little about him, except that throughout my adolescence he had always approached me with interest, circumventing the pro forma questions one so easily falls into when sharing the elevator. In a tone of bewilderment he asked what had happened. I told him. Then he said: “That apartment is mine.”

He was holding a shopping bag. Incredulously, he explained that he had stepped out to run an errand; by the time he returned his apartment had burned down. I placed my hand on Micha’s shoulder. He was staring at the ground with an expression of disbelief and anguish, and he began to rock back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet, almost as if davening. We stood for a long time in silence. After awhile I said in a low voice that he could stay in my parents’ apartment. He shook his head. Then, as if remembering that convention required a verbal response, he added, “Thank you.” The two of us stood without speaking for another minute, until a half-dozen firemen filed down the stairs, and until the other neighbors started to re-enter the lobby, at which point I removed my hand from Micha’s shoulder and walked out of the building.

That night I slept poorly. I awoke on multiple occasions convinced of the smell of smoke or the sound of sirens. Each time I would jump out of bed and run to the front door, only to discover that there was nothing out of the ordinary. In bed I tossed and turned; and at some point I lapsed into a liminal state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep. My mind returned again and again to the breaking of the fourth-floor windows. Slowly my thoughts began to revolve around not the act of destruction itself but the silence that ensued, when the fragments of glass, however briefly, had been suspended in the air. I could hear that caesura; and in my insomniac state I was certain that that caesura was wrong — an error or, worse, a violation of reality.

The next morning I went about the apartment putting things back into place. I removed the paintings from the plastic shopping bags and rehung them in the living room; propped up the loose-leaf photograph of my grandfather against the wall; plugged in the various appliances that had been unplugged; and closed the window in my childhood bedroom. That window looked in on the neighbors’ apartments; and just by shutting it I could see into Micha’s home. Wreckage — shattered dishes, overturned chairs — surrounded his dining room table. I was about to walk away when Micha appeared by the window. He bent down to the ground to pick something up, and when he raised himself he was holding a piece of ceramic. I noticed that he was wearing the same clothes as the previous night. For several moments Micha seemed to examine what was in his hand. Then he turned and placed the chip on the table. After that, as if steadying himself, he placed his palms on the table as well. He lowered his head; and though his expression was not apparent, his face being in profile, his apartment being across the courtyard and two floors down, I could make out that he had closed his eyes.

*some names in this story have been changed

***

Nicholas Hamburger’s writing has appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and The Saint Ann’s Review. He is currently in France on a Fulbright Scholarship for creative writing.

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§ 3 Responses to “Broken Glass”

  • TSB says:

    Hypnotic.

    “ it occurred to me that, because of the rigors of confinement, some tenants, despite living only several floors apart, had also not seen one another in months, perhaps even in a year; and so, while a fire burned inside the building, outside on the street something of a reunion was taking place.”

  • jg says:

    wow. nicholas hamburger can freaking write.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    this wonderful piece of writing is so well paced, covers so much ground, evokes so many universal emotions.

    i read the author’s bio after reading Broken Glass, and like a mother hen, clucked approvingly to myself.
    Fulbright ➡︎➡︎ France ➡︎➡︎ creative writing.

    exactly!

    i look forward to reading a lot more of your work, Nicholas.

§ Leave a Reply

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