Saturday, July 9, 2022

What I found in the fire


I took this photo on a frigid early morning in 1977 when my then-boyfriend and I escaped our burning building. Just the year before, we found a rent-stabilized apartment building on Bleecker and Thompson, right across the street from The Other End (now The Bitter End). We were down the road of CBGB's and right by Kenny's Castaway, The Cafe Figaro, The Back Fence. We could look out from our tiny balcony and see what was playing at the Bleecker Street Cinema--perhaps The Cabinet of Caligari of Andy Warhol's Sleep.

We had ambitions, me and my boyfriend. And so when the firefighters banged on our apartment door that early morning, even before putting on our winter coats, we grabbed what was most valuable to us. For him, it was a thousand page plus binder of Vaudeville jokes called "The Gag Files". I took my typewritten novel-in-progress, along with our "Love Birds"--two African Zebra Finches named Gracie and George. They cheeped and huddled together in their little bamboo cage.
In the hallway, there were no lights and so the firefighters told us to hold onto the shoulders of the person in front of us and get into an improvised conga line. We followed our neighbors into the darkness, down the corridor, trying not to inhale the toxic-plastic-smelling smoke. Blinded by the darkness, we slowly, but purposefully made our way down and down the stairs, around and around until at last we reached the street where we gulped in the cold winter air and turned back to see the full extent of what we had just escaped. Flames quickly climbed up the side of our building and smoke plumed as the dawn struggled to make a half-hearted appearance over the East River. 
We couldn't stand there on the street forever, watching the smoke swirl around us. It was cold and there was Gracie and George to consider, so we went across the street to a twenty-four diner. By then, it was four in the morning. Nonetheless, the place was packed. Punk kids were just getting out of the clubs. We asked a couple--a guy with an orange Mohawk and a girl with black lipstick and a leather jacket--if we could share their booth. They said yeah, sure. We told them that we weren't usually out at four in the morning, but that our building was on fire. They said, cool and lit another cigarette.
However, they noticed our love birds in the bamboo cage. Ah, they loved Gracie and George. They cooed at them. They offered the little birds a piece of their left-over toast and made adorable little cheeping sounds, to which Gracie and George responded in kind.  

All these years later, here's what I remember--not so much the fire, or my novel, or the gag file, or even the birds, to be honest. What I remember most of all is this unlikely meeting of the punk couple. They took what might have been a completely catastrophic, not to mention inconvenient experience, and turned it into something beautiful and magical.
Yes, magical.
Friends--your assignment for this week is to look around you for things you might consider to be a disaster and look for the unexpected gift. Lean into the memory and search for clues. Do not stop at the big picture, but get close and then closer. The thing that offers you beauty and art and solace. You will not find this in the forefront or center, but rather it will be found in the background, oddly over to one side, always somewhat hidden. Always unexpected. It will appear as an over-looked image, like the island far off shore, appearing as a speck in the distance. Or the forgotten shoe of a child on a street corner. Or a negative lying on the floor of your late father's closet. 
Herein lies meaning--your own personal secret lexicon of creativity. I can't give you the photo or the negative or the child's lost shoe and definitely not the island. But you, my creative friend, you know what this thing is and you know what it means.

Yes, you do.
Now, write, paint, draw, dance, sing. Create.


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