I recently read that New York City is installing fireproofed stairwells that will render fire escapes obsolete. I can’t imagine New York without this icon of tenement life. Fire escapes were a city within a City. Life unfolded there: exploits of husbands, wives, delinquent children, anger, arguments, beatings, desertions. Vital information was disseminated, and they provided an escape hatch from boredom when unsuspecting parents slept.
The fire escape of my childhood was a peculiar sunroom allowing the pretence of gentility in our poverty. We camped there, sans tent, sleeping bag, and Coleman lantern. The summer air wasn’t spicy with pine but with something stale, indefinable, blowing in from the East River. I’d stare at the sky through a corridor of water towers and television antennas. The clear, sharp beauty of the moon and stars was often dimmed by light pollution, but on certain nights the Milky Way asserted itself, a hazy tributary spilling over. I read propped up on pillows as the evening light slowly diminished, and I slept to a lullaby of backfiring cars, rumbling trucks, and kibbitzing of firemen from the firehouse across the alley.
The limitations of a three-room apartment extended the usefulness of our fire escape. It was a showcase for my mother’s garden every spring. The deprived gardener in her was somewhat appeased as she dug her fingers into the potted earth. Gardening provided an affordable resource for her immense creativity. She was a woman forced into conformity by the circumstances of single-parenthood; this glorious sprawl was the antithesis of her harshly regulated life.
My mother married when I was four. I met my stepfather on the steps of city hall. He knelt to introduce himself. I knew even then that he was handsome, the dark flawless skin, straight nose, and slightly slanted eyes that drew women’s attention.
He smiled, pulled a card from behind my ear—the Queen of Hearts. “A heart-breaker,” he said. He closed my fingers around it.
I imagined him building a house of cards for us, walls brilliant with hearts and diamonds, spades and clubs, shimmering faces of kings and queens, jacks like sentries. I rested my head on his shoulder when he lifted me into his arms, and we went home to celebrate with cake on the fire escape, passing pieces to the neighbors.
My brother was born soon after. My stepfather pulled the Ace of Spades from behind his ear and shook his head. “How the hell did that happen?” He pulled another, the King of Diamonds, life of wealth. “Better,” he muttered.
My parent’s marriage was a bittersweet six years of repeated separation and reconciliation. In this neighborhood of arrivals and departures, I felt anguish but not surprise when he left. The years he lived with us bestowed temporary privilege; I was one of the chosen, the existence of a father granting protection from the boys who stalked fatherless victims.
He worked nights as a cab driver, and we shared the fire escape while my mother worked days. My brother laid on a blanket between us, first a scented bundle of talc, later a toddler who needed close monitoring, then a kindergartner with more sophisticated needs. My stepfather stretched over the old blanket, eyes closed, smoke curling from his cigarette, and listened to the ballgame. We heard about events we would never be a part of, a world as remote as the moon.
Our neighbors crowded onto their fire escapes weekend afternoons to listen to ballgames on our blaring radio. My stepfather aroused the tenement community to passion previously reserved for battles, slammed doors, gossip. They hissed when the other team scored a point, cheered wildly when the Dodgers made a home run, their victory our own by proxy.
“A good choice your mother made,” the upstairs Lithuanian woman told me when we passed in the hall, as though my mother’s shrieks of fury at my step-father were beneath the range of human hearing, like a dog whistle.
My stepfather was a compulsive gambler who rarely won. He called Las Vegas the City of Churches and Schools, spoke of gambling casinos as holy sites, chorus girls as nuns robed in gauze and sequins, croupiers as novice priests. He drove his cab to raise stake money, rarely leaving enough for household expenses. He was fun. He taught me to play the odds, to take a chance. We bet on whether a prowling cat would knock over the trashcan lid, whether the clouds would explode into rain, whether the fire alarm would clang in the next half-hour.
My mother raged at him when a month’s rent vanished in a throw of dice or a just-missed royal flush. He didn’t utter a word. Cigarette smoke veiled his eyes and an ironic smile curved his lips. He was relaxed, choreographing a ballet of cards across his fingers. Driven to desperation by his smirking silence, she once chased him around the apartment with a high-heeled shoe, shrieking, “Answer me, God damn it! Answer me!” He remained silent, strangely jovial as he evaded her blows. After she left for work, he joined me on the fire escape. His eyes seemed feverish. He whispered, “Your mother gets very overwrought about nothing.” He stared into my face, demanding my agreement, refusing to look away until I nodded.
I imagined them trapped in the same arguments, growing grayer and more infirm until one of them died. Then, when I was eleven, he was gone for good. His presence lingered in an envelope with twenty dollars slid under the door Friday nights and the occasional dinner my brother and I had with him. He was like a weary uncle, obligated to show up now and then.
My mother rose in the morning, hurried to the train after shouting good-byes over her shoulder. My brother went to school. I hopped a subway and prowled Manhattan, wide-eyed as a refugee. Before going home, I stole Twinkies from a grocery store. We ate them on the fire escape before my mother returned, burying evidential wrappers in the debris of a trash can.
In my step-father’s absence, the apartment felt claustrophobic, as though one person less had paradoxically made it smaller. My mother vowed never to allow a man to insinuate himself into her life again. She was impenetrable, a fortress of conviction whose walls were never breached.
I needed the fire escape to breathe.
When I was twelve years old, I wrote my first short story on the fire escape—a piece of nonsense about the devil in a smoking jacket and an angel who reformed him. I fell into books, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Here I could melt reality into a dream and a dream into reality.
In December fire escapes blazed with Christmas decorations: gaudy red and white twinkling lights and thick ropes of pine that twined around the rusty bars. The dreary gray of winter was temporarily displaced by bursts of color. But our fire escape remained bare. As one of the few Jewish children in the neighborhood, I was the object of resentment and retribution from the bands of Catholic boys; I was mystified by their claim that I had killed their savior.
When snow fell in late January, the white-cloaked fire escapes seemed pristine. An elderly Russian neighbor inflamed my imagination by recounting stories of the Czar’s palace brilliantly lit, candles shimmering through snowy windows, intricate ice sculptures a backdrop to skating, singing, feasts.
Then the snow grew filthy, melted, and left behind only a grimy ghetto. Hope seemed futile with this recycled evidence of our circumstance. Without the snow and flashy lights, it was obvious that fire escape ladders led only to the streets.
At thirteen, I migrated to my friend Lillian’s fire escape, which overlooked the street rather than the alley. I felt liberated, as though this new view had somehow changed the circumstances of my life. We sat on her fire escape late one November night, striving for privacy. Buried in blankets, we spoke about boys, their swaggering confidence, their grease-sculptured hair, tight jeans, arrogant tongues. Our breath was white in the frigid air. Then, with the gift of intuition granted those intimate with violence, I felt a certain dangerous presence rise from the gutter. We fell silent. The local gang, in full war flank, appeared beneath us. We were grateful for our platform’s height, grateful we had pulled the ladder up earlier. The shadowy figures claimed the streets. The Nazis, a group known to me as a Jewish child, seemed to assume a corporeal presence beneath us; they were men determined to destroy life. In later years, when I thought about that cold November air and that moment, I pictured the white cloaks and masks of the Ku Klux Klan.
I smoked my first cigarette on Lillian’s fire escape, flaky contraband from her mother’s purse. We alternately inhaled and coughed; it would be years before I’d smoke again. When spring appeared, Lillian, whose mother worked the nightshift at a factory, told me that her stepfather had begun to sexually abuse her when she was six. She whispered what he was doing, her fingers scraping the rust from the bars, her legs curled beneath her on the metal.
“I’ll tell my mother,” I whispered. “You’ll come live with us.”
She shook her head wildly. “No, no, nobody must know. He’ll kill us. Promise me.”
I promised. Lillian ran away from home the day after she told me, and I never saw her again. Desolate, I reclaimed my own fire escape.
My brother had not yet devised his own method of escape. I crawled out my window, book in hand, and sat silently beside him. He looked up at me, nodded, and then went back to his book. That summer we ate every meal out there and read side-by-side in a cave of plants. Everything seemed connected, sewn together: the alley, the firehouse, the tenements, the East River, the gutters, the rancid air. Concrete and asphalt stretched to the walls of the alley; we were in a box with no possibility of escape.
My brother was dreamier than I because he still had faith. My dreams were minor, grounded in the reality of a tenement dweller. I could imagine, but didn’t hope. He remained good-natured with an intrinsic sense of morality while I easily stole from stores and lied. He was sensitive, puzzled by cruelty, slowly drowning in the abyss of the ghetto. I understood cruelty and strutted with a ferocity I didn’t feel. We gradually lost each other as I grew tougher and his gentler soul was slowly submerged in the relentless bombardment of poverty.
When I was fifteen, the spring air seemed permeated with a restless buzz that inspired me to go . . . go . . . go. I went to Coney Island, wandered the beach, drunk on the salt air, the blaze of lights, the games and freak shows. I frequented museums and prowled the upper West Side, scowling at doormen, women walking dogs, mothers pushing children in expensive strollers. Later, on the fire escape, my brother read while I filled page after page with angry scrawls.
One day I woke up with a fever and my mother gave me money to take the bus to our doctor’s office. My brother and I sat on the fire escape and decided we would walk to the doctor’s office and buy Italian ice with the bus money. We roamed abandoned tenements, ducked into a candy store where I stole chocolate bars, stopped at the library. He waited patiently in the doctor’s office where I was told I had the flu and needed to go to bed. We walked home, bought Italian ice, arrived just before my mother did.
Soon after that, my brother moved in with his father and almost disappeared from my life.
When I was seventeen, I gravitated to Greenwich Village—the sprawled expanse of Washington Square, the little coffee shops, and art house theatres. I wore black, ironed my curly hair, smoked, read John Barth, went to plays at the Judson Memorial church, prowled art shows. I saw the Weavers, heard the songs of Woody Guthrie, learned that there was a struggle for social justice. I was an immigrant in the Promised Land, newly arrived on the shore of activist ideals. At night I crept out to my fire escape and thought about what I’d heard.
I graduated in June. The guidance counselors had placed all the girls in commercial courses, never suggesting college. We were expected to marry as quickly as possible, raise children who would rent the tenement apartments when the dead vacated them. Landlords must be paid. Our children were expected to sit on those same fire escapes and repeat our lives. Evolution passed us by. The arty quaintness of our soiled brick buildings had not yet been discovered as desirable real estate, and we were the “ghetto dwellers.” I got a job that barely paid enough to give my mother rent money and went on dates, pursuing what I’d been told was my only possible future. My time in Greenwich Village seemed a brief respite from the hard work of survival.
I met my first husband on a friend’s fire escape, kissed him on my own, planned our wedding there, married, and moved to a basement apartment with dark rooms and half-windows. I got a job as a teletypist. My husband, part of an aristocratic family from Cuba, went to college, having never been informed of the destiny of tenement residents.
I wandered the streets in the evening while my husband studied. It was a neighborhood of poorly-constructed homes with claustrophobic front yards. Bulbs in the starved topsoil required replacement immediately after flowering. In winter the snow seemed permanently gray, falling from the sky without even the pretense of white. Everything was earthbound, too heavy to rise.
When I visited my mother, I crawled out onto the fire escape, breathed in the damaged air, and felt balanced again.
I worked until a week before the birth of my son. My husband, who had recently graduated and had a low-paying job, urged me to return to work as soon as possible, but I insisted on staying at home with my son for six months. There I swaddled him in blankets as the winter advanced and pushed him in his stroller regardless of weather.
My brother joined the marines. It was 1968. Fury and disillusionment oozed from the country like blood from a wound. My brother was killed in Nam. A marine called me from my mother’s apartment. Her screams, behind his voice, were the visceral, wordless shrieks of the mortally wounded. When I arrived, the two young marines looked away from me and quickly fled. I contacted my stepfather then crawled out onto the fire escape. I grabbed the bars and shook—each gasp of breath was a shout of fury at this limited landscape of sadness and defeat.
That day was the last time I was on a fire escape. My mother moved to Florida to begin a new life but returned to a tiny apartment in New Jersey. My husband and I moved to a little ranch house on Long Island, where my second son was born. Soon a tidal wave of frustration that could no longer be restrained, the women’s movement, flooded Long Island. I was caught up in the undertow and amazingly, rapturously, I accomplished the impossible: I spit in the figurative eye of every guidance counselor I had known and began college.
I live in Maine now on a hilly expanse of boulders and evergreen trees. It has been decades since I’ve occupied that peculiar New York terrain perched between alley and sky, but it imprinted upon me certain proclivities: I require time outdoors on even the most frigid day. I view an extended segment of the outdoors as a room. The landscape around me undergoes a subtle reinterpretation—the trees stipple light like metal bars, and ice heaves in the road assume the aspect of cracked asphalt. The back door opens onto the deck with an intimation of my bedroom window opening onto my fire escape. My brother played the odds and lost; I played the odds and won. Yet I must continually remind myself that I am no longer dependent on the solace of the fire escape. The semicircle of forest around me opens onto multiple landscapes, all attainable by merely starting my car.