I woke up, smelling smoke and went to the window of my fourth floor room to let in some fresh air. A cloud of smoke came billowing in from a fire below on the lobby roof. Across the way, in the tower opposite me, the old black man was pouring glasses of water on the fire.
I ran into the hall, shaking from head to foot and called the desk on the hall phone.
The old man came into the hall. “Goddamn! That’s a fire!” he said in a huge voice.
The woman at the switchboard answered that they knew about the fire, but it was on the other side of the building from me. I hung up. Back in my room, I looked down and saw firemen breaking windows on a lower floor and attacking a small wooden structure on the roof.
The next fire I woke at three a.m., smelling something cooking. Calmly, I got dressed. I opened my door to see a fireman walk by in hard hat and knee high boots and carrying an ax.
People were coming out of their rooms. A young man in the hallway greeted people as they came out of their rooms, some in pajamas and robes. He nodded at me. I stared: he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Black hair, great body, beautiful eyes and face. He must have seen the way I looked at him.
He said there had been a fire that afternoon. “You missed it.” He asked me and another man to check that everyone was out of their rooms.
As walked down the four flights of surprisingly elegant stairs, the neighbor started joking with him about the fires and trips to the lobby, many in the wee hours of the night, in all sorts of dress and undress.
We waited in the lobby for the all clear, which was signaled by the firemen tramping out the lobby doors. The street was quiet, deserted; even the prostitutes had retired for the night. Upstairs the young man said goodnight, opened the door to his room, and I saw a plant hanging in his window facing 43rd Street. We spoke occasionally after that. He had been a model (maybe still was).
A few weeks later, on Eighth Avenue crossing 42nd Street, dust and trash swirling, cars braking and honking, the Port Authority Bus Terminal looming on one side, the air thick with car exhaust and hot dogs and stale pretzels, I saw him near the corner with some other young men. He was wearing white hot pants and not much more. We exchanged glances and I saw in his expression: this is the way it is, but you know me, you know who I am.
I looked ahead and went on my way.