Wednesday, September 4, 2013

box car fire

June 4, 1979 (best guess)

I wake to the taste of smoke, thick as oatmeal in my mouth, the way I did back in 1975 in the Montclair rooming house, choking out my panic as I think this old tinderbox has finally caught a spark.
I leap up and ran out the door to the carport, forgetting the fact I lack pants, the sudden victim of teenage giggles from the upstairs girls.
Something’s burning, but it isn’t us this time.
Still, I stagger back into the house, get dressed and make a proper exit, for the walk to the Wall Street Bridge where I see the smoke.
I halt half way across the bridge and look upstream to where flashing lights of fire engines give clue as to the location of the disaster – box cars stuck halfway across the rail bridge near Monroe Street smoldering, as fire pours out their sides like blood, red paint pealing into black as the blaze consumes them, plumes of smoke following over streets, bridge and river like some evil plague with the river water reflecting it all with mocking clarity.
I take the short cut behind the school and across the great lawn and into the woods where the homeless men sometimes congregate. None there now, just curious people like me, staring over at the men in the fire hates, and the web of fire hoses stretched across three streets, arches of water sending their spray down onto the fiery box cars and our upturned faces.
The acrid scent of chemicals sneaks in and for the first time I wonder if the smoke might be toxic and that we might all be dead by supper time. Some of the Latino men mumble something in Spanish I can’t understand, but I recognize the same panic I feel, and we all realize that this fire could have come up at any part of this river, and consumed any place along its shores, whipping out lives and homes, in the day or the dark of night.
I stumble home, covered in the scent of smoke, and panic, and know that sooner or later, it will be some thing other than a box car fire that wakes us.

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