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How An Apartment Fire Next Door Put ‘Community’ Into Perspective

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Wandering Bushwick. Photo & Edited via Jessie on a Journey

“Jabber! jabber!! jabber!!! jabber!!! jabber!!!” WTF?! I look at my phone charging on the juice crate I use as a makeshift nightstand. 7:12am. On a Saturday. Do these construction workers know no bounds? First it’s a Styrofoam delivery every Monday morning at 5am, now jack hammering on my day to sleep in. I throw myself out of bed, growling loudly, my tangled hair and smeared mascara making me undoubtedly look like a mentally disturbed lion. My hands grab the base of the chipped yellow window pane beside my bed, my mouth opening to scream “Please shut up down there!”, when I notice the usual dark open-back trucks are actually red, with long hoses and ladders coming off the sides. Fire trucks. I also note the men in mustard-colored bunker gear, the blue sky shrouded in just a touch of grey, the mix of hipsters and Latinos clutching pets and staring up at what I assume is their apartment, talking wildly on their cell phones uttering phrases like “el apartamento es en fuego” and “need a place to stay.”
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Fire truck. Photo: Don McCullough/flickr

A Scary Situation

Without thinking, I throw on slippers and a robe — despite the winter temperatures I forgo pants — and bound down the stairs to the street. The bartender who lives downstairs from me, Leah, is already outside holding a very large mug of coffee, undoubtedly on little to no sleep. She explains the firefighters were evacuating the building, though they’re still unsure of the cause of the fire. We stand there gawking, trying to make sense of the scene. Fires are my biggest fear living in NYC; I mean, one idiot who sleeps with candles in the building or who leaves their stove on and the entire structure goes up in flames. This is why I keep an emergency ladder near my window, and refuse to sleep with a space heater on. While Leah stares at the apartment, hoses weaving in and out its windows like a snake, I look at the people. One guy clutches a kitten inside a thin denim coat, while a girl appears to be in trance staring at her feet. And here I am, watching their real life horror like a movie. “Does anyone want to come in for blankets and coffee? I hear myself say aloud.
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New friends. Photo: Seth Doyle/Unsplash

New Yorkers Find A New Way To Make Friends

The crowd has thinned by this point, many scurrying off to shelters — if your living space goes on fire the city provides you a bed — and the homes of loved ones. One crowd of four, however, hops on the opportunity. I’m glad my Airbnb guest isn’t home for this; Bushwick certainly could be filled with surprises. Here was one: Look at these new friends I found on the street. We’re having a breakfast party! Well, in as many Tinder dates as I’ve been on I’ve never met strangers cooler than this bunch. A cloud of smoke and dust envelopes the group as they enter my tiny Brooklyn railroad pad, though we settle right into it. Steaming mugs of cheap coffee are poured from my $8 Fat Alberts machine, with slices of bread and candy bars for added nutrition. Hey, I’m not complaining about the crappy meal, I’m rejoicing about about community coming together, despite my unpreparedness.

Community In Brooklyn

Swapping stories with these people, I realize how often I’d probably passed them on the sidewalk without even looking up or waving. They were my neighbors, literally. Why did it take tragedy for us to exchange words? So often New Yorkers are aggressively focused on their own dreams and destinations. We move so quickly toward what we think we need — our desks, our meetings, our favorite sandwich delis — we miss out on what’s around us. Joe tells me of his life as a fashion photographer, and we swap notes on our favorite shooting locations around the city. Maya is a jewelry artist, and while I don’t know much about style (read above: robe with no pants) we both share strong opinions on how social media is changing the entrepreneurial landscape. I don’t quite catch what Aedan does, though his thick Irish accent doesn’t cover his comedic skills. Despite having his room go on fire, he’s in mighty good spirits. Once meeting these awesome people, I actually do wish my Airbnb guest was home to get a true sense of NYC beyond the stereotype of everyone being mean. Sure, New Yorkers may not always be the warmest bunch, and it’s certainly not unheard of to have someone flip you off or plot a murder next to you on the subway; but for the most part, if you ask for help — or if someone sees you need it — you can get it. See, New Yorkers aren’t all mean.

Have you ever experienced something negative that led to something positive? Please share your story in the comments below!


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