• Becky Miller

Notes from the Fire Escape

Front row seats to a New York neighborhood’s quiet cabaret.

By Becky Miller

Illustration by Samia Menon

At 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in late April, I leaned against my metal fire escape, hoping to see something interesting unfold below me on Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe it was because I had just watched West Side Story, but I was aching for some action. Ideally, I would, from my perch, witness a pirouetting street gang or a knife fight, or spot a soda-stacking ex-delinquent whose gaze I could hold long and tenderly.


I made myself some microwave popcorn and settled in, ready for New York City to explode before my eyes. I first noticed a kid steal his mom’s phone out of her hand and run up and down the block with it. He was like Chris Rock’s excitable, foam-sword-wielding son in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, clumsily sprinting around with so much ebullience that people began to stare. He grinned and his mom laughed as he waved his prize like a pirate with newly-found treasure. Then, quickly remembering how to be charming, he caught up with his mom and held her hand.


Antsy, I started counting things, searching for excitement or weirdness in the quantity of stuff on the street. There were seven overflowing trash bags on the corner. Nine parked bikes on the block, more zooming by in the bike lane. One person biked past standing up and I felt a thrill of vicarious excitement. I understand biking standing up to be a near-religious experience, up there with parting the Red Sea and smoking a drunk cigarette.

I saw three bare, hairy chests in one minute. Immediately after, a man in a yarmulke pushed a double stroller with only one child in it, which reminded me of Hemingway’s famous six-word short story—“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”—but more Jewish. I sighed with relief when I noticed challah sitting in the other stroller seat.


The restaurant below me only had two outdoor dining bubbles, an undeniably sad number of outdoor dining bubbles to have. An elderly couple stood up and left one of them. The woman had a watch that looked like one my mom had—black leather band, thin, rectangular face. Maybe that’s just what most watches look like. She walked a healthy two steps ahead of her man and he followed like a puppy. They eventually moved next to each other and crossed the street. I soon lost them.


The sight of this sweet couple quelled whatever expectation of drama and commotion I had been holding on to. The streets were not in a frenzy; it was a Tuesday afternoon. I was reminded of Paul Raci’s speech in Sound of Metal where he tells Riz Ahmed’s character, the newly-deaf Rueben, to look for and cherish life’s “moments of stillness,” and Rueben’s contentment when he finally listens. It was right then that I squashed my shpilkes, chilled out, and enjoyed.


On the roof of a building a block up on the other side of the street, in between two graffiti-covered chimneys, a woman gave a man a haircut. Her scissors were cutting his blond locks alarmingly short in the front—I prayed that he had meant to ask for bangs. I fantasized that when she finished, he would look in the mirror, hate her work, and blame her for ruining his life. She would respond coolly, like the barber in Fleabag: “If you want to change your life, change your life. It’s not going to happen up here.”


Down the block, a girl, probably eight or nine, pushed kids half her age on the swings. She switched back and forth between two swings, trying to strike each with equal force at even intervals. She gently helped the younger kids out of their swings when it was time and they ran away to hang from the monkey bars. With her job finally finished, the older girl plopped down on the biggest swing, kicked off, and let herself go.


I remembered last fall, when the tree across the street had been aggressively yellow, and then, a couple of months later, when I couldn’t stand the sight of its naked skeleton. Somehow, it was budding green, now. Flower petals floated past me like confetti, carried uptown by the wind. One block up, across the street, an old man sat cross-legged at a table outside of the pizza shop. I couldn’t make out his face, but he had been sitting out there, facing the street, this whole time. His head tilted up as he soaked in the new sun and reveled in the quiet.


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