My Lower East Side apartment is cramped, smelly, and airless. It radiates the aura of years of abuse suffered patiently, of rooms that have long since lost all hope. However, these do face out the back of the building, and looking out of their windows, I look down upon a strangely neighborly view: a congested sea of miniscule back yards, some paved with flagstones, some with grass plots and barbecues, some heaped with rubbish, all semi-shaded by tortured greenery that seems less like trees than weeds run amuck.
There is also a fire escape outside the kitchen window.
I decide to use this as a kind of back porch, a place to sit in a beach chair, read, drink wine coolers, and soak in sun. And so, on the first appropriate sweltering Sunday, I push back the burglar grate, work the window open, and climb out.
First, I discover that a fire escape is not a porch. A porch is an extension of a house into the open, a room with only one wall. As a boy, when we visited my grandparents, I slept on their front porch. Although it lacked screens and faced a suburban avenue, I felt enclosed in enough privacy to fall into an easy, unthreatened sleep on their plastic-covered chaise lounge.
A fire escape, however, is no part of the house at all; it is something bolted on. To step onto it, you must step out of the house. Your apartment no longer offers protection. Let the window slip and slam shut — what then? A man locked out on his own balcony is a comic figure; a person out on a fire escape, for whatever reason, is a threat. No one will let you in their window; you must get down and find your way back in as best you can.
As it happens, my apartment is on the top floor of the building, but because the door to the roof is always padlocked, I have never been up on top. After a self-conscious half-hour perched on a precariously balanced beach chair, I decide to climb up and take a look.
It is hard to find words to explain what I feel there, not because I can’t remember but because the sensation seems to belong to the world of dreams. I see the city for the first time. It is as if a giant had suddenly picked me up and stood me on his shoulders, so that I could see over the crowd to the parade.
That parade — which is to say, those towering buildings that proclaim, “We are New York" — is very, very far away. I discover that I am lost in an enormous crowd, and, like a child who, having always seen adults from below as a forest of pants legs and shoes, is now lifted up to look into their faces, I feel more seen than seeing, acutely vulnerable. Here on this roof is nothing but pure unmediated cityscape, a sea of barren brick and asphalt, of lumpish heads from which blinks the occasional, unseeing window, the proverbial blind eye.
A frightening place. Of course, the streets below are dangerous, too. Still, I have been out on them at all hours of the day and night. They are a place where you expect danger but where you also learn to skirt it — and so to ride your fear. But the roof opens up onto an authentic badlands. There is no skirting danger there.
One hot, sleepless summer night, I hear a noise across the way and look out my window to see a peeping Tom slip down the fire escape and peer into the bedroom windows of the young women who live there. On another night soon after that, I hear — this time directly above my head — the sounds of gunshots and the triumphant cry, “I got the shit!” The fire escape is a stairway to an utterly lawless place.
The other stairs, the ones inside the building, lead down to one world; these stairs, bolted on the outside of the building, lead up to another. Theoretically, the fire escape also descends to the ground, just as the inner stairs go up to the roof. But, in both instances, the connecting passages are shut. At the top of the inside stairs is a locked door; the bottom tier of the fire escape has been permanently (if illegally) chained at the second floor.
This, of course, was for the sake of “safety," but what it accomplishes instead is to make my own apartment into the connecting passage. Each time my place is broken into, the intruder descends the fire escape, enters through the window (bending up the burglar grate), takes what he wants, and then exits out the front (and only) door, leaving it unlocked behind.
In Boston’s North End, where the front stoop serves as a sitting place, the roofs are also claimed as gardens, patios, and arbors. There in summer, at least, the fire escape becomes a communal passageway, lined with open windows and flower boxes.
On the Lower East Side, however, to use these stairs is always to engage in something that, if not exactly furtive, is certainly asocial. Others, braver than I, regularly climb out of their apartments and ascend the fire escape to the roof, to sunbathe, or just hang out. There’s no real risk in daytime, they say, and they are right. But the truth is that they are drawn to the badlands sullenness of that starkly unprotected place and I am not.
I feel a coldness constantly trickling down those stairs. And whenever footsteps approach across the roof, fear’s counsel whispers with crazy-making urgency: quickly, quietly, go unlock the door and let them through.
Since 1980, John Thorne has produced Simple Cooking, a food letter, and is the author of Simple Cooking (1987) and Outlaw Cook (1992).