South Brooklyn Sketchy

Fire & Subletters on Atlantic Ave.


The warehouses that line Atlantic avenue are more-or-less indistinguishable from one another. My dirty yellow building with CAR SERVICE crawling down the side is exceptional only because it’s where I live. Looking out the front window at a right angle, I can see only S, E, R, and V. The scale of those bold red letters makes me feel small, like an ant staring at a candy bar wrapper. But I don’t mind feeling small, invisible, anonymous, a drop in an ocean of mass-produced garbage.

I like to nap by that  window, lulled by the crashing waves of five-lane traffic on Atlantic, diesel-fueled semis barreling over potholes, car radios lined up at the red light on the corner, the drone of the LIRR rushing in and out the nearby station. On Sundays, gangs of quads from East New York rip by and the bikers from the warehouse across the way pop wheelies in the empty lanes under the train overpass. I lived alone before I moved onto Atlantic, but found another kind of solitude in this commercial space with high ceilings and painted-over brick walls, surrounded by traffic and transience, the sounds of cars whizzing by and subletters whose footsteps I can’t recognize.

A new subletter moved into our apartment February 1. On a hook by the front door, she hung a khaki green jumpsuit that looked like it came from an army surplus store. I watched her put it on and take it off when she came and went out onto the street, which was being dusted daily with snow. I liked to work on my laptop slumped into the couch by the front window. I didn’t have much to say to her, but I’d look up from my screen to watch her zip and unzip so as not to ignore her.

I’d been sleeping naked when I heard her wail in a garbled voice, “I feel weird.” I looked at my phone. It was four in the morning. Annoyed, I tried to pretend I was still asleep. Then from the hallway, I heard a knock at another door, a clatter and then the frantic voice of another roommate, “Is anyone else home?”

I scrambled to find a tank top and shorts. That’s the last thing I remember before everything cut to black. Then, like a hackneyed POV shot from a bad movie, there’s a bed, a lamp, and a desk in another bedroom slowly coming into focus. I have a hazy recollection of stumbling through our narrow hallway crowded with boxes and then my memory cuts out again. I’m face down on the living room floor. My roommate is on the phone. She tells someone, “my roommates keep falling over.” Firefighters in black and yellow come through the front door. I tell everyone, “I feel fine. I’m just really tired. I’m just going to stay here.” I end up in a hyperbaric chamber at a hospital in the Bronx being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

The bills later came in the mail. I ignored them. I quit my job and went on a road trip with the man I’d been texting from my hospital bed. When I came back home and he broke my heart, there was a new subletter to complain to about what a jerk he was. I started dating a woman and stopped when we slept at my house for the first time rather than hers. I didn’t like the way she judged my lofted bed and ink-stained sheets. I still lived like a teenager the way everyone does in artist lofts with too many bicycles and half-dead plants.

The firefighters came again in October. I was working on my laptop in the middle of the afternoon when smoke wafted up from the car service directly below the apartment. Three firetrucks blocked off Atlantic Avenue’s westbound lanes. I watched from the sidewalk as beefy men in helmets hustled in and out of the unit underneath ours. A man I’d never seen before in plaid boxer shorts and a blue bathrobe stumbled out of the unit. His skinny brown calves looked especially naked, his face especially rough. Smoke billowed out as the firefighters axed through the store front’s tinted glass window. Sparks flew as they sawed through the lock on the hatch door leading to the basement below. About six or seven of them seemed to be doing all the work while about three dozen more milled around, occasionally rolling or unrolling a hose.

After half an hour of watching this circus, a second civilian emerged from the unit remarkably unphased. This one I recognized. We got his mail sometimes and he got ours. He said his name was Alex but the envelopes always said Ali. With his cane in hand and usual aristocratic air, he once returned to us a package of socks from that looked like he’d rifled through it. The business was supposedly a car service dispatch but the metal grate out front was only open irregular hours and I’d never seen any taxis close by.

I hadn’t really thought much about what went on down there until the earlier carbon monoxide incident. When I still thought there was a chance I could sue the landlord for my hospital bills, I’d gone to city hall to get a fire incident report, which detailed that there were men sleeping in that office space below us. This second fire incident revealed something I thought was much stranger. When the glass window was destroyed, it became apparent the office had been designed with the bathroom in the front, a small toilet and sink pressed against the front window’s tinted glass facing Atlantic Avenue. The newly exposed toilet withstanding, the whole scene was inscrutable. According to a fire insurance salesman whose sister used to date one of the firefighters, it was a mattress fire. Someone had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his mouth.

We weren’t allowed back in our building for a couple hours. I found my next-door neighbor who lived in the apartment across the hall standing off to the side of the commotion, her red hair shining in the sun with her roommate’s yappy dog on a leash. She was annoyed. She’d had to leave work to take the dog out of the smoke-filled building. We both complained for a minute. The dog kept barking at me.

The firefighters returned in January when she hung herself. At the bottom of the stairs, I still find mail from creditors with her name on it.