Dreams on Fire: How My New Manhattan Apartment Went Up in Flames

The aftermath: missing windows and water damage.

The day a fire started in my new apartment could not have been more picture-perfect. It was an unusually warm Friday in mid-April. Early spring sunshine gently grazed the newborn cherry blossoms in Central Park. Dog walkers and runners smiled at me on my walk to work. My boss was out, and I spent the day scouting inspiration photos of sparse Scandinavian living rooms outfitted with jute rugs, southwestern throw blankets and Eames chairs for my Pinterest board.

I was a newly minted homeowner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The charming one-bedroom in a 19thcentury coop on a picturesque historic block was everything I had dreamed of. Having lived in the same rental for ten years in Brooklyn, I learned to ignore the oven with a door that didn’t close all the way, the roof that leaked every time it rained and what a friend had once referred to as the “100-year-old grime” on kitchen cabinets that no matter how hard you scrubbed, never budged. My laissez-faire Polish landlord would offer up homemade remedies for basic repairs — once fixing the toilet flusher with dental floss and teaching me how to turn on the pilot light of the heating furnace in the creepy basement. This less-than-luxe living came at a ridiculously low price that elicited jealous gasps when revealed.

But the humble classic railroad with its foggy windows and cheap floors with missing planks could never be the home of anything fancier than standard-issue IKEA bookcases, dressers and nightstands. And no matter who you are, there comes a point in life when you are just So. Over. IKEA.

The oversized potted plants and mid-century credenzas I was pinning that morning have been on my mind for a while. As a 30-something with a mid-range salary and an artsy writing career, I longed for the niceties that came with a chic, sunshine-filled life that seemed reserved for that elusive, elitist group — the homeowners.

I decided to set my sights on an oldie but a goodie — Manhattan. Somehow over the last ten years in the maddening hipsterdization of Brooklyn, The City had lost a bit of its luster in the eyes of the homebuyer. But I was ok with letting the hipsters eat vegan mayonnaise in Brooklyn, I’d already done that for long enough. On optimistically sunny Sundays my real estate agent and I hopped from mid-town to downtown, viewing an array of properties just out of my price range. But the apartments with their tiny closets, low ceilings and no natural light quickly blurred in my mind. One studio somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with a window that faced an office building across the street was memorable. Rows of identical cubicles that basked in the harsh glow of overhead fluorescents looked like an urban nightmare in the making.

Buying an apartment is not all that different from dating. No one place is perfect, you have to figure out what quirks you can live with and of course you find The One when you are not even looking. I had initially skipped over the fifth-floor one-bedroom walk-up on the Upper West Side but decided to give it a chance one rainy afternoon. It boasted a chic blue-tiled fireplace, 9ft tall ceilings and was filled with gentle Northern light seeping in through its oversized windows that faced the street. The current owners had a West Elm mirror star burst on the wall above their dining room table. The same one my best friend had given me the day I moved to Greenpoint. This was meant to be.

The first few weeks on the Upper West Side were filled with awe and laced with angst. I walked around in a daze from Fairway market to Grand Bazaar, Sheep’s Meadow to the Dakota and pinched myself. One afternoon I found a $100 fine left by my mailbox. The garbage collectors had noted some cardboard that have been improperly disposed. I had just thrown away my packing boxes the day before. Freaked out I hid the ticket in my bag. Was I going to get exposed for a Brooklyn ignoramus that did not understand the rules of Manhattan garbage disposal? The nights I came home tipsy after midnight, I tip-toed up the stairs, terrified of running into any neighbors who’d know I was just an imposter, pretending I was responsible enough to be living in this old-money neighborhood.

My new apartment seemed stuck in a perpetual state of volatile transition. I woke up on Saturdays stressing over what color rugs I needed and tried too many curtains to count. Everything seemed stacked against me — the dresser I wanted was not available, the blue velvet couch I was obsessed with was going to take 12 weeks to arrive. My Pinterest board was now filled with pictures of the pretty Scandinavian rooms, but finding the exact pieces from random blogs felt like a Sisyphean effort. I was dying for my real life to begin, the one where I would host chic dinners and movie nights and serve exotic cocktail concoctions, but you don’t get far with 4 chairs and a side table. All my friends were living in Brooklyn, two train transfers away, four on weekends when the MTA decided to do their part in ruining my plans.

It was a late Friday afternoon when I got an email from the coop board secretary with the cryptic subject line: “Is Your Cat In Your Apartment?” An electrical fire had started inside the exterior wall right beneath my window and was spreading. Panicked, I ran home. My beautiful block was packed with firetrucks, neighbors and passerbys who were clustered on the sidewalk. Fourth floor window below mine was gone, gaping hole filled with black clouds of smoke. Everyone moved slowly as if in a fever dream. Once the firemen cleared the building and finished hosing down the culprit apartment, we were allowed to come inside and check out the damage.

They had used a crowbar to break down my front door. It hung ajar, raw twisted metal along one side, evidence of a violent break in. The curtain rods were partially torn out, left swinging sideways. Dry wall beneath the living room window was shattered, pieces of brick and debris littered the floor, which in turn was covered in muddy footprints left by giant firemen boots. Window screens were gone, the air conditioner sat in the middle of the room, and the entire apartment was filled with dense, heavy smoke that seeped into every crevice. I found my cat crouched under the bed, his eyes the size of saucers.

Shell shock is paralyzing. It simultaneously makes you want to punch the wall and call your mom. Depleted, I sat down on the floor, that just hours ago was shiny and new, and opted for the latter. The Insta-glam living room dream had literally gone up in smoke.

The doorbell rang. It was Adam, the downstairs neighbor. His apartment was missing a window, had no electricity and was soaking wet. There was nothing to do but wine. Shortly after, Anna and Eric from the first floor joined our little party. We drank, ate Thai food and listened to Nicolas Jaar, waiting for the insurance company to send in the cleaning crew that never showed up that night. A smoky take-out dinner by debris was not at all how I had pictured my housewarming, yet this was the one I was never going to forget.

After the neighbors had gone home, I sat in the living room for a while, staring at the newly exposed brick beneath the wall that had come down. My cat jumped onto the windowsill and sat perfectly still in a pool of moonlight. I could see the moon from my window, now that the curtains were not in the way.


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Quit my day job to travel, think and write about things.

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