Chicago is inhospitable in winter and is no place for the impoverished and aged. This was such a place, a warehouse for those without recourse, a prison for innocent elders with no grandchildren to rescue them, or more tragically, grandchildren who actively declined to do so. That she was alive at all surprised me.
Ice and fog had rendered the shoreline a swirling cauldron. The three narrow windows of her tiny apartment struggled against the stinging cold thrust steadily westward from the lake, they were shabbily insulated and together wheezed like a broken concertina, and the long, rusty radiator that ran below them was frigid to the touch. There were no curtains to dam daylight or streetlight, to stifle the frigid float of the wind or muffle its incessant moaning. While a sidewalk passerby could not peek into the apartment—the windows were too high for that—there was an open view for those in the building across the street. The chill had moved in and filled the apartment, which had gone unheated for days; it seemed colder inside than out.
The walls were stained by condensation—running, drying, running, drying—and the wooden floorboards were concave, their edges raised, their centers bowed. A small, rumpled rug with a mocking sunset design was next to her bed, its sheets yellowed by incontinence and the thin mattress too wide for its metal frame. Flush against the soiled wall on one side, the mattress hung over by inches on the other. Though the room was high-ceilinged, the apartment’s footprint could not have exceeded one hundred square feet.
On days like this the bunkroom was the warmest place at the firehouse. Its narrow clerestory windows faced Coolidge Avenue, but the entirety of their view was gray sky and the thinning branches of barren trees. The walls were covered with light brown, glazed tile that suggested a municipal swimming pool, and even when fully lit the bunkroom seemed in perpetual dusk. Not like the kitchen and TV room—their large windows ran forty feet along the entire windward side of the firehouse and were frosted waist-high to ceiling. Though sunlight poured in from October to April, it was never genuinely warm. Still, the television blared the first of the four football games that would be televised that day, and my colleagues, Connor and McGee, snuggled in blue watch caps and bomber jackets emblazoned with the red intertwined letters “CFD,” sat riveted by the pregame banter. Vaguely audible were the voices of sports analysts comparing the previous meetings of the two teams that would soon clash. I had been spending most of the morning in the bunkroom, stealing snippets from various books and attempting to complete my master’s thesis—a three-act play in which James Joyce, during a deathbed fever dream, imagines himself a heroic fighter, bunkered down in the post office during the Easter Rebellion. The odd strategy I had devised—snipping and pasting photocopied texts into a thick, blank journal—was so disjointed and slapdash that it was beginning to look less like a work of drama and more like a five-volume ransom note.
Voices could be heard from the locker room next door. A few of the crew members played cards and drank beer and talked about the guy on the second shift who had fallen in love with the tiny prostitute who would often visit the firehouse. He had been buying her expensive gifts and having dates at romantic restaurants; still he was required to pay. I wished my play had such pathos as the lovelorn fireman and his masquerade lover.
I had never employed her services, but I did drink beer in the locker room. It was a matter of trust. Accusations that I was haughty and untrustworthy implied that I didn’t belong in the firehouse, that I was somehow unmanly. Both accusations were apt.
“Perhaps you should be teaching kindergarten, helping them kids learn their ABCs.”
Followed by a few bars of the song, then laughter.
“Or drinking tea with your pinky in the air.” Then more laughter.
So I drank the beer. One can of Old Style. And never drank another. I had broken, just one time, the same rule that they broke regularly. Yet that was enough. I could be disciplined just as harshly for one drink on duty as for consuming a whole twelve-pack. Sex workers and drunkenness. Hardly what I expected when I joined the department. But it was true. I was a prude. A schoolmarm. I still am.
She was so frail. In some areas her hair was thinned to near baldness, yet she had struggled to style the gray strands that remained. On the upward side of her face, the left side, ran a delicate curl just above her ear that suggested a powdered wig, as if she were member of the Continental Congress.
On the way to her apartment we had marched down a wide hallway laid with linoleum squares, some broken and revealing flattened patches of adhesive obscuring the original marble floor. I attempted to unravel the scenario of her predicament as we, crews from Truck 66 and Ambulance 31, crowded into the tiny apartment. It was a narrow rectangle with an alcove for her bed only as deep as the width of her bathroom, where she lay on the floor, wearing a thickly knitted violet sweater (it might have been blue; my colorblindness deceives me) over a flowered housedress, and that over her baggy white long johns. She was moaning softly, and weeping, frozen to her bathroom’s wooden floor. Half her hair and face were bound in ice. Her arms and legs, too. This tiny, frail woman, like a tumbled puppet, her limbs mimicking a running figure fixed in motion, still fighting for life, frozen to the floor in this rathole. And still alive. Why not just go to sleep? Why not give in? That is what a young person would think. But she had held onto life with an uncanny fierceness.
At the end of the room, I could see a small metal cabinet and atop it a single-disk hotplate next to a small saucepan and a bundle of ramen noodle packets. In the bathroom sink was a dented tea kettle, nearly submerged in ice. She had simply fallen, as old people do, but the conditions of her mishap were bizarre, even torturous. I silently struggled to recompose the event in my head.
Her incident began while enacting her nightly routine, a cup of tea to warm her in the frigid night, as the owners of this elder depository were stingy with their heating, telling the tenants, “It will be on again soon, just be patient, the company has been alerted,” all the while wringing every penny from their investment as mercilessly as the Thénardiers in Les Misérables.
She had taken the kettle to the sink and turned on the tap. She patiently held the kettle until the stingiest stream of hot water, little more than a drip, ran from those creaky pipes. It didn’t quite matter that the stream was weak, the drain was so sluggish, even more sluggish of late, that running the water with any vigor easily caused overflows. It had happened twice before, for which she had been scolded by the coarse attendant who always wore a smock decorated with dancing teddy bears, and she had learned to be extra cautious. She watched the narrow stream flow, thin as a bamboo skewer. The hotter the water, the sooner it would boil, and the sooner her tea would be steaming in her mug. She often calculated this equation. Rush cold water to the leisurely hotplate and wait, or wait for warmer water to provide a shorter boil? She had concluded the latter was the better choice, but only just. So she waited patiently. Perhaps she folded her arms, tightly hugging herself against the cold while she waited, clutching her sweater tighter around her neck, but then a strong gust screamed through her rattling windows and a shiver came over her that shook her body, shook her head, and suddenly she was dizzy, unbalanced. She felt her hand release the kettle as the wall moved, replaced by the ceiling, then the floor. The last thing she remembered was the slow drip of the overflowing sink. And no one checked on her. The same excuse—the staffing agency is overrun, there is simply no one to spare right now, but soon, yes, soon.
Drifting in and out, she thought she was dreaming, as the sink continued to stream thinly, slowly, but the size of the full, heavy kettle had reduced the volume of the sink, enough to allow the water to rise above the sluggish drain, above the edge of the basin, until she could feel her clothes moisten, then thicken. It began behind her shoulder as a tiny stalagmite, then grew into a frozen cataract from the sink down to the floor and there she had become cemented, in a shallow lake of ice. Her mind became too cloudy and her voice too faint, her body too weak to remove herself. The sink had overflowed, and she knew what was happening and wished she could stop that first tiny but multiplying overflow, but she was already frozen, the dripping then freezing cascade from the sink to the floor, days ago now, had trapped her.
By the time of the second game, lunch had been provided by our mediocre firehouse cook, O’Sullivan. He was not incompetent but distinctly lacking in imagination. An overboiled brisket was his particular pride, and he served it every fifth dinner. That dullness, of course, may have been driven by the members of the third shift who preferred the predictable to the adventurous. O’Sullivan’s singular standout meal was the BLT. His bacon was thick and done just ever so, he used quality wheat bread delicately toasted, and mixed his mayo with mustard and used it sparingly, but what made his BLTs uncommon was that he added a satisfying slice of genuine gouda. It was a lovely sandwich. The only drawback was that he garnished it with a flaccid sweet gherkin and Jay’s Potato Chips—a singularly undistinguished, locally produced brand. Just as we assembled in the TV room on the various unmatched chairs with our reform school plates on our laps, eagerly waiting for the Bears to kick off to the Packers, the bell rang for the ambulance and the truck.
Life in the Loughburgh neighborhood was graphed on a wide continuum. There were million-dollar mansions with historic plaques bolted to their gateposts. Not far from these historic piles were tenements warrened into single-room-occupancy apartments. While they were often similar in age and exterior beauty, in their inner life these siblings distinctly parted company. The governor and the archbishop lived in the former, the lady in the ice, the latter. Her building was a forty-story gothic revival, with a once illuminable crown, spider-legged with decorative flying buttresses, and instantly memorable, yet the remodeled interior was so anodyne as to defy recollection. If all the floors were similarly configured and occupied, that would make sixteen hundred senior citizens confined in lucrative cells. This wasn’t an apartment building, it was a money factory. I imagined Social Security payments speeding from Washington, DC, like migrating birds, in a never-ending season.
Her room was too small for the five men from the truck and the two from the ambulance, too small for even an elderly woman, born possibly in the same year the building was erected. She was a prisoner there, incarcerated for the crime of being old, poor, and alone. We were shoulder to shoulder as she moaned and wept, in significant distress but thankful that finally someone had arrived for her, gladdened that she was no longer dreaming. Captain Rizzo assessed that the two paramedics could, and should, handle her alone. We slowly left, trudging in single file through her narrow doorway. The paramedics poured alcohol along the floor around her face and hair, melting the ice so that she could move her mouth, although they were careful not to lift her head. I was the last firefighter to leave, and as I did so, I looked back at her. She appeared to be moving her mouth, but I could not interpret her words or hear if she was saying anything at all. How brave she was, I thought. I am not brave, I would have given up.
Back at the firehouse I returned to the bunkroom, the scent of a boiling brisket already infusing the aroma of diesel. I stared at the jumble of books and clippings and yellow-pad notes strewn across the blue synthetic blanket of my bunk, a pompous litter that only four people would ever read (if ever I managed to complete it). How foolishly self-indulgent, how cowardly and pretentious my play now seemed—the world-famous Irish author dreaming himself a heroic fighter from the safe distance of Zurich and too delicate to actually embroil himself in revolution in Dublin or in the Great War that was scarring the continent—in my firehouse where three-quarters of the crew had Irish surnames. Why wasn’t I writing a play about Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, or James Baldwin? About real, not imagined suffering. Yet, I could never do that, it would have risked raising wounds too near to ignore, the mirrors of self-doubt, the bumptious intellectual posturing, and its immediate sting of regret. It made me ashamed that I had actually worn my 26 + 6 = 1 tee shirt to the firehouse, hoping to ingratiate myself with my new colleagues; not a single one of them understood the Irish allusion. I couldn’t even imagine myself teaching kindergarten, it would be just another role for which I was ill suited, like firefighting and marriage.
I wondered how that brave old woman in the apartment came to be alone, if she had ever married—a beloved soldier boy who had died young, or had she married a wastrel, one of those who walk down to the corner store for cigarettes but never return? Or did she have a lover whom she was forbidden to marry, an overly effusive friendship that her family considered unnatural and loathsome, yet one that she ever after furtively cherished? She was under my gaze for no more than six minutes, her apartment less than half that, yet here I was concocting grand fictions for her, cursing greedy landlords, while raising dead Irishmen. It was just this brand of woolgathering for which my colleagues mocked me. After declining their hollow and cursory invitation for getting together outside of the firehouse, I was never asked again, and my outsiderdom was cemented, the role in which I felt most comfortable.
Fragile, dry snowflakes had dusted the sidewalk by the time my shift was over at 7 a.m., and my shallow footprints followed me toward the CTA platform. The windows inside the elevated train were thick with condensation, and using the forearm of my peacoat, I squeegeed a view of the city passing by, noting each neighborhood where I had briefly lived before becoming dissatisfied over some minor vexation and moving on toward an imagined fulfillment. Each of the streets between the blocks offered brief glimpses of the lakefront horizon, targeting a vanishing point indistinguishable between water and air.
The snowfall remained light but had thickened on the sidewalk as I walked the two blocks home from the El. It was a relief to return to the yet again temporary home that was my lakeside studio apartment. In the apartment, which was ascetically spartan and unpeopled with visitors, I could drink my morning beer alone, an Australian affectation called Tooth’s Sheaf Stout. There I could read uninterrupted, make overly particular notes, and chronicle lives far more vivid than my own, yet on this day more was required. I took off my coat, shoes, and socks, then walked barefoot to both of the three-bar radiators that warmed the apartment and dialed the valve handles clockwise. I pulled off my zip-neck fire department sweatshirt and similarly logoed tee shirt and let them fall to the floor. Then my pants and finally my underwear. Naked, I opened the three casement windows that overlooked the lake and felt the entirety of my skin rapidly turn to gooseflesh. I could feel the cold wind rush up my spine, my penis and scrotum retracted, my nipples erected, and my eyes began to sting and water. I shook. I watched the freezing roil below. I imagined myself enveloped in it, walking above the water, swimming through the needling ice crystals, my lashes freezing shut as I surrendered to its cruel, white embrace.