I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for 50 years, splitting that time between 3 apartments: 102nd and Riverside, 112th and Riverside, and 96th and Amsterdam. I love my neighborhood and will never leave it. I know people here, and now know their sons and daughters. Shop keepers, doormen, people on the street I’ve seen for decades and never spoken to. They are my family, along with my blood family who also live here.
I have Sal and Carmine’s original sign they made in 1958 when they first came here and hung it over their store next to the Symphony Space. They gave it to me at my request when they moved to 102nd and B’way 20 years ago.
I like when I see new things in my town because it means I’m here. Now. And having walked these streets for so long it’s easy to stop looking. On Tuesday something dramatic happened.
On my way home from the gym I came upon a 30-story building on Amsterdam. Horrendous fire was gutting a third floor apartment, shooting out 3 windows. People watched in surreal horror. Was this a movie? No. It was real. Right there on Amsterdam and 94th Street. It has blazed up fast as the Fire Department sirens weren’t even in the air yet.
“Is everyone out of that apartment” I asked the doorman as he called 911.
“I think so.”
I bolted into the building, found the stairs and ran up to the 3rd floor past old ladies being carried out down the stairs. I got to the third floor, terrified what I might find. Funnily enough, on my way up the stairs, in my terror, I had tried to recall the movie Backdraft for instruction on what doors to open and what signs to watch for to know not to open certain doors. I couldn’t remember so I just threw open the hallway door.
The black smoke immediately choked me to the point where going 5 feet into the hallway to try to access the blazing apartment was impossible.
I covered my mouth and nose with my shirt and started banging on doors for the few seconds I had before I passed out and then would go back to the stairwell for air… and then go back into the hallway of black smoke. A couple other guys showed up to help. We banged on doors. It seemed cleared until a young woman and her dog suddenly came out from the end of the hallway and stumbled into the stairwell. She fell from the smoke and hit her head on the concrete stairs but was okay.
“The leash!” She yelled at me, wanting her dog’s leash. She and the dog were already safe. I got her leash anyway and she ran down the stairs.
I followed, as it seemed everyone was out. When I got downstairs the firemen were arriving so I went home.
As I showered I heard the steady sirens for 15 minutes as 10 engines shut down Amsterdam from 92nd street to 96th street.
As I walked back past the scene on my way to meet friends 10 minutes later, I asked a fireman if everyone had gotten out. “I think so” he said. I walked away, the cold wind hitting my face, and tears welling for the second time that day.
Here. Now. But for the Grace of God go us, huh?
Eric Schaeffer, a prolific writer and filmmaker, has lived in the Upper West Side his entire life and loves to include the city life in his work. His new film is called After Fall Winter. The West Side Rag’s first story about the fire, which sent three people to the hospital and took firefighters more than two hours to control, is here.