8 Million Stories: Fire in Hell’s Kitchen

Written by James Wohl on . Posted in 8 Million Stories, Posts.

AS A HEALTHY, educated 29-year-old, I should have been able to find something worthwhile to do with my time. It was pre-recession 2006 and I was back in New York City. I had been on the road for years, playing music on cruise ships and running a photography business with my ex-girlfriend in the Arizona desert. In order to avoid wallowing in the details of our breakup, I needed to find something new to do. With only glimmers of ambition, though, I didn’t quite know where to begin. Living with my parents on Long Island was not an appealing point of departure, so when a college buddy left town and entrusted me with the final month of his sublet in Hell’s Kitchen—rent-free—I jumped at the opportunity.

Despite aspirations to become a writer, I pissed away days sleeping and surfing the web. Evenings were about dining with friends and exploring countless urban diversions. Aware that my life was in limbo, some of them would cover my meals, taxis and movie tickets, giving me a knowing wink that I’d get them back one day when I was more self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, I did not share their confidence and felt ashamed of being supported by my social circle. While their help slowed the depletion of my meager savings, I was compelled to contribute in some way. I decided to start small in hopes that it would escalate into fullfledged independence. Since I preferred filtered water to the urban tap, my first move was to boil water. Not look for a job, volunteer, or create something new. Filling huge metal pots to the brim, I convinced myself that stewing imaginary bacteria and netting almost 12 bucks a month would alchemize a resplendent future of robust health and prosperity.

About two weeks in, I got a call from some friends asking me to join them on a ride to Coney Island to take advantage of a late winter thaw. Excited to break out of my new cave, I hopped on my bike to meet them at the West Side Greenway where we pedaled along the Hudson, across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Ocean Parkway. At the kitschy boardwalk, we scarfed down Nathan’s hot dogs and slurped slippery clams. We plopped onto the sand and absorbed the thrill of an empty beach with a briny breeze. The sun dipped into New Jersey. I started to feel that in some unseen way, things were coming together. Grateful, I closed my eyes to absorb it all and then it hit me—I had left two cauldrons of water boiling in my borrowed apartment.

The way the crow flies, Midtown is a quick 10 miles from Coney Island. But on the F local, with its slow winds and mid-route pauses, I may as well have been fording the Snake River on the Oregon Trail. My mind, its nascent peace obliterated, raced through images of flames incinerating Times Square, all because I was too cheap to buy a water filter. Villages in Pakistan would starve because a dilettante torched their emigrant sons’ bodegas. Headlines would scream “Farewell to Broadway!” as the theater district smoldered.

A full two hours later I emerged from the subway, dashed into my building, and found the apartment intact—the fire still burning, the water boiled away and the pots charred, but no further damage caused. Spared from a senseless disaster, I swore I would take concrete steps to move my life forward. Within weeks I landed a copywriting job, secured my own apartment and began treating people to dinner.

When I think back to that time, I feel relieved that I emerged from that abyss of inertia. If idle hands are the devil’s playthings, then it may have taken the specter of an inferno to put them to good use. C