August 23rd, 1969
I was almost 5 years old when it all started. My days were spent riding up and down the sidewalk on my bike, the same couple of hundred feet or so, over and over. I knew every crack and bump. I’d ride around until my sister would come out and yell for me to come up for dinner. She was 10, and on this particular day she was very excited, there was this food she wanted us to try that she saw at her friend’s house. American food. She described it to me. She said it was not really solid and not really liquid, kind of rubbery. It came in all sorts of flavors and it was transparent. I couldn’t wait to see. So we had dinner and she made this stuff, this hot red liquid that she was pouring into a bowl to cool when we first heard it. It was coming from the alley and it wasn’t a particularly threatening sound. It sounded like applause, a small crowd clapping loudly. We couldn’t see what it was because of the high window over the kitchen sink (strangely the kitchen is the only room in that house I can still remember), so we called my dad in who stuck his head out and looked. My dad had dark skin but when he looked back at us his face was as white as a sheet. He mumbled something to my mother as he reached across the table, grabbed my shirt and lifted me up and over the table and onto his shoulder. He hauled me down the stairs with my mother dragging my sister behind us who was still fretting about her rubber food.
Out the door and down to the sidewalk we went just as the fire department was arriving. My grandfather, who’d gone to the store on Junction Blvd., was walking towards us when he saw it all. He dropped his bag of groceries and ran towards the house as the firemen immediately grabbed him. Through the deepening dusk and the haze of smoke I could see the two neighboring duplexes completely engulfed in flame with ours well on its way, all on account of a few discarded propane canisters and a cigarette. My mother and sister were frantically explaining to them that my grandmother, who couldn’t walk, was still inside, when Grandfather broke free and ran up to the front door punching his hands through the door’s glass panes just as a policeman and fireman got to him and dragged him away. More and more engines arrived (three alarms) as the flames intensified. We watched our home and everything in it go up in flames, as I lost my dinner all over the back of my dad’s red flannel shirt.
I don’t remember much else except the highlight of the evening, a picture of which made the morning papers … A firemen brought my diabetic grandmother, still in her ripped nightgown, through the smoke and flame and down on the engine-ladder. I kind of fell asleep after that, still on my Dad’s shoulder. Grandmother and Grandfather were whisked away in an ambulance as the four of us were questioned by the paramedics with my sister acting as translator. We were told we could go with the Red Cross or spend the night at a neighbor’s house. The only family who volunteered to take us in was an African American family from down the block on 98th Street who had a boy about my age also named Matthew. My dad never failed to point out to my mom whenever the story came up that of all the Greek families on our block, none so much as lifted a finger to help us. We were renters and had only been there a year or so, but still. The family gave us some Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup and some blankets. I remember eating a few spoonfuls of soup while the other little boy sat across the table staring at me. We slept on the couch that night with my dad on the floor beside us. My mom had gone off to the hospital and didn’t get home until after we were asleep.
The next morning the Red Cross was back with a weird station wagon to take us somewhere. We drove down Northern Boulevard stopping off at a warehouse where we were given several large boxes of clothing. Then we continued on … to Willets Point. We were led to a 6th floor apartment with a balcony and two bedrooms in the projects. Across the Boulevard was a huge mass of concrete shaped like a giant bowl with orange and blue specks all over it. It was August 24th, 1969.
My grandfather joined us that day with stitches all over his hands that looked like thick unruly hairs. He had this big crazy moustache and this escaped convict look in his eyes and when I think about this now I wonder how he wasn’t committed. My grandmother joined us a few days later. Everyone was fine. The apartment was nice. It was new, the whole building was new. I liked it there because it wasn’t made of wood — it couldn’t possibly burn, and I liked our balcony where I could stand and watch the crowds filling the stadium. I think we were the only white family in the building but I felt welcome and happy. I became fast friends with a 6 year old boy from upstairs. He was older and had the run of the hallways and stairs and eventually I did too, although I still wasn’t allowed to leave our floor. We mostly played on the stairwell near our apartment. This boy told me about what was going on in the stadium across the boulevard. He told me all about the Mets. He had baseball cards and I had a little red matchbox car that I managed to hold onto through everything. That summer my dad took my sister and me to our first ballgame.
My dad was an interesting guy. He’d fought with the British 8th army in WWII on the Adriatic Coast, he made the best mousaka in the Western Hemisphere, could make you laugh just by giving you a look, and rather than stand around with his cronies in front of the newsstand drinking coffee and arguing about Greek soccer and politics, he’d buy the paper and quickly turn to the baseball standings. He’d sit around in the evenings chain-smoking and cursing like a maniac, slamming the coffee table if Don Clendenon struck out on a slider off the plate. It was the one purely American diversion he’d managed to integrate into an otherwise completely transplanted existence.
The game was on a Saturday, Sept. 6th. We walked of course. The Mets beat the Phillies 3 – 0. My sister remembers it better than I do. I mostly remember the roaring crowds. The Mets were 4 and 1/2 games out.
I remember the parades that summer. The Met caravan would sometimes drive right in front of our apartment building. I remember the players sitting in big Cadillac convertibles with their wives and girlfriends. I remember running back and forth from the balcony to the TV when there was a game on … and I stopped throwing up every time I’d hear a siren.
The Mets won 21 games that August and did the impossible. They went on to win another 24 games before the end of the season finishing with a record of 100 – 62, eight games ahead of the Cubs. They swept the Braves to get to the World Series, lost the opener to the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles then won 4 straight to capture the title. The final out coming when Davey Johnson hit a fly ball off Jerry Koosman that settled into Cleon Jones’ glove as all pandemonium broke loose.
That December, against my wishes, we moved back to Corona. One might think the calamity of the fire and it’s aftermath might induce nightmares and anguish for years to come, but it didn’t. The magical ending and the victory parades and our wonderful place on the balcony seemed to wash all the bad stuff away, until the only thing that comes to mind when I think back on that summer is the cheering that I can still hear from both the TV and from across the boulevard, and my dad, who has since passed away, taking us to the game, holding our hands.