I was settling into my new reality in Chicago. I arrived at the end of February and spring in Chicago was in full bloom. My mother didn’t drive, so we used public transportation to get all over the city. Monday through Friday, Charlie and I went to school. After school if weather was permitting, my mother would take us to a park or the library. Saturday’s we would visit a museum, go to a program at an university, or will be back at the library. We tend to spend as much time out of the apartment as possible. But was becoming abundantly clear, I wasn’t going back to New York.
The first hint was enrolling me into school. The other was the pop I would receive whenever I asked about “going home”. Looking back, I can see my mother was doing the best she could. She was completely off drugs and even stopped smoking, proclaiming that it was an expense she simply couldn’t afford. “If I’m having trouble feeding my children, clearly I can’t afford to smoke.” And that was it. She had done the same with drugs. When she was pregnant, she left New York, moved to Tuskegee, AL, got clean and gave birth to my baby brother. Her explanation was a little bit more complicated, she would tell us she was hospitalized a couple of times for “acting crazy”. Nights in the apartment produced voices that only my mother heard. She would fight against the voices with prayer and reading the Bible. She would sit us in a circle and read to us from the Bible. If our young eyes got heavy, we would be awaken by yells or a hit upside the head. Some nights my mother had to compete with our neighbor who would play Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. I never recall meeting this neighbor, but my young impression was he was crazy. I was becoming fully exposed and recognized crazy.
One particular night, I don’t recall anything unusual. The only reason why it is singed into my memory, is because we were awaken by someone beating on the door, shouting “FIRE! GET OUT!”
I don’t recall putting on clothes, or shoes, but I do remember smelling the smoke. Fear took over and I recall not knowing if I could trust my mother in that situation to take care of my safety. I don’t remember the decent down the stairs, but I do remember feeling the crisp early morning air hit my face, I remember looking back at the building and seeing flames shooting out of the window. I remember the sounds of crying, screaming, sirens, and industrial sounds melding together into one distinct sound that I would never and hope to never hear again.
As the sun peeked on the city’s horizon, all the adults were busy doing something else and I found myself by myself. There was a black windowless van. I saw two men put a large long black bag in the back and left doors open. I saw a stray dog sniff around the outside the van and peek his head into the van, just as the dog’s curiosity had gotten the best of him, one of the men returned and shouted at the dog to get out and it took off running.
Later that day, I learned that one of my cousins had died that morning because of the fire. That he didn’t wake up and died from the smoke. This was the first time I heard of someone dying from smoke. Even though I hadn’t known my cousin that long, I was still sad. I was sad for his siblings, his mother and father. I also learned that we weren’t returning to the building and we had to move.