Fat Woman on Bleecker Street
By Maggie Hill
The firehouse on Great Jones Street, nicknamed Bowery U, lent the sole character to this street that had no sense of place. A parking lot, a diner, a delivery service were cobbled together on the south side of the block, along with a couple of artist studios on the second and third floors of gray, nondescript buildings. On the east corner, a skanky dive bar sold cheap beer to broke NYU students. The north side had even less character, where fully half the block bore glass fronts papered-over in opaque brown. Then right in the middle of this nothing block, arose a beautiful double company, old-school firehouse. A classic four-story building, it was made of large blocks of limestone which bulged out from the fluted columns on the façade. Two oversized red garage doors, each with a line of shiny windows at eye level, abutted the columns, opening and closing under a second story balcony with a wrought iron trellis. From the balcony, the flagpole snapped out the redwhiteandblue in all its glory. Between the trellis and the top of the apparatus doors, purple and black bunting hung, adding a macabre festiveness. They had that bunting up for more than two years now.
Walter Coughlin, senior fireman, on the job nearly 30 years, was holding court in the kitchen of his beloved firehouse. He was telling his rapt audience – all young guys new to the job – about the strangest person he ever met. But he can’t tell that story. Let someone else tell it.
In summer, the sun comes up around the Manhattan Bridge like a pirate. It crashes through the steel cables, splaying itself across the zigzagged Chinatown streets, spotlighting every gated restaurant, darkened pawn shop, bloated trashcan. Tilting up Second Avenue, the sun, like flame, spreads to every crevice, manhole, drain, and slope.
Walter Coughlin faced the morning light head on, coffee cup in hand, standing strong outside his beloved firehouse. Great Jones Street was lifeless at this hour; he was the only person outside to witness the daylight marauding the gray buildings.
It’s going to be a hot one, Walter thought. He was jazzed, ready for action, horny, after the night’s routine catastrophes of stuck elevators, gas leaks, oven fires. With the dose of carbon dioxide he got from operating the can on the last run, and a dozen cups of coffee in as many hours, Walter’s blood ran down, up, through his body like a loop-de-loop roller coaster.
He absorbed the atmosphere of the city – his city – tuning his senses toward the early morning thrum of the lower east side. Anything could happen here, at any time. He scanned a rooftop horizon filled with aerials, escape ladders, smokestacks, and one lone ripped, shredding, blue workshirt flapping from a makeshift clothesline.
Walter looked around, felt firmly in place, then stepped through the wicket door onto the main floor of the firehouse. He knew the Puerto Rican probie on housewatch was trying not to attract his attention. Good, Walter thought, he should be a little afraid of me. This morning, all the young firefighters planned to stay out of Walter’s way. With little more than two hours left of the shift, nobody wanted to hear it.
The alarm rang and a 10-37 – civilian in need – came over the wire. Walter ripped the work sheet expertly off the fax machine, hit the floor and was already putting on his bunker gear by the time the rest of the truck company made it to the rig. Ready in four seconds, flat. Within 20 seconds, the apparatus doors were opened and the truck was making its way west to Bleecker Street. This is where her story begins.
There is a fat woman dying on Bleecker Street. She is smothering inside the pressure of her own flesh.
She lives above the two-block stretch of carnival where visitors to Bleecker Street rarely look – up over the Japanese restaurants, the trendy boutiques, the storefront fortune tellers, the cabarets. She has a two-room apartment over a store that sells exotic jewelry from New Jersey. Nobody ever sees her. She cannot move around very well and never goes out of doors. An oversized upholstered chair in the living room is where she conducts her hours of passive sitting.
Every couple of months, she is taken to the hospital where blood and oxygen stave off the threat of gangrene to her inactive legs. The folds of fat behind her knees have scabbing sores from lack of air and hygiene. She is sixty-two inches tall. Her weight, unmeasured, is guessed at close to 500 pounds. When it is time to go to the hospital, a truckload of firemen come to her apartment to transport her. There is, simply, no other way.
Walter is poised and sharply alert in an emergency, trained to break down doors and eat smoke. He approaches his work lustfully, throwing himself completely at a situation until he has either conquered it, or spent himself trying. He usually conquers.
Walter does not relish the idea of navigating a barely-breathing obese woman down a couple of flights of stairs. Instead, he wants the fat old broad to hop into the bucket.
The bucket is a caged landing at the end of a seventy-five foot tower ladder that can hoist a fireman up as far as the sixth floor of a building. It is constructed on the same premise as a crane, except that at the end of the hyrdraulic extension sits a six-by-four platform large enough to hold two firemen.
When the hook-and-ladder company rolled up outside the building this early summer morning, Walter got inside the bucket and ascended to the civilian-in-need’s third floor living room window. He knocked on the pane of glass and yelled,
“Hello sweetheart! Want to go for a ride?”
At the same moment, four other firemen were being let in the apartment door by the neighbor who had called them. Every inch of the barely furnished, empty-walled room glared back at them. There was a rabbit-eared television in a corner, a bed that didn’t look big enough to hold the woman, one small table. The firemen reacted to the smell of unwashed and decaying flesh by an almost imperceptible switch from nose to mouth inhaling. She sat there, arms billowing down her side, a swath of faded cloth wrapped around her in the shape of a voluminous housecoat. The woman had thin, greasy hair. Her face looked punch-puffed, like a wrestler’s after a horrific match. Her eyes were so attenuated by swelling that they seemed like two ripped, gaping slits. The fat woman did not acknowledge the firemen’s entrance. Her eyes burned in the direction of the man outside her window.
“How about it, babe? Want to take a ride with Uncle Walter?”
The woman, clearly in breathing distress, grunted and moved her head back and forth one time for a no.
Walter turned what he imagined a charming, boyish smile on her and shouted, “C’mon, doll! It’ll be like going to Coney Island!”
A crowd of children and morning strollers emerged on the scene in the street below. The traffic was blocked by the slanted angle of the fire truck. Everyone wanted to know where the fire was.
Inside the apartment, the firemen were calculating how many men it would take to carry the woman out, strapped to her chair. They agreed that the four of them, plus Walter, should be able to handle it. They had already decided that this lady wasn’t going near the bucket. But Walter was still outside the window, his firemen’s helmet off in an effort to appear nonchalant. He was convinced that the woman would have an easier time, after all, if she’d just let him strap her to the bucket for a short trip to the street.
His voice was cocky, playful, when he said, “It’s a beautiful day out here, sweetie! I tell you what – you come out here with me and I’ll have you down on the sidewalk one, two, three!” He was snapping his fingers, actually feeling the fake joy as real.
The woman’s lips pulled away from her teeth, and she shook her head: No.
Walter lowered his voice, as if they were conspirators in this secret undertaking, saying, “Afraid this old bucket isn’t strong enough for both of us?” He was leaning in the room, his arms resting on the window ledge. They looked directly into each other’s eyes. He was facing this woman at this moment of her life, head on, no questions asked. It wasn’t pretty. It was her story, but now he was briefly, intimately, a major part of it. What she needed, he would give. He would touch her, hold her, bring her where she needed to go. His face looked light, almost cheerful; the face of someone who is about to die but does so with complete acceptance.
Walter mustered his man-flirts-with-girl attitude. “Okay, doll face. We’ll have it your way.”
He climbed out of the bucket and into the apartment, signalling the driver to retract the ladder. All five firemen got in place around the woman. Walter took her in the middle, while the others locked in around her thighs and underarms. On cue, they lifted her up.
The roar that came out of the woman could have come from an animal, it was so guttural, primal. She was saying NO. The young firemen jerked back, looking to Walter for direction. He met each fireman’s eyes, nodding encouragement, affirming their actions. There was something like love in his eyes.
The woman began to shake back and forth, as if to capsize herself. But the men hung onto the woman’s massive torso like drowning men to a sinking, inflatable boat, as they followed Walter’s lead toward the stairs. The five of them strained and struggled at the landing to turn the chair and the woman while maintaining fluid movement. Her cries echoed down the staircase, coming back up to them, over and over, bouncing off the bare walls, as if a mob of grieving women were waiting up ahead for them, on every landing.
Walter could time the vibrations from her diaphragm as the sound moved in staggered waves from deep within her body. Her smell breached his sense of time, his hold of place.
Walter opened his mouth to beg for air, and matched the woman’s cries with a strangled scream of his own. She breathed in for such a long time, it was as though she was swallowing the whole of the world. He breathed it in with her. She rolled out her tortured “NO” from inside her swollen lips; his exploded out from a cave in his chest. The other firemen, panting, loved Walter more than anyone in their lives right then, for trying to make them laugh on this horrible job, on this beautiful summer morning. For half a staircase, they rallied for Walter, who had to be the funniest man alive, to scream along with this sorrowful creature. They couldn’t see him; he was swallowed up in the woman.
Walter kept screaming louder, longer, as they rounded the final landing. Both the woman and Walter beat a disturbing rhythm. Together, they sounded like two aircraft engines, losing altitude, streaming toward earth on a keenly quiet day. The woman tried to keep up with Walter, but she had plummeted, crashing to the end of her anguished cries. Walter’s head melded to her chest, as he continually bucked shoulder and leg, pawing his way through the descent.
By the time they reached the main hallway, the crushing light from Bleecker Street blinded their vision to the sidewalk. Each man, disturbed and not understanding why, processed cautiously toward the unhinged front doors, trying to make out what was directly in front of them. Walter’s voice maintained its frightening power, as the eerie pitch of it gained breadth and width. The Lieutenant ran up the stoop and wrapped his arms around Walter’s shoulders, pulling, then hugging him, full-armed, around his chest.
Outside, children’s voices burst like ice in a thin glass. “Look at the fat woman! The firemen had to break down the doors so she could fit through! That’s the fat woman of Bleecker Street!” The fat woman was back in her apartment that night. They sent Walter to Bellevue for a two-day psychiatric evaluation. That’s another story.
Maggie Hill is a writer who teaches at CUNY-Kingsborough.