FIRE by Arthur Brown

BURN CHELSEA BURN

In the early 1970s Chelsea, Massachusetts on the north bank of the Mystic River was a good example of a failed post-industrial city. Thousands of residents had moved out of the working-class community throughout the 50s and 60s. The opening of the Route 1 North Expressway further deepened the decline and on October 14, 1973 the coffin was nailed shut, when the rag shop district burst into flames, which burned eighteen blocks into ashes.

That windy Sunday I left my Brighton apartment to have dinner at my parents’ house on the South Shore. My cousin Cindy was visiting from Quincy. My father turned on the radio. WBZ reported that Chelsea was in flames.

“Ssssh,” my father quieted the table. He had fought the Great Maine Fire of 1947 and liked a good fire.

The radio reporter announced that the Mystic River Bridge had been shut down and the governor had called out the National Guard.

“This I have to see.” My older brother had almost torched our house in Maine playing with matches and at 14 we had set the nearby woods on fire toasting marshmallows. The school psychiatrist said that his pyromania was a release of anxiety or a search for euphoria. My mother thought Frunk’s perchance for arson as a threat from Satan, but she was wrong. To us fire was good.

God had spoken to Moses from a burning bush. Vulcan had been spawned from a spark in his mother’s womb and fire symbolized purity to the Zorasterians. My godlessness didn’t exclude a worship of fire and my older brother told my mother that we wanted to see the fire better.

“From where?” asked my mother, who had worried that his fiery fixation might be derived from satanic possession.

“Just from the top of the hill.” Frunk was telling the truth

The Blue Hills rose behind our suburban neighborhood. They were the highest elevation on the South shore.

“From there and nowhere else.” My mother commanded and my older brother nodded with averted eyes. Living at home he had learned how to had . “Yes, m’am.”

“I’m coming too.” Cindy was attending an all-girl college. We protested the war together on Boston Commons.

“I want to go,” said my younger sister, who was a year behind me.

“Not a chance. It’s a school night.” My mother refused Gina’s every entreaty. My father knew better than to intercede. My mother wasn’t losing any daughters to the devil.

“I’ll drive you and Cindy home afterwards,” he told me.

“Okay.” I had early morning classes at college and Cindy was living on Beacon Hill.

I kissed my mother good-night. She blessed me with her rosary and slipped me a twenty, which was enough for a week’s worth of Labatt Beer.

My older brother drove his VW to the CCC tower on Chickatawbut Hill.

Cindy, Frunk, and I climbed to the old CCC tower. Gusts of wind rushed through the trees. The setting sun was giving way to the night and bright stars floated above the Atlantic. Atop the tower two teenagers in leather jackets drank beer and smoked cigarettes, as if they were attempting to join the thick black smoke plume furling over Chelsea.

My brother observed the fire through my father’s binoculars.

“Is it bad?”

“Take a look.” Frunk handed the glasses to me.

Fiery tongues of yellow and red leapt through the black smoke. Fire engines howled from the expressway. Chelsea needed help or else the city wouldn’t exist in the morning. I gave the binoclars to Cindy.

“Ooo, that’s big.” The eighteen year-old coed was impressed by the conflagration.

“I want to see this closer.” Frunk descended the stairs. Chelsea was miles away, but the fire was a powerful magnet to a teenaged arsonist.

“From where?” I followed him.

“From closer.” He ran to the VW. I hadn’t seen the law student this excited since I had been arrested for an anti-war protest at our college, when he talked the cops out of putting me into the paddy-wagon.

“Closer?”

“Chelsea.” He turned to Cindy. “I’ll drop you off first.”

“No, you won’t.” The willowy brunette was studying ancient history. “It isn’t every day that you get to see a city burn like Rome.

“I’m co-pilot.” My map sense was the best on either side of my family. I held open the door for Cindy. She jumped in the back and I sat in the front. My brother screeched from the parking lot and I pulled out a Massachusetts map.

There weren’t many ways into Chelsea.

Frunk turned on the radio.

The WBZ announcer said that the wind-blown fire was out of control. The city’s hydrants couldn’t provide enough water for the hoses. Fire companies from all over the Bay State were descending on the besieged city. The National Guard was stationed on Everett Avenue.

“You know anyone in Chelsea?” asked Cindy, as we sped on the inbound Route 3.

“No one.”

“Then let’s make up a name, so that if the police asks us about why we’re there, then we can say we’re the_____what?”

“Evans.” I liked the Red Sox right fielder. He had a good bat and a strong arm to the plate.

My brother pulled over twice to make way for convoys of fire trucks guided by a Statie cruiser. Frunk pulled behind one and drafted on the tail of a ladder truck from Marshfield. Over the radio the Chelsea Fire Chief asked for spectator to remain away from the city.

“He’s not talking to me.” Frunk planned on attending law school, but fire branded his soul with rebellion.

“Get off the Expressway at Haymarket.” I figured the Artery was jammed with fire trucks.

Frunk obeyed my directions. I drove taxi to support myself through college. We cut through the Combat Zone and climbed over Beacon Hill.

“I don’t see any smoke.” My older brother peered into the night sky.

“You will soon.” I pointed through the North End towers to a wavering orange glow. “Wait till we get to the Charles.”

After passing the Charles Street Jail our eyes were transfixed by the awesome glare pulsating beyond the black shadow on Bunker Hill. People lined the Longfellow Bridge. Cars slowed for the drivers to rubberneck the spectacle. Police cars were setting up roadblocks.

“How are we going to get there?” Frunk was panicking. He wanted to see this fire.

“Turn onto Memorial Drive.”

I piloted him under the trolley viaduct across the railroad tracks to New Rutherford Avenue by the site of the old Charlestown Prison, which had been replaced by Bunker Hill Community College. Cindy and Frunk spoke with a rising excitement. We were skirting fire barricades. Nothing was stopping my older brother. I was surprised by the extant of the fire upon reaching the Alford Street Bridge over the Mystic River. Red and gold flashed off the water underneath a plateau of the fire trucks’ spinning lights of fire trucks. A single Chelsea cop car manned the other end of the bridge. The officer was leaning against a light-pole. His face was lit by the razing blaze. He looked exhausted.

“Right on Beachem Street.”

The back road was located in a huddle of fuel tanks.

“If these caught fire, it’d really be something.” Frunk’s eyes shined with hope.

“Don’t even think about it.” Cindy knew my brother well.

“I’m not that kid anymore. I’m almost in law school.”

I liked him as the arsonist better.

A line of cops stood in the street at the end of Island End River.

“Park the car here.”

Other fire enthusiasts had done the same. The police were not enforcing the no-go zone. Flames rocketed into the night. The fire was fueled by oil-soaked rags and drums of rancid oil. An explosion shuddered the cobblestones like domino tiles. Fire hoses snaked north of Second Street. Another teenager glanced at Cindy. Fire was a good element for her Irish beauty.

“The cops say the fire started over there.” The long-haired townie pointed to the left. An entire blocks was bursting with flames. Firefighters were aiming jets of water on a lost building. “I heard on the other side of the fire, lines are running all the way from Bellingham Square. That’s almost a half-mile from the frontline.”

Another boom rocked the air. Two fireballs whooshed into the sky. My skin felt the heat from three hundred feet away and Frunk wanted to get closer.

Embers soared overhead. Ashes rained on us. I expected to see Godzilla breath lava on Chelsea.

“This is far enough for me.” The local teenager stopped before twin columns of fire.

“The twin burning bushes of Chelsea.” Frunk was drawn forward in a hypnotic trance to where the walls of flames joined overhead forming a hellish tunnel. Here wasn’t a fireman in sight and I grabbed at his arm. He shrugged off my hand. “I came here for this.”

“And I’m not seeing my brother barbecued here.”

“I’ll be fine. Heat rises. C’mon. You’ll never see something like this ever again in your life. It’s like Chelsea had been bombed by the Luftwaffe.”

“Or Hanoi by the Air Force,” I sneered, since Frunk had voted for Nixon to end the war.

“That too.”

Politics were unimportant. I stared into the fiery maw. The wind shifted and the enflamed corridor opened to the stars.

“Okay.”

Cindy, Frunk, and I braved the gauntlet. The intense heat was baking my skin. It was too hot to breathe and I saw a face growing in the fire. I was a lifelong atheist, but the eyes looked like they belonged to the Devil. He was calling my name. I was wanted in Hell. I had no idea. I was no great sinner and shouted, “Run.”

I waited for them to go ahead of me. I was the fastest, but didn’t want to show how scared I was by this teenage death wish.

At the end of the block firefighters shook their heads. I had wanted to be one when I was a kid.

Not anymore.

“Where did you come from?” a black-faced fireman asked, ready to spray us down.

“From there.” Frunk nodded over his shoulder.

“Stupid kids. Get out of here.”

His long night was for professionals.

I had no trouble persuading Frunk to leave the devastated city.

“What did you see back there?” Cindy asked as if she might have seen something.

“Nothing and you?” I asked Frunk.

He wasn’t saying anything.

Cindy and I walked him back to the VW. Ambulances were idling on the road. No one had been hurt in the fire, but Frunk was in a state of shock. I took the keys and drove us to Charles Street. I parked the car and we went into the Sevens. Frunk liked Brothers better, but this was my choice. I ordered us three beers and we sat at the bar. My brother watched Patriots highlights on the TV. There weren’t many. The home team had lost to the Jets 9-7.

The barman sniffed at us.

“You start a fire?”

“No, but we saw the one in Chelsea.” Cindy had a nice way of saying ‘Chelsea’. She was seeing an Englishman.

“No way.”

He expected a report and I told him everything.

“No one died, but the city is toast.” I left out of the face in the fire.

No one would believe me and I wasn’t trying to be a convert to Satanism.

I was happy with my atheism and sipped at my beer, because while there might not be a God, other creatures haunted the flames at night especially when a city burns to the ground and wherever they lived no beer will be served throughout eternity.

Of this I was sure after surviving the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973.

PHOTOS FROM THE GREAT CHELSEA FIRE OF 1973

fotos by Stanley Foreman

The Fire Of Rampant Consumerism

In October 1973 an industrial neighborhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts was burned to the ground after a row of chemical storage warehouses burst into flames. The fire could be seen from fifteen miles away in the Blue Hills, but that conflagration was nothing in comparison to the last week’s toxic waste fire at Ruihai Logistics in Tianjin, China, which is 159 kilometers downwind to the southeast of Beijing. Over a hundred people were killed and nearly a thousand injured by the fiery cocktail of calcium carbide, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate.

According to Wikipedia the first detonation in the port area happened near 11pm. Its blast was estimated to have the power of 3 tonnes of TNT. Seismographs registered 2.4 on the Richter Scale, however the second blast was ten times more powerful. The resulting fireballs reached hundreds of meters high and a Japanese satellite filmed the series of deadly explosions.

After the disaster Chinese authorities arrested a dozen executives from Ruihai Logistics China and the West have a common agreement to quash any reports on the country’s near-lethal pollution levels. That danger is the price of progress and profit.

Despite both starting the ‘Ch’, China is no Chelsea.

But a good fire is always a good fire.

Bombs In Holy Places

The Erawan Shrine was built in 1956 to offset the state-owned hotel’s foundation being laid on an astrologically disadvantageous date as well as the intersection having been a site for displaying criminals before execution. The Thao Maha Phrom Shrine of Lord Brahma has long been a top tourist site for visitors from Communist China who hired Thai dance troupe to gain an edge on fate, however last week a lone bomber detonated an explosion killing twenty worshippers and wondinging scores of others at the Hindu shrine. Another bomb was set off hours later at a popular ferry stop on the Chao Phyra River. Thankfully no one was hurt at that location.

Western media such as CNh and the Fox News reported as the work of a jihadist terror cell, since the yellow-shirted suspect had non-Thai features, but no one claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Thailand’s chief of police has told the media that the bombing was the work of more than one person.

“He didn’t do it alone for sure. It’s a network,” he said, also adding that Thais were involved in the murderous plot. “The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district.”

I doubt that the perpetrators were from Yala in Southern Thailand. The Muslim separatists have never struck at the capitol before, although over 6000 people have been killed since the beginning of the long-smoldering insurgency and the extreme fighters from Pattani have designated their goal no longer as autonomy for the four southern province, but the establishment of a Khalipahte ruled by strict Sharia law.

As the days passed without any leads, the Western media dropped their coverage, leaving the military junta to its own devices. Most Thais think that the bombing was arranged by supporters of the deposed PM Thaksin, who had recently been stripped of his political immunity in absentia. It’a all part of the shadow dance for power and the beloved king celebrates his 70th year on the throne. The army and the police vie for position as the rich seek to suppress the poor with the rural people set against the cities.

If only Bhumipol could rule forever.

And peace spread over the land.

That’s all I want for Thailand.

My home on the other side of the world.

FURY FORGOTTEN by Peter Nolan Smith


FURY FORGOTTEN by Peter Nolan Smith

New York City has been bled of out-of-towners with a merciless fury. Jobs once abundant for aging emigres to Manhattan dries up, as your age passes 40. Successful friends move out of your pay bracket and your old work slow has been replaced by twenty year-olds willing to work for less.

Faced with faltering income expectations middle-age men and women look beyond the borders of the five boroughs and contemplate the nostalgia of home. Many succumb to the siren’s song of a town distanced by decades. Like Old Moses says in THE SEARCHERS, “All I want is a rocking chair.”
This simple desire is achievable far from New York and last month I heard that a good female friend, her husband, and two teenage children were setting out for California.

“So you’re going back home.” Our conversation was over the phone.

“Back to my roots.” She had left the West Coast in 1993.

“What about one last night on the town.” I invited her to the Mudd Club / Club 57 reunion in late October.

“I don’t have time for that.” Garette wasn’t in the mood to see old friends.

“I understand. The West is calling.”

I looked out the window of my top-floor apartment in Fort Greene.

The sun was setting to beyond the low skyline. Summer had given way to autumn. The trees were losing to the color yellow. Winter was coming early this year.

“Where you going to live?”

“Agora.” Her hometown lay on the dry side of the Santa Monica Mountains. The TV show MASH had been filmed below her mother’s house. I knew the vista well from having visited her family there more than once during my 1995 stay in Southern California.

“Give my best to your brothers.” We had surfed El Matador and Ventura. They were the tallest white men above Santa Monica. I liked them a lot.

“I don’t talk with them anymore.” Garette said and then added, “My brothers abused me as a kid.”

“Oh.” I didn’t have to ask how. Garette’s mom had eight kids. They were as wild as feral cats. I thought sex, but it was worse.

“They beat me.”

“I never hit a woman like that.” I answered without thinking about the past.

“What about the time you hit your girlfriend in Paris. That 17 year-old model.” Garette and I had met at the Bains-Douches in the summer of 1984. We were just friends. No one believed that, especially not her husband.

“Candia.”

I nodded with the recollection of entering our Rue Danzig apartment to find the Puerto Rican teenager naked with her Italian boyfriend. One punch dropped him into the kingdom of whimpers. Candia slapped at my fists. My fingers unfolded to open palms. Red murder flooded my blood.

“I didn’t hit her. I threw her on the bed.”

“Are you sure?” Women have better memories than men. “What about whipping them out of the apartment with a ripped telephone wire. Naked into a snowstorm.”

“It was a flurry.” Flakes had fallen softly as volcanic ash. The still beauty must have been lost on their unclothed flesh and bare feet.

“The weather was unimportant. Did you hit her or not?”

“Maybe.” I might have been a little rough, but I didn’t punch or slap her and riding in a taxi afterward I remember feeling that they gotten off easy. Paris was part of France. The courts would have understood a crime of passion. Even a double murder was forgivable before the judge.

“So don’t tell me that you’ve never hit a woman.” The phone clicked off and my ear was glad that people weren’t able to slam the receiver of a cell phone somewhere else.

Garette was right. I had been violent toward a woman and scourging Candia and her young boyfriend into the wintery night wasn’t the first time.

In 1960 My older brother and I had chucked rocks at a family of eight sisters for ascendancy of our neighborhood south of Boston. They never beat up another boy.

As a hippie I had picked up my youngest sister from a Wollaston Beach bowling alley twenty minutes late.

“I hate you.” Her tirade scorched my ears on the drive through the Blue Hills.

Inside our split-level ranch house she said something so despicable that I threw a Frye boot at her. It missed her head by inches and dented the steel door to the garage. What she said was forgotten.

So I really didn’t hit her, but two other women were on the list.

Back in 1978 my hillbilly girlfriend Alice had disappeared from CBGBs with the band Shrapnel.

An hour later I found her in the alley behind the punk club. She smiled at me, as if I were stupid to have worried about her. Nothing had happened between her and the band, but that smile earned her a slap. I don’t recall ever apologizing, but Alice and I stayed together, until I left her for Lisa.

The blonde model from Buffalo was as beautiful and cold as a Swedish movie starlet.

We lived in London together the autumn of 1978. The studio was next to Chelsea football pitch. She modeled with David Bailey, while I wandered the wet streets thinking the worst. The next winter she flew to Europe seeking fame and fortune on the runaways of Paris and Milan. Lisa vanished within a month. She called me at summer’s end to pick up her things.

“Why did you leave me?” I asked her, as she got in a waiting taxi on First Avenue. Her boyfriend was a Russian gangster. He had an apartment on East 57th Street.

“Sometimes you don’t get all the answers.” Lisa sneered at me, as if she was getting revenge for something else that someone else had done to her.

“No answer.” I snapped and kicked her ass with enough force to propel her inside the taxi.

“Fuck you.” She slammed the door shut and the taxi drove her out of my life forever, then again she was already out of it.

Garette was right. The only difference between me and a woman-killer was the length of my rage. I could have killed Candia without any reservation. Kicking Lisa had come natural and slapping Alice happened faster than a rattlesnake fanging a desert mouse.

All three incidents were decades ago, but later that day I googled Lisa. Her last name was too common to find on the web.

Candia was in a sisterhood down the south of France. They didn’t believe in modern technology.

The only one to whom I could say sorry was my hillbilly girlfriend. Alice would be attending both re-union events. I would be doing the same.

I rehearsed my apology in my Fort Greene apartment.

Men had been beating women for time immemorial.

Cavemen supposedly clubbed women and dragged them by their hair into slavery.

There was no foreplay involved with the rape of the Sabine Women.

I stood accused of a crime and only forgiveness could help me forget my sins.

The first night of the Club 57 re-union Alice was too busy meeting old friends for a conversation. She was still a star and I was just another old boyfriend. Our friends regaled each other with tales from the 1980s. I gathered everyone for a group photo. Alice was going out to dinner with a famous painter. We once had lived around the corner on East 10th Street. Alice was still beautiful. I had been a fool to leave her, then again I had been a fool about a lot of other things.

Morning found me alone in my bed. I wasn’t too hung over and soaked in my bath for a good hour.

The razor slid over my face. I wanted to look good tonight.

Several film makers had contacted me for interviews.

In August 198 I had worked every night at the Mudd Club the month of August 1981 to pay for my sister’s wedding present. Mostly I had hung out at the downstairs bar listening to music.
SEX MACHINE by James Brown had been my favorite and the DJ played it once a night.

The reunion was at a bar next to the Williamsburg Bridge. I arrived early to avoid paying a cover.

The only time I had purchased a ticket at the Mudd Club was for the Marianne Faithful show. The price was $10. Her voice cracked on BROKEN ENGLISH. The concert was cut short by a hail of beer cans aimed not at the singer, but Steve Mass the owner. Everyone wanted a refund. Steve didn’t give back a dime.

“You don’t come here for the music. You come here to be you.” Steve shouted at us.

The maniacal club owner was right.

At the Mudd Club Joey Arias, Klaus Nomi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Anita Sarko, Richard Boch, Anya Phillips, James Chance, Michael Holman, and countless others were the stars of nights fueled by sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Not all of us made it.

At the re-union I was more unknown than known, but as I sat down on the garden rooftop for an interview about those years, passing party-goers stared at me, as if they had known me. I didn’t think that I had changed that much, but I had stopped looking in the mirror after the age of 50.

“I only look at my shadow,” I told the interviewer along with the story of ordering Alice to turpentine a Jean Michel painting off our refrigerator. I could have sold it ten years ago for a million. “I was so smart.”

I had thought that I was going to make something of my life. The drugs, the drinks, the late hours, and the sex had cut into my body and soul. I was lucky to be alive and found myself sitting with Alice.

She was as sweet as the first day I met her through our now dead friends, Andy Reese and William Lively. We entertained a throng of onlookers with our remembrances. Michael Holman joined us to explain the separation of fun at the Mudd Club versus Club 57.

“They were art and fun and we were sex and drugs.”

I didn’t beg to differ and after the camera stopped rolling I asked Alice for a second.

“What is it?” She was nervous, as if I was going to ask her to sleep with me.

“I want to apologize for hitting you behind CBGBs. It was wrong.”

“You really scared me and I probably should have left you right then, except I wasn’t brought up that way.” Her family from West Virginia was like mine from Maine; LEAVE IT TO BEAVER on the outside and a John Waters film on the inside.

“I wish I had never done it.” My excuse was that I had been worried about her, but that had been an excuse.

“Me too. But that was a long time ago.” Alice smiled with forgiveness and excused herself.

“Thanks.”

“Yeah.” She had done me a favor and I did her one by ending our conversation on the matter.
I went to the bar, convinced that I was no Ted Bundy, the mass murderer, but neither was I a saint. Most men are simply something in between good and bad, which wasn’t such a horrible thing to be in this day and at my age.

Old men never look good angry, but they get better looking with an apology.

As long as they really meant it.