I live in an apartment on the beach in Rockaway and every window faces the ocean. At about 4:00 AM on December 3, 2017, having fallen asleep on my recliner, I woke and saw emergency lights flashing onto the otherwise dark boardwalk. I went to my terrace, leaned over and saw fire trucks and police cars and people from the building next door, where I had lived before moving into my coop, outside milling about on the boardwalk. In the middle of a cold December night I knew something was very wrong.
I went downstairs and there were flames raging from the fourth floor of the building.
The first person I spoke with told me that "TJ", a 12-year-old boy who lived in the building had been taken out, unconscious. Everyone was stunned, and barely spoke to each other.
After about an hour I went back upstairs and stood on the terrace again. I looked at the ocean, the sky, the stars, and the full moon over the water. I could see the lights of the cargo ships anchored ten miles off shore, waiting to be brought into the harbor. I thought to myself, the people on those ships are unaware of the pain that is right here now. All of this beauty, but yet such extreme pain, despair. My mind went right to my poem, "Perfect Order," written two days after hurricane Sandy, describing the beauty of the crescent moon and Jupiter I saw that night, contrasting such pain that was all around me then. I actually felt the need to read it again, and I did, right on my terrace.
Sadly, TJ didn't make it. What a wonderful boy he was. I had known him for four years. He loved calling me "Chief". No matter how many times I would call down to him on the boardwalk from my fourth floor window, "Hey TJ, it's Joe Fox," he would turn and say, "Hi Chief!" He was so respectful and I think he really appreciated knowing someone with the title I was so fortunate to hold. TJ never passed me, or anyone, without a bright smiling face and a big hello.
The next morning sadness loomed. People lingered about and just stared up at the building. Everyone seemed to be in some type of emotional fog. The way we greeted each other was different. Rather than, "Hello", people just looked at each other and nodded. That fog of sorrow and disbelief seemed to hover over the whole Rockaway Peninsula.
That night when I came home from work I could feel the pain again as I drove down the block. When I parked my truck and walked toward the building I again smelled the smoke from the night before. The raging flames stained the tan brick over TJ's apartment and could be seen even in the dark. I never pass that building without looking up at those windows. While the surface has been refinished, I can see the faint difference in color and I remember the stains of the fire that took TJ's life.
I went upstairs and stood on my terrace again. I looked out at the same things I saw the night before - the full moon, the pretty clouds, the stars, and the cargo ships out to my left. I saw the ocean and I could hear the waves and every five minutes a plane came from the south, over the ocean, descending, to land at JFK Airport. On each of those planes there were probably about a hundred people. They were coming home from happy trips or coming here to vacation or traveling for a variety of other reasons. Very few of them, if any, knew that a little boy died here in Rockaway hours before.
And so life goes. As John Lennon wrote in "Across the Universe", "Pools of sorrow, waves of joy possessing and caressing me, across the universe." I will live in this place of peace, this place of beauty, for the rest of my life. I will experience many waves of joy.
But I will never forget that pain, those pools of sorrow. They will be forever a part of me.
And so will my little buddy TJ.
December 4, 2017