Here’s one more post from my old blog. I have no memory of writing this, though I remember the event just as clearly as the day it happened.
A FIVE ALARM fire is one that is responded to by five fire halls. I never knew this until a two-alarm fire was despatched to my apartment—or rather, what was left of my rapidly disintegrating apartment. Until then I had not suspected that I was living such a combustible life.
MY BROTHER AND I reached the basement door and emerged panting. We ran around to the front of the building so quickly that I have no memory of the lengthy jog it took to get us there. A crowd of spectators had already begun to gather, neighbors and passersby milling about in the middle of the street, arms crossed and heads cocked at thoughtful-looking angles, as if our building wasn’t burning but sobbing sloppy confessional tears to them, its confidants, who nodded softly and offered bracing mm-hmms. No one spoke to any of us survivors escaping from the building, for which I was very grateful. Silent distance can be a very decent thing, especially between strangers. I consider it a duty for one of disaster’s fifth-wheels to keep their comment-holes shut. Grief is like aerobic compost; it needs air to decompose without producing a necrotized stench.
THE TELEVISION CREWS, which arrived with or perhaps slightly before the fire department, were not as respectful. Our apartment fire was a three-alarm headline. The local ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates were there, represented by office trollops with shimmering silk blouses and synthetic nails. FOX was conspicuously absent, or at least I couldn’t see them, and for that I owe to them my undying gratitude. If you’re reading this, thanks for not televising my unraveling life at the very moment of its unraveling.
TWO ALARM FIRES are a sight to behold. A fire hall does not send a basketball or a soccer team’s worth of men. It sends a full NFL franchise worth of first draft backdraft fighters, muscle-bound and thick-necked, stomping around your charred property in dusty yellow hides and air-tight facemasks. A man for every job. Clockwork. One spins the truck into position. Two open the hydrant and connect the hose. Two unload pressurized oxygen tanks still blackened and shopworn from the last fire. Uncounted dozens of front-line infantry suit up and mask up and stampede up your hellish stairs, axes flying. Raw, inchoate, manly shouts directed them inwards and upwards. Under the circumstances, the urgent barking was tantamount to hollering strategies at a rodeo cowboy on a bull in full-tilt. Isn’t the objective simple? DON’T DIE.
EVENTUALLY THEY REACHED my apartment and squelched the nine-foot flames that had been clawing their way out of the living room windows. The heat was popping out the panes. Glass was everywhere. The gutters hung in shriveled kinks like palsied limbs. Scorch marks blemished the bricks above the windows in a feathery pattern. The firemen waved the the high-pressure hose around my battered apartment like Hercules power-washing the augean stables. Whatver glass panes remained were blasted out. Clothes were soaked. The floors and walls were saturated and briny. Axes ripped gashes in the drywall, tore out ceiling and insulation, hacked my furniture into shards. No Chair Left Behind. A computer was thrown seventeen feet, from the dining room to the living room. Desks were flipped upside down, drawers tossed and emptied midair. More gashes were made in the drywall, some of them needlessly. It seemed the fire deparment’s policy was to ensure that anything usable or valuable that had survived the fire would not survive the fire department. Paintings and drawings were destroyed. Curtains torn, closets ransacked, bathroom cabinets pillaged. The Vandals had returned to once again dismantle the western way of life. Possessions were no more. Objects ceased to exist. Things fell apart. When some unspoken criteria of dystopic ruin had been met, the firemen switched off their hoses and dropped their axes to the floor. A job well done. Every measure had been taken to ensure that no half-assed crisis had interrupted my day. No, sir. I was a genuine refugee.