This past Tuesday I was getting ready to cook up some steaks in my pajamas. Not thick t-bone steaks or anything, but those thin skirt steaks you marinate for a few minutes and pan fry. And not real pajamas, but a threadbare sweats and t-shirt combo that I wear to bed but also wear for cooking because I do stain myself during food prep but it's a t-shirt for a Multiple Sclerosis fun run from 1992, who's gonna care if I get some soy sauce on there (except maybe some MS sufferers from twenty years ago)? Anyway, the drawback to pan-frying anything is the potential for smoke, it's detection, and the smoke detector going off. It throws me off my game and happens all the time. So I was annoyed when the raw steak just sitting on the counter caused the fire alarm to go off. But wait, that didn't make sense. I literally hadn't even turned the stove on yet. And the smoke detector wasn't going off, it was the fire alarm. The one for the whole building.
I sipped my Dr. Pepper more slowly, trying to think it through, while Jon yelled, "Oh fuck!" and turned off the tv. I hadn't overcooked anything, which was good, but the building was potentially on fire, which was bad. I made sure all the appliances were off. I ran into the bedroom and grabbed a sweater, and then put the sweater back and grabbed a hoodie. I zipped up the hoodie, but then reconsidered the sweater. You know how sometimes hoodies give you more bulk than you want but they're also so snuggly? I was about to share my thoughts on the subject with Dr. Jon who ran into the bedroom with his jacket and shoes on, threw me my jacket, and said, "What are you doing? Let's go! NOW!" I decided on the hoodie, put the jacket on over top, and we left our suite. It wasn't until we hit the stairwell of our building that it all started to hit. Hearing footsteps of people above and below me racing to get down the stairs. Seeing all the lights in the hallway and stairwell on that back-up setting while the alarm blared on every floor, hearing all the dogs bark, and all the languages of the tenants colliding in the lobby, where we swarmed out onto the street like ants to a toffee, it was just weird.
As several firetrucks arrived, police cars blocked the intersections, and residents of our twenty-storey highrise all clustered in a frantic lump that was close to, but sufficiently away from, our collective home, I wished I had spent less time decided on sweater vs. hoodie and more time putting on some goddamn pants. As I reported, I was in my threadbare, food-stained sweatpants and, it pains me to admit, underpantsless. I... have no defense for this, except to say that I'm not some sex-pervert. If you see me out and about, know that I'm in underwear. It's just a given. But there's something about pajama sweatpants where you just think, "We're not fancy here." You figure you're at home, it's private, you're loose and carefree. Worse case scenario, your sweats slide down a little and you hike them up absentmindedly. It's not like anybody's ever gonna see you. Unless the fire alarm goes off in your building and your priorities suddenly shift. Through the pockets of my jacket, I grasped my drawstring for dear life as Jon pressed neighbours for information. This was no false alarm, we were told. Nobody reported seeing any flames, as such, but the tenth floor was apparently filling up with smoke.
As firemen approached the building, presumably to asses the situation (and not pants me like I feared), we instinctively dispersed. There's a Wendy's behind our building (that emotion you're feeling is jealousy), and Jon and I got some burgers (thankfully he had the presence of mind to bring his wallet and the phone) and a table near the window while we theorized. From our vantage point, we could see, from lit bedroom windows and things, that they hadn't cut the power to the building. For some reason, that was an immense comfort. To me that said the blaze was containable. If it were an electrical fire (as we had overheard), surely it would make sense to cut the power if they thought the fire could spread. Jon pointed out that cutting the power didn't make sense as the firemen had to see where they were going and what they were doing, and there probably wasn't like a switch in the laundry room they could flip to suddenly shut the whole building down. We were encouraged when we couldn't see any smoke, but then discouraged when we could smell some. We were happy to see the firemen moving slowly and methodically to and fro, but unhappy when they slowly and methodically unfurled the giant hose. Minutes ticked by and soon it had been an hour and we were officially loitering in Wendy's. We went to a convenience store where Jon bought smokes and I bought gum and we walked back to the front of our home, smoking and chewing, and wondering what would happen next.
Dream: Take proper stock of my stuff.
Goal: Not achievable. The worst part about things you've always worried about actually coming to pass is that worrying about them didn't help in the least. The few minutes it took to hear the alarm, grab a coat, and walk briskly down the stairs all seemed to unfold naturally and almost calmly. There was just a sense of the natural order of events in a crisis. But then, as time passed and we knew we were out of immediate personal danger, I began to ask serious questions of myself that I didn't know the answers to. Why didn't I grab this or that personal memento when I had the chance? If I could go back and get just one thing out of there, what would it be? I have plenty of stuff, but no easy answers.
Plan: Accept that maybe the greatest things in my life are intangible.
It makes me sound like such an ingrate, in a way, but I could have dealt with losing my things. All the things we crammed into our little blue car a few months ago when we moved. All the things we've bought for our new little apartment. All the gifts of books and music and DVDs and furniture we've inherited from family and friends. It's cliche to say, but all that stuff is replaceable.
The Friday before the Tuesday blaze, Jon was away at a conference so I spent the night at my friend Steph's house. She has two little boys. Cole is two and Carson is 9 or 10 months. Steph and I talked and laughed while she cooked dinner. She did that thing you can do with little babies who can't walk yet but keep themselves busy anyhow and set Carson down on the kitchen floor nearby to keep an eye on him, while Cole ran back and forth grabbing all his different toy cars. I decided to sit with the immobile one and parked myself next to Carson on the floor. Cole decided on a car, ran to me, and kind of snuggled up under my arm, so we could all be together.
On Sunday I went and saw a production of Hamlet that was so good I forgot I was watching a production of Hamlet. This dude is so wounded by the fact that his father is dead, but makes thing even harder for himself by questioning his every decision, acting in haste, and destroying everything he loves. I was literally on the edge of my seat when Gertrude described Ophelia's drowning death, when Claudius appeals to the God's, "Forgive me my murder", when Horatio cradles a dying Hamlet's head in his arms.
Jon got back from his conference about 12.30 that night, had to be up at 6 am the next morning, but stayed up with me anyway, telling me all about it and catching up on my weekend, until we both fell asleep. Experiences like that can't be lost in fires, and I have to believe they'll continue, even if my books and furniture go up in flames.
After about two hours, we were all allowed to go back inside. Apparently the firefighters put out the initial blaze, they had to check every suite in the building, to make sure nothing had spread. I don't know the extent of the damage to the 10th floor, but we live on 6 and nothing was damaged.
If I look back at my blog these past few weeks, I've done a lot of complaining. I can't find a real job (though I am folding sweaters and selling jeans in a fancy clothes place now, which is better than a drugstore), I can't sleep, I can't contact Taylor Swift. But it doesn't take a fire for me to realize how lucky I am and how grateful I ought to be.
Also, turns out the reason for the fire was that some guy was trying to barbecue food IN his apartment! Like on an outdoor barbecue, but in his living room. God, I hope he was cooking steak as that would make a great closer for this anecdote. Can we agree he was cooking steak? He was cooking steak.