Things I Saved in the Fire

There’s an oft-posed question: If your house were on fire, what would you save?

Me, I’d grab my cell phone so I could contact my loved ones. My wallet for emergency provisions. My keys in case I get to come back. It gets kind of murky after that. I’d grab my down jacket because it’s still cold. Sneakers for the same reason, and socks while I’m at it, even though I know I really shouldn’t pause to put them on. A beanie too. No time for gloves though – the pockets of my down jacket will have to do. And that’s it, nothing else. No pictures, no passport, no knick-knacks, and perhaps most surprising of all, no laptop.

I know my answer inside and out because I experienced something akin to the situation a couple of Thursdays ago. No, it turns out my house wasn’t on fire. From what I’ve been able to gather, my apartment complex wasn’t exactly on fire either. But some woman did legitimately start a substantial fire in her ground-floor apartment. She put it out herself at some point, but not before smoke filled the corridors, wafted all the way up the complex, alarmed people enough to call the fire department, and have them send three trucks over.*

*An overreaction on their part, but they’re practically our next door neighbors, less than half a block away.

I was sitting in my kitchen in my second-floor apartment (third floor in the U.S.) when I smelled the distinct burning sensation. Just two weeks ago, there had been a massive fire two blocks away that destroyed an attic of an apartment, evacuated tenants from 80 units, and immobilized a city block for the better half of a day – but miraculously did not injure anyone. The possibility of a repeat in my home thus immediately entered my mind. I confirmed I had left nothing on the stovetop, then moved toward the source of the smell. Then, forgetting lessons learned from the film Backdraft, I opened the front door and witnessed the smoke firsthand.

It was significant but not quite thick nor brown yet. Still, I knew I had to get the fuck out. I ran through my progressions above, anxious if not quite panicked, inefficient with my movements, and in constant motion except when I stopped to put my socks on. I had the presence of mind to open my windows, but as I left my apartment, I stupidly decided to leave the front door open too. I think I reasoned that I wanted the fresh air to flow through, somehow neglecting to think about the dangerous fumes from the hallway. Clearly I don’t think well under pressure. But with that, I went downstairs.

There was chatter in the stairwell as I approached the lobby. I could see that the front door was open, even catch a glimpse of the firefighters outside as they made preparations. But it was strange, because I also saw three neighbors still standing on the staircase, not making their way out. One appeared to be admonishing the other in French; a third stood by, seemingly assessing the situation. I hesitated, then queried the English-speaking third neighbor as to what was going on. Apparently the alleged fire-starter was being questioned as to whether she had truly put it out. Then I walked past all of them into the cold.

I don’t know why they stood in the stairwell with all the smoke. But eventually they – and others from the complex – emerged outside. We stood across the street for about 10-15 minutes as the firefighters checked the building and fanned the smoke. I spoke with a couple of neighbors, learned of the gossip regarding the woman on the ground floor (she was apparently either a drunk or was plagued with mental issues). I texted my girlfriend*, then browsed the net. A few curious bystanders stopped for conversation before going on their way. Slowly, the air started feeling clean again, the lingering effects of the smoke dissipating. Eventually, the firefighters cleared us to return.

*My first semi-gratuitous use of “my girlfriend” in a blog post!

My apartment still smelled funky, as the residual effects of my decision to leave the door open would linger into the evening. Other than that though, everything was back to normal. It felt strange nonetheless. In the next couple of hours, and for the next couple of days, I did return to the question of what I should have brought with me into an unknown future. I concluded that I had just about all I needed, really. Everything vital is in my memory, or digital; nothing else was worth my life. Still, I did wind up moving my passport by the front door. I figured if there ever really were a fire, I could at least turn to my mission for help, maybe shelter.

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