Friday, October 15, 2010

Fear of fire

Two nights ago, I sat in our apartment and listened as fire trucks roared past our window, heading south on Broadway. The sirens started a little after 9:30 and didn't stop for a half-hour.

Like everywhere else in the city, sirens on Broadway in upper Manhattan are not rare occurrences. Sometimes they're like a background orchestra to a day in the life of Inwood.

A few years ago a pair of men broke into the apartment of a building resident. They roughed him up as they searched for money in the apartment. A few minutes into their break-in, they heard sirens roaring up Broadway. The hoodlums figured someone in the building had called the police, apparently not realizing that the sound of a fire truck driving up the street was likely just a routine call and not the police swarming the building. The men scrambled down the fire escape but police soon apprehended them. The lesson: Just because you hear sirens, it doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong. Could be a false alarm, could be something serious, could be a police car, could be an ambulance.

So we rarely react to any siren. But when those sirens last for 30 minutes, we notice. I checked out Twitter and saw Inwood residents talking about a fire near 204th Street. They used exclamation points and OMG, so it must have been serious. Sounded like a big one.

It was. A vacant storefront burned. It took 106 firefighters three hours to contain the blaze. A couple of them suffered injuries. I wandered down near the fire a little after 10 p.m. A block from my house, the smell of smoke overwhelmed everything. A cloud of smoke drifted over the neighborhood. As I got closer, several people walked with their faces buried in shirt sleeves or their hands. The firefighters and police officers blocked off the area so I stood with the other gawkers a few blocks from the scene. At one point it seemed like a little block party. Weird scene. A pair of girls in short skirts and high heels escaped their dates and took pictures in front of firetrucks and with a group of five firefighters. A large group of people hung out in front of a deli, watching the action, talking Yankees. I saw my fill and saw that it wasn't an apocalyptic blaze, despite the number of trucks that went racing by our apartment.

This was the second devastating fire of the week in the neighborhood. Earlier, fire destroyed a bodega and cafe. I hate those stories. People lose businesses they've spent years building, and families lose homes they've been in for generations. One apartment building goes up in flames and hundreds of people suffer. And those, of course, aren't even the most tragic outcomes.

Fire. It's about the only thing I fear in the city, aside from the ever-present possibility that there exists - somewhere in the city's subway system but perhaps in basement buildings - a creature that's unique to New York, a type of half-rat, half-cockroach, which is simply waiting for the right time to show itself off to the cowering masses. Nuclear war won't kill it, and neither will glue traps.

I'm not scared of the possibility of terrorist attacks in the city and I've never felt in danger on the city streets, no matter the time of day. But fire. That sometimes gives me pause, or plays tricks on my mind at 2 in the morning. Specifically, fear of an accidental - or not - fire in our apartment building. Even more specifically, fear of some bored 8-year-old kid who finds Mom's cigarettes and lighter and decides it'd be fun to light the couch on fire one day after school. Or I picture a guy who lives on one of the lower floors falling asleep one night with a beer on his ample gut, forgetting that he left a Swanson's chicken TV dinner - white meat - in the oven and it's ready to go up in flames, along with the whole building. When you live in a large apartment building with a hundred neighbors, you have to sort of trust that everyone's been taught proper fire safety and I'm not talking about stop, drop and roll. As I sit and watch Law & Order reruns, I contemplate what I'd grab if we had to scramble down our aging, does-it-really-support-adults fire escape. Louise's jewelry. Some pictures, perhaps. Lakers tapes, of course.

A few months ago, the smell of burning wood invaded our apartment. I figured it came from outside. Why wouldn't it? But it was about 9 at night and there's always that nagging thought, what if it is coming from floor five? Louise wandered out from the bedroom and ordered an investigation. I walked down to the lobby. No flames. It floated in from outside. Perhaps an abandoned storefront. Maybe some bored kids.

Realistically I know there is probably nothing to worry about. Maybe I should be worried more about being mugged on the way home from work. But it's that idea that everything you own can disappear in a flash. The idea that you can go to bed one night and never wake up, all because Jay Leno lulled someone to sleep on their couch while a lit cigarette dropped from their fingers and onto the carpet.

Louise arrived home a short time ago and said she picked up some batteries.

"The smoke alarm needed one, remember?" she said.

Ah, yes, that's right, it did. As I said, some people in the building could use some fire education reminders.

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