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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2002 | link
I'm sorry it's been so long since we last talked but, well, there was a huge fire in my apartment building early this Sunday morning, and my life, which went monster-crazy last week, now seems to have totally derailed. But I'm OK. My apartment's OK. I'm just a little ... scattered.
The alarm went off in the hallway outside my apartment at about 2:45 AM, and it's one of those big, red, clamoring bells like you see in cartoons, just crazy-loud, so I was immediately wide awake. I thought it was a false alarm, because that's what it always is, but then I heard some shouting down on the street and thought that maybe someone had broken into our building and had gone out through a naughty, forbidden door. I was standing over by my back windows, trying to get a look at what was going on down there when the first person banged on my door, screaming fire, FIRE!
I did some inefficient running around for a second, then I threw on the clothes I had on the night before -- I'd been wearing a weird cropped, see-through tee shirt with a longer undershirt beneath it, but in my rush I missed the armholes of the undershirt, so for the rest of the night I had this fabric tube around my waist, like some kind of stomach warmer. Then I tore through my closet until I found the cat carrier, i.e., the shitty cardboard box they gave me at the pound, then I scrambled around the apartment after Marbles, who was understandably freaked out and puffy. She ran under the couch and I slid to my knees and stretched my arm and shoulder and grabbed the first thing I could find: her tail (sorry Marbles!). Then I tried to stuff her in the box, but she did that starfish thing they always do, where suddenly their limbs are all stiff and sticking out so they don't fit in the box. With brute force I managed to fold her limbs down until she fit and then I held her while I tried to reassemble the box around her. But I didn't have enough hands and she wriggled loose and scratched her way under the kitchen table. I dove after her and got her by the scruff of her neck and just stuffed her back in the box, quick before she could brace herself. By that point I was shaking from the adrenaline and screaming, come on, come on!, as more people pounded on my door.
Somehow I fastened her box, then I grabbed my purse-bag thing, a jacket, and a pair of shoes and ran for the door. The hallway outside was smokey and immediately my throat started to hurt, so I held my breath and made for the stairs. The fifth floor was worse with smoke, just crazy, but the fourth floor was a little better. There was a small bottleneck behind a man, this amazing man, who was carrying down one of my neighbors, an older woman who'd just had hip surgery. She was weeping and he was saying, over and over, "you're doing great! you're amazing! you're going to be just fine!" I used the delay to sit down and put my shoes on because ever since the Oakland earthquake, where my floor was covered with broken glass, I've felt vulnerable facing disasters with bare feet (which was why I had shoes right there, next to my bed, when the Los Angeles quake hit). But something about resting Marbles's box on the ground loosened the clasp and suddenly her head and upper body were poking out, all wide-eyed and panicked, and she was bunched and ready to jump. My reflexes were on red alert, though, and I caught her mid-leap and shoved her back in the box before she could work up a protest. Then I ran until I caught up to the hero man again at the next landing and I swayed there behind him, trying to figure out some way to help him carry the woman, but he yelled at me to just go around, go around! So that's what I did, ran and ran, wee, wee, wee, all the way out to the street.
By that time there were about five or six fire engines and a bunch of cop cars down there, but only a few escapees -- I'd thought I was one of the last people to get out of the building, but apparently there were still people inside (this is something that made me feel really low later on, that I didn't stop and bang on any doors like my amazing neighbors had done for me -- I am a terrible person, it turns out).
One of the guys hanging out in front of the building was completely naked, aside from what looked like a layer of soot on his face and shoulders. A cop was trying to talk to him, but he seemed really, really out of it, kind of drunk actually, and he didn't answer, just slowly sat down and then laid himself back on the sidewalk. Things were already so incredibly surreal at that point that it didn't really phase me. "Right," I thought, "and there's the naked guy," then my mind moved on to bigger things. (I found out later that he had been in the apartment where the fire had started, and that what I thought was soot was really second and third degree burns -- last I heard about him, he was on life support at the hospital because his lungs are so damaged from smoke inhalation.)
It was too early for anything to be roped off, which meant I was free to go wherever I wanted, so I walked -- or floated really, that's what it felt like -- around the corner and suddenly the lighting improved dramatically. I looked up and there it was, fire pouring out of the fifth floor (the firemen described it later as really more of a "fire ball"). Flames were inching up into the windows of the unit above, on the sixth floor, the one right across the hall from mine. I think I teared up a little bit then, it was just so scary to look at, but I'm not entirely sure. Time was a very strange thing at that point, fast and slow and frozen all at once, and I kept catching myself doing something, talking or walking or whatever, without remembering ever deciding to do so. A window exploded above me and shards of burning glass sprayed out onto the street, and I realized that no one was there to protect me from my own stupidity, which was a jarring thought since that doesn't really happen all that much in this world of guard rails and "don't touch the blades of the lawn mower" warning signs. But that little surprise got me moving, and I scrambled back to the dark side of the building.
My neighbor was there, the one whose apartment I had just seen getting sucked into the fire, and she was standing with a elderly man with his own oxygen tank (which is just insane since oxygen is so flammable, it was like he was wheeling around this little bomb), whom she had walked down with, stopping at every floor to let him rest. He was shaking and asking us over and over for a kleenex, and I dug through my bag like three times but of course I didn't have one -- I was no good to anyone that night.
My neighbor smiled at me and said, "The fire's up in my apartment, right? I can't even look." I told her I couldn't really tell yet, but that it was definitely close. And she said, "Well, it's just stuff. We're alive, and that's all that matters."
That's what everyone kept saying. We all stood there together, wearing robes and slippers and weird clothes, and marveled over how little we took with us, how when it got right down to it, we left everything we had without hesitation. Like my teensy, three-pound kneetop, which holds a big hunk of my life, that would have been so easy to take, but it didn't even occur to me. One woman had left her cats behind and she was completely panicked about it. I'm just so glad that Marbles was one of the things I grabbed when I was on auto pilot because I'm sure I would have been going insane, waiting there and worrying about her.
At some point a kind of creepy man with a camera from Channel 2 came up and started talking to me, saying with this odd, rushed sympathy how blessed we were to be alive, and could he maybe ask me some questions? "Uh, sure," I said, and without hesitating he flicked on the camera lights, which were just soul-piercing, and proceeded to fire (haha) off questions: what happened, what did you do, how do you feel? And I cringed in the light and I gave him monotone, monosyllabic answers, "there was a fire, there was smoke, there was a bell" until he went away.
That was about an hour and a half after it all begin, and I started to feel really badly about boxed-up Marbles, who was eerily quiet, so I borrowed someone's cellphone and called Jay, who lives nearby, and he was there in less than five minutes. I was going to simply give him the cat to take home for awhile, but by then they started letting some people back in the building, from the fourth floor down, so we hung out for a while longer and about 15 minutes later they let the rest of us back in.
Three units were destroyed: the apartment where the fire began, the apartment below his (which was flooded -- the water apparently went all the way down to the basement, so a lot of apartments were damaged pretty badly, but luckily not destroyed), and the apartment above, the one belonging to the nice, nice woman from across the hall. The fire itself stopped just a few feet from my kitchen window. The firemen that came the next morning to whistle over the damage said that if the basic structure of the building wasn't made of concrete, the whole place would have gone.
I was so, so lucky. My door got kicked in by the firemen and the window onto the fire escape was shattered and my phone somehow doesn't work anymore and it took all day Sunday cleaning for that shitty smell of smoke -- not the nice smell of a campfire but the toxic smell of someone's whole life burning up -- to fade, but that was nothing compared to how bad it could have been, or how bad it was for other people.
The other good thing is I got to meet a lot of my neighbors. I've been in that building over a year, and I'd never even seen half of those people before. All day Sunday people were hanging out in the halls, leaving their doors open, chatting and sharing news and helping each other out. And that was pretty nice. But, you know, it would have been a lot nicer if we could have bonded over, say, a chili cookoff versus a devastating apartment fire.
Outside the building. (Look! The American flag still flies proud!)
A close-up of the hallway on the fifth floor.
Where it all began.