I learned via facebook that an old friend’s computer had crashed. She recently moved back to town, and is still living with relatives. She’s disabled and hasn’t found a car yet. Her computer is her major means of contact with the outside world. And my husband has a couple of older, but snappy, dinosaur computers that he has been meaning to part out.
It’s so rarely somebody has a problem I can actually help with.
So yesterday, even though I’m nuts busy (major meltdown earlier this week, I’m completely drowning in school this term) when I got out of class but before I went to pick up the spawn, I dropped by C’s house with an Aldi bag full of dinosaur. I hadn’t been there before, and it’s been a while since I was in the pizza biz, so I came from the wrong direction. I almost flipped around to park on the same side of the street–dinosaurs being heavy and all–but for no reason I said to myself, Ah, screw it.
We had a fantastic, refreshing visit. She lives in a neighborhood like I always used to live in, by which I mean poor but not bad. Lots of people on disability, people who should be on disability but don’t qualify due to the randomness of the system, the unemployed, the underemployed, students whose families are too dysfunctional for one reason or another to support them while they go to school.
I know it sounds stupid, but I felt like I had gone home to some other country where the people are my people.
We sat on the porch and talked about old times and new, while heavy traffic roared by a sidewalk’s width away. I felt more at home in that neighborhood than I ever have here.
Oh, I like it here plenty. I like how safe it is, how quiet it is. I like the space and the peace and the fenced in yards where dogs and children can zoom around. I like having windows that keep the weather and noise mostly out and the climate control mostly in. I like not worrying about home security because my neighbors are cops.
I don’t feel community here, though. Here community mostly seems to consist of fussing at the neighbors if they let their grass get high.
Besides the neighborhood, there was C. Although it’s been over fifteen years since we lived near each other or communicated regularly, It seemed to me that we fell back together as though it had been last week. This, in my experience, is something that only happens in novels and lifetime movies.
Too soon it came time to end the visit; the spawn was waiting, dogs were waiting, and the endless tide of homework was waiting for me to start bailing out my educational lifeboat with a spork. I stood up, and caught a whiff of something. I thought it was a neighbor’s homerolled cigarette and thought, What on earth is that poor woman smoking? It smells worse than cloves.
Saying goodby, among my people, isn’t a quick exchange. You say you are going to leave, and stand up. Then you talk some more, then you mention again that you really must be going, and edge toward the door. More talk. Finally, after several rounds, you actually leave. A close friend or family member will often follow you to your car if you have one, and the last exchange will take place with someone leaning with their elbows braced on the driver’s side door of your car.
As I stood on the porch, I smelled the worse-than-cloves smell again, worse. “What is on fire?” I asked, but I was mostly kidding. I was still half thinking about that cigarette. I thought crack, but this was worse than crack, and not quite the same.
C answered, “It was that truck that just went around the corner.” I looked and saw a bluish haze that reminded me of old Fords with bad rings, and thought wow, that is one sick Ford.
Mere seconds of chatting later, someone said, “[So and so]’s car is on fire.”
Sure enough a young man was grabbing a backpack and some other items (I’ve forgotten what) from a GMC Jimmy and was hurling them up into the yard. He was swearing profusely. I looked and saw, through the vehicle’s open doors, the glow of burning wires and drip of melting insulation under the dash.
Oh. Smell identified. Shit.
I was in a Domino’s Pizza company delivery truck once when the wires to the cartop sign caught fire down around my shins. The driver of the truck (youngest spawn’s father) extricated me, the stack of pizzas in my lap (not in that order) and then yanked out the wires, ending the problem. (And neither of us ever ran a lit cartopper ever again.) That was my single experience with a wiring fire. In an instant I recalled that and dismissed the wiring fire as not that big a deal. Yank the wires and it goes out, right?
The first tongue of flame appeared.
The owner of the car took off running.
Flames licked. Cell phones came out (because poor people have them now; they are as cheap as landlines) and calls went out to 911.
The flames grew. Now there was a good little campfire under the dashboard in the SUV.
More calls went out. Voices were raised. The inevitable crowd began to gather.
From my spot on the porch I began to hear crackling and could feel heat, real heat. I thought of Pele, the Hawai’ian volcano goddess, because my most pressing homework assignment is about Hawai’i. Smoke was rolling pretty good.
“I hope your van is going to be all right,” C said.
SHIT! The van was parked across the street. Flames and smoke almost blocked it from view. MY HOMEWORK IS IN THERE!
I thought, if I have to tell Miss H that my homework was destroyed in a fire, I want evidence! I got out my phone to take a picture. I stepped forward to get a better shot. Something hot hit my arm and my career as a war zone photographer ended right there. I got a shot, but it was a bad one.
The heat was ridiculous, it was hotter than if you open the lower deck of a stone pizza oven in August, the kind of heat that can melt your mascara and make your eyes stick shut.
People screamed. C tried to sooth everyone. “It’s just a tire. It’s not going to explode. No, it’s not going to explode. It’ll be all right.”
My chest hurt. Apparently my heart had tried to escape through my sternum.
Another boom reverberated around the neighborhood. Flames shot up higher than the roof of the two story houses. Heat baked. More calls to 911 went out–calls of increasing hysteria. Where are they? Where is the fire department?
I remember doing this, but I don’t remember when, but I let Youngest Spawn and Husband know that I was stuck and Husband would have to pick up YS from school.
Fire started spreading across the devil strip. If it jumped the sidewalk, those old firetrap houses…
The woman C lives with is pregnant and has a toddler and infant twins. She was freaking out loud on at least the same level I was only freaking internally. Someone at 911 suggested getting the children out of the house. She didn’t really want to take them outside into the smoke, but.
“Yeah,” I said, or something like that. When you freak hard enough, I now know, it’s hard to remember details of dialogue. “Can we go out back?”
Going out front, and away AWAY would have meant going past the inferno. After the booms, I didn’t want to do that, and I don’t think anyone else did either.
Kids and dogs were herded through the house and into the back yard. The little mother actually apologized for the state of her house. Some calm kernel of myself thought, You have a toddler and twin babies and you’re pregnant. Also you have dogs. Yet, there is a clear path through your house. You’re doing amazing.
From the back yard we could see the flames, still higher than the houses, but the heat and smoke were much less. Somebody handed me a baby, and although I never inherited the Aw, It’s a Baby gene, he was very cute, very charming, and completely unfazed by all the commotion, even though I was shaking like the leaf cliche. I don’t know how long we stood there, but finally there were sirens, and at some point there was a third boom, which I thought was another tire but which turned out to be the windows blowing out of the burning vehicle.
A billow of steam let us know the FD had arrived. The steam smelled at least as sick as the smoke, and spread outward instead of mostly going straight up. When the fire seemed out (they would keep putting water on flareups for some time) Little Momma decided it was safe to take her small fry back indoors, so we did.
Cleanup took a long while, partly because of the flareups, and I couldn’t leave because there were fire trucks blocking the road. So we stood and watched. While we watched, someone came up to us and told us that the vehicle’s owner had gone (when he took off running) to two nearby businesses and asked to use a fire extinguisher and been told NO.
I am still so stunned by this that my outrage is diminished by it.
A flatbed came and couldn’t get close enough to haul the carcass away, and when they scraped up the slag blocking their access, big chunks of asphalt came up with it. The vehicle had literally fused into the pavement.
No, you can’t use my fire extinguisher.
Some people complained about the fire department taking so long to arrive. I don’t know if they did take long to arrive or if time was doing it’s thing. Time obeys no rules that I have ever been able to discern; maybe it only seemed like it took forever because of how fast the fire grew.
Or maybe the local station was already on a call and a more distant fire station had to respond.
Budget cuts, whether necessary or not, have repercussions.
Like all real stories, this one has no ending. The truck carcass was hauled away, the fire department packed up and went away, the people whose car it was…well, I’ll probably never know. The girl is a nursing student at my school. Her boyfriend works. They had saved up to buy this flaming death trap just a short time before. I hope they find a way to get to work and school, but I may never know. I hope their lives aren’t wrecked in the long term.
But I’m not sure. When you’re poor, even molehills are often mountains, and a loss like this is no molehill.
That’s what happened.