Thursday, September 08, 2011

After the Fire

Well, last report, I was wandering around in front of the burned house in a bit of a daze, two weeks or so back. I spent those weeks leading up to Labor Day back in Pennsylvania, cooling out as much as I could, getting my bearings, trying to relax.

It’s hard to relax after something like that. You try to relax, which means you can’t. “Relaxing” is not something you try to do … it just happens. And it happened, as much as it will at a time like this. Running six miles along the backroads every morning. Having dinner with old friends every few days. Going to a high-school football game.

Of special note was helping old friend T chop wood on the 100-acre property his family owns, half open fields, half forest. After the hurricane, the gist was drive along the trails on the property and remove/chop down any fallen trees, of which there were a few, and then take that wood back to the hydraulic log splitter by the barn and split it into sellable fire wood. A lot of work! But it was a good antidote after having my nerves badly jangled. Sunset, we could see a dozen deer grazing in the tall grass on the horizon. The kind of thing that brings you back in a good way.

Had a strange encounter with a deer while I was out running one morning. I was coming up on an open field along the back road when I saw a fawn standing by the side of the road. It saw me. Stood there. I kept getting closer. Still stood there. Ran by it, about five feet away, and it started to run after me. I stopped. It came up to me. I extended my hand. Maybe doing that finally spooked it, and it bolted. But I was about a foot away from petting a fawn in the wild. One of those very odd, vaguely cinematic experiences we sometimes have in life. I was waiting for the fawn to say, “Everything’s going to be all right, Bill” … but I’m not on any medication.

Labor Day, I caught the bus back to New York and saw the house for the first time since that day. Not much had changed. Windows had been boarded up to fend off the hurricane. Same trash bags were along the side of the house that I had filled with broken glass and other debris. There were a few small branches down in the backyard from the hurricane. But otherwise, it looked much the same.

Went down into my apartment and more of the ceiling had been taken out, due to water damage, but I could see that whenever construction started on that part of the house, it would be over in a day or two. Electricity was on. Everything smelled fine/no smoky residue or anything awful. All in all, everything was in pretty good condition. The gist was I would pick up a few things there, work clothes and such, and then the landlord’s daughter would take me out to a hotel by the airport to stay the next few days while she lined up a sublet farther out on Long Island. I was hoping for something in the neighborhood so I could have that familiarity, but I gather the insane real estate market there now makes that nigh on impossible, so I better be thankful for anything reasonable she could turn up in the past two weeks.

Hotel living is a strange way of life. It’s taught me a lot about routine, how relatively easy it is to establish this, even in the most troubling circumstances. All you need to do is repeat what you’re doing on a daily basis … and this magically provides your mind with some sense of comfort. I know this, because I’ve felt it the past few days in this hotel. Sheets and pillows smell vaguely of cigarette smoke. Any given night, you could be living next door to someone quiet as a mouse, or like the other night, European tourists attending the U.S. Open with loud, hyperactive kids carrying on at 11:00 at night. The streets around the place have that bummy, transient feel you get around any major transportation hub. Popeye’s Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s a nearby Italian Restaurant that’s like something out of Goodfellas. Anyone living in Astoria who wants to escape the yuppies, man, I can guarantee you, no yuppies living in this weird neighborhood out by the airport!

But you know what? Even with all the negatives, I feel pretty comfortable there. Got cable TV, wireless internet access, sense of solitude that isn’t much different from what I have in my apartment. Obviously, I don’t have that sense of home you get in the place you live, but I’ve found that if you’re allowed to do these routine things, life goes on. What worries me about the sublet is that it probably won’t have cable TV or internet access, so I’d have to pop out to sports bar to watch baseball or football, or go to some public place with wireless access to get on the web. May not seem like much, may have you thinking “woe is Bill/eyes rolling” … but, again, any scrap of normalcy comes in handy after a shitty experience like a house fire. I’m sure the sense of living in a house in a normal neighborhood will compensate for a lot, but I’ll have to stock up on DVDs to play on the laptop for nightly entertainment.

I find that the busier I stay, moving around, figuring out how to get to work via bus/train, going to work, these have been good things for the time being. My work situation is such that I may be out of work in a few weeks, based on a decision I made back in early June to leave the spot I’ve been working for the past few years … believe me, for legitimate reasons, a longer post I probably won’t write because there’d be too much bitching, and I’m tired of hearing people bitch about work, me included. I should put an addendum to the earlier notes about routine, that routine becomes bad when you fall into it and stay there simply for financial reasons. I’ve hardly been miserable the past few years, but have put up with a good bit of nonsense for the money. (I know, we all do, but that doesn’t make it right.)

If work does wrap up, I’d probably head back to PA and ride out however long it would take to get back into the apartment. Or if work goes into October, just keep at it. I have money saved up and am not overly concerned about all this. Timing could be better, but I handed in my walking papers for good reason back in June and had no way of knowing something this jarring was going to coincide with the agreed-upon departure time.

Either way, I’m fine with things. It’s hard to explain to people, when you’re standing in front of them and presenting yourself as being totally together, that you nearly lost your life. I’ve explained this to some people at work, and I can tell by their response (lackadaisical), that they just don’t get it. (Or just don’t care?) I guess I’d need to have second and third degree burns or broken limbs to physically show this? I’m not sure if the issue is self absorption, lack of concern, lack of similar personal experience, or all of the above. But I can generally tell when someone “gets” what I’m telling them about this experience and when they’re just phoning it in with the usual clich├ęs. While I’d probably be just as uncomfortable with people falling all over themselves with this, it’s been mildly annoying to grasp just how little some people care.

If my landlord hadn’t woken up that night, for whatever reason, all of us probably would have perished in the fire. I wouldn’t have called 911 two minutes later. She wouldn’t have run out into the street, alerted a neighbor to call 911, too, or pulled down on the fire alarm on the corner (not even sure if that thing worked in this situation). The fire would have quickly and quietly burned its way through the house – we’re talking minutes – to the point where I’d have been trapped in my basement apartment, waking up in the dark to a very bad smoke condition, and rolling the dice to see if I could crawl my way to the door, assuming that and my staircase leading up to the backyard weren’t engulfed in flames, and crawling my way to some type of safety.

Thankfully, she woke up, got me up and none of the above happened. It haunts me that I couldn’t put the damn thing out, but as noted in the previous post, I think I got there a few minutes late. In retrospect, I wish I’d called 911 immediately upon waking up instead of running upstairs and vainly trying to put the fire out. But I had no way of knowing how big or small the fire was at that point. That few minutes could have isolated the damage even less to just the kitchen extension as opposed to burning into the actual house, but I did what I could, and calling when I did surely helped. After the fact, I realized the landlord has a garden hose on the side of the house leading up to the front, where she waters her plants. But I have no idea how I could have used that to put out the fire in the house. She has bars over her windows, and it would have been nigh on impossible to put the fire out with a garden hose in that circumstance.

The period of second guessing has pretty much ended for me, and I’m in the “moving forward” phase. As much as you can move forward when you’re waiting around for your place to be repaired and getting green-lighted to move back in.

Last night, I went to get my hair cut at my usual Russian place. (With the hotel, I take the train back to my neighborhood then catch a bus that goes all the way out by the airport.) Old man wasn’t there, but a younger guy was who was actually very pleasant and gave me a good cut. It was raining the whole time. It’s been raining all week, like the movie Se7en. For whatever reason, I don’t mind, although it’s hard to figure out unfamiliar bus stops by the airport when it’s night-dark with rain pissing down like a cow on a flat rock, which has happened last two evenings. Saturday, I got to go to the neighborhood dentist and get my last crown put in, finishing off a summer of dental work, reclaiming my teeth after years of letting them go. Normal things. It’s good to do them, no matter how boring they are. Boredom has its moments.

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