At about 9:37 am yesterday the fire alarm went off in my building. I was already in my ninth floor classroom preparing for my 10 am class. I had to power down my laptop and stow it because I once carried it down six flights and knew that I could not do that again. I tucked in a corner where I hoped it would not be noticed if someone came looking to steal it. Theft and a fire drill in the same day would be too much a bummer.
We have property crime here. We are steps away from public transit. People walk out of the school talking on their brand new smartphones or studying the oh so remarkable tablets I think I should try next. Someone knocks them down and steals their technology like people used to steal wallets and purses. Who carries much money anymore? We have cards for buying more things and we can disable them pretty swiftly (if someone else has a phone to lend us).
Because it was Friday and early the building was not as filled with people as it is at other times of the week. When I entered the stairwell I still did not know if this was a drill or a fire. I did not have to merge into a stream of young people that would move like floodwaters. I was able to grip the handrail with my best hand and walk down one step at a time. I felt the vestiges of the last few years’ physical suffering in every footfall and the painful connection to the handrail.
Darn this whole cancer experience! I am not a fit person, but I can still recall what it felt like to bounce my way down stairs. In fact, during my last fire drill I made it ten flights and I had the cancer still inside me. I performed much better than I did yesterday.
Someone who observed my labored escape said something to a maintenance person who climbed to the fourth floor and told me I could stop. It was only a drill. I still had to walk down another flight because there was no entry to the fourth floor from that stairwell. The door was itself “alarmed.”
Moments later the drill ended and I could take the elevator back up to the ninth floor and begin my class. However, last night I was feeling the effects of the six floor descent. My hands haven’t stopped tingling from neuropathy. My knees were clicking and grinding like bent gears. I took some Advil and went to bed at about 2 pm and stayed there until later in the day when I could hear my cell phone in the next room playing that awful AT&T ringtone set at five instead of vibrate–another false alarm because the voicemail from my mom said, “Don’t bother calling back. I’m seeing you tomorrow.”
I watched TV. The news was filled with stories of people for whom yesterday was not a drill. There were clips from Colorado’s raging floods. I have never been in a flood. But a great-aunt of mine survived one when she was a young woman. She and her husband were caught in their bedroom as they dressed. The brother who came to warn them had taken their baby to safety. The couple climbed up on bedroom furniture and stood on their tiptoes in cold, black, raging waters for an entire night. The water rose to their necks and, after part of their home broke off and was carried away, their dead farm animals floated in and around them.
My grandpa’s sister survived and lived a little while, but not very long. A year or two later she died of what we would call PTSD. There are things we can survive that we can never quite get over.
On last night’s news there was devastation to be faced at the New Jersey boardwalk that burned on Thursday so soon after it was rebuilt in the last ten months following what the newsman called Super Storm Sandy.
This past week one of my students suffered a fire that swept through part of his apartment building. He has had to look for a home. His belongings were destroyed or damaged. He has to start over just as he starts his second year of law school.
I was a new general manager at a small luxury hotel when someone set his hotel room on fire. I can remember walking down the street from DuPont Circle when my beeper went off, I heard sirens, and arrived in front of my hotel in time to see someone from my staff fling the smoldering mattress from a balcony. It landed on the street with its weird, black and red maw of still sizzling bedding smack in the center.
I had no way of knowing whether that was the worst of it, but I can recall running up the stairs toward the fire. My first thought was that I had a staff that was up there tossing items still burning. I wanted to reassure them that they should get out. I needed to be there with them if I could not convince them to leave. There are horrors that we can face with others–because of others. Disasters are times when strangers help strangers, too. Sometimes escape is not possible unless you first do what you can to help others.
The truth is that I reached the floor and found thick black smoke confined to one short corridor and the fire “out” once the mattress went flying. My adrenaline levels started to drop and my hands trembled as I wondered what I would have done if I had faced flames instead of the somewhat giddy coworkers who greeted me and wanted me to look at how smoke alone had done its worst. The memory always leaves me wondering how those first responders manage to do what they do again and again.
It was only a few months later that my husband and I evacuated our basement apartment in the middle of the night because of a fire in a top floor unit of a neighbor’s attached home. The fire was extinguished with water and the soot-stained walls showed afterward where the water carried the smoke. On that occasion, I was out on the pavement watching, not running back inside to see if I could help.
The news from Syria came with a clip of writhing citizens and white-wrapped corpses. Is this still news to anyone? My guess is that decades from now someone will still be denying that a nation’s leader gassed his citizens in much the same way that some still deny the atrocities committed in countless prior incidents–some of them so immense as to constitute attempts at genocide.
And last night’s news was filled with stories of death. Shootings, accidents, and other tragedies happen every day–decimating families and communities. It is mere days since we marked another anniversary of the terrorists’ attack in NYC on 9/11. Life sometimes forces us to contemplate death on a scale that defies comprehension.
All I had to contend with yesterday was a drill. Sometimes we have to face the real deal. I put on some clothes and went back to unpacking. I’m good.