The brazen alarm woke me from sleep. Only it wasn’t my alarm clock, I realized groggily, it was the fire alarm. I rolled over and groaned. They were either testing the system in my building, or it was malfunctioning, both occurred with annoying frequency. Then came the announcement over the loudspeaker, as muddled as a conductor on the “A” train. Again, I tried to ignore and focus on sleep. They were probably just informing us it was test, I rationalized. The alarm, however, kept going. Then I heard raised voices, and banging down the hall. There was a sharp thwack at my door and I bolted out of bed. I opened it to see one of the maintenance workers, behind him the hallway was filling with black smoke. “Fire, let’s go,” he said and moved down the hall. I released the handle, letting the door slam shut, and stood mute for a second. Then the adrenaline kicked in and I did a little panic dance. Wallet, pants, wallet, pants, these were the things I needed before I could evacuate. I just couldn’t get my brain coordinated with my body to locate them fast enough. I threw on last night’s jeans, found my wallet on the bookcase, and slid my feet into my sneakers. I caught sight of the clock–8:55AM.
There was a second thwack on the door and this time I was ready. I followed an orderly stream of tenants down the hall, through the smoke, my hand over my mouth. It smelled like a campfire. It was clear to me it had started on my floor. I went down the fire escape and back into the building, onto the mezzanine, and finally into the lobby. I was lucky that I was only on the second floor.
The security guards and maintenance staff were all donning neon-orange mesh vests, corralling the tenants on the far side of the lobby, then finally onto the street in front of the building. Four firetrucks arrived, the firemen entering, asking where the stand pipe was, and dragging a length of hose up the stairwell to the second floor.
I stood on the street, dazed, shivering. It was cold for a June morning. As I milled around, trying to see what was happening, I asked myself why I’d never bothered getting renter’s insurance? Also, who was the cute neighbor I’d never noticed before? These were the thoughts I was having in the midst of what might be a crisis.
I called Julia, my friend and go-to emergency contact, to appraise her of the situation. Also, I just might need a place to crash. “Did you grab your favorite thing?” she asked. What?!! “No, I grabbed my wallet and my pants,” I said. Call me a pragmatist, but should my entire apartment, and all the possessions within, be incinerated, I’d rather have my ID and credit cards than my signed copy of The Year Of Magical Thinking or a framed photo. Besides, I didn’t want to be the one caught by some news photographer, huddled on the street shoeless and in my boxers, clutching the one possession I’d managed to save from the blaze. Wallet and pants, Julia, wallet and pants, that’s what you should grab. Unless of course it’s some sort of apocalypse scenario, where money is rendered worthless, then it’s best to grab a weapon and some beef jerky and pray you can hold out when the mutants come.
At this point, no one knew why it started or how soon, or even if, we’d be let back in, so in went into the deli next door to have a coffee and wait. In less than an hour, the firemen were exiting and and we were able to go back inside. The janitor was mopping up the lake of water in the stairwell. I got back to the second floor to find the hall fairly soaked, the institutional green paint smeared with black near the apartment where the fire had started. Luckily, it hadn’t spread down to my place. The hallway stank. I would have loved to have gone back to bed, but I was too wired. I double-checked that everything was indeed fine in my apartment then went back outside. I needed fresh air and and time to decompress.
I called my mother from Bryant Park to tell her what happened. “Did you have a chance to grab your favorite thing?” she asked. Again with the thing. “No,” I said emphatically, “I grabbed my pants and wallet.” “I bet you took your cigarettes didn’t you?” she asked. “No.” “You didn’t start it did you,” she joked. “Jesus, no.”
I found out later that night that it was indeed a cigarette that had started the fire. I’d never passed out with a lit cigarette burning, or left one unattended, but I made a note to be more careful. And to make sure I left my wallet and pants close to the door.