Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Burning down the house

A few weeks before the kids and I left for Israel, I got a text from Paula at work.  “My building is on fire,” it read. 

“Really?” I responded, half-listening to the meeting I was in.  I was picturing someone with a few black slices of toast in their kitchen, maybe a cluster of residents outside, hands clamped over their ears while firemen made a compulsory parade through the building. 

“Let me clarify,” she continued.  “It was my place.  Well, next door, which burned my place.”


There followed a string of photos, in case I was still envisioning a wisp of smoke coming out of the toaster oven.  The space where the bathroom used to be was a charred hole.  There was daylight coming through the neighbor’s unit into the master bedroom closet.  All of Paula's clothes, the dresser, and everything else that had been in the closet were jumbled on the bed, soaking wet, thrown aside as the firefighters tried to get at the flames inside the wall between her unit and the one next door.   The smoke was so dense it burned their eyes.  The place was trashed.  

Apparently, a plumbing contractor had been soldering pipes, and some embers left inside the wall caught the insulation on fire.  It was a stroke of luck that Paula had been working at home that day and called 911 before the entire building burned to the ground.

She and her daughter were allowed in only to get the bare necessities.  The bathroom was off limits.  They took their laptops, a bag of clothes, Taylor's two goldfish, and Leafy, a stuffed kitten that I had given Paula when she was in the hospital.  Pretty much everything else stayed, marinating in the thick chemical smoke that lingered long after the firemen left.

It's more than two months later, and all of their salvageable belongings are stacked in my garage.  The smell of smoke in the wood furniture and upholstery is still powerful.  Their unit was declared uninhabitable, and they were essentially evicted mid-lease with no compensation other than their security deposit refund and a small moving allowance. The landlord says it's the contractor's fault.  The contractor says it was the subcontractor's fault.  The subcontractor is denying responsibility under some sort of exemption or another.  Round and round they go.

Of course, we were all grateful that no one (not even the fish) was hurt in the fire.  It could have been a lot worse.  But it's hard to say "Dayenu" and really mean it when your life gets turned on its head.  You really don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.  It helped that we had room here to make for a comfortable landing, but it's not the same as having your own place.  (Paula and I had decided a while back that we preferred to maintain separate households for now, largely for the kids' sake- but also because we both appreciate our own space.)  The crappy water pressure in the shower, the colicky baby who cried all night downstairs- all the nuisances of an older building faded into the background.  Imperfect as it was, it was home.  And while there weren't any Picassos that got left in the trash heap, it was hard to let go of all the things they had to abandon.   
"I kept telling myself that whatever was gone was just stuff," Paula says.  "But that was the hardest part.  Letting go."  

What really struck me, as an observer, was how - ostensibly in the name of fairness- the system has been cleansed of all compassion.  Paula and her daughter were shell-shocked by the loss or destruction of almost all their possessions.  They lost their home.  It was an emotionally wrenching experience to literally watch their life go up in flames.  And yet, because they didn't have renters' insurance, they're left to fight for compensation - even when the damage was the result of clear negligence.   

I understand the reasons why you can't just march into your landlord's office and demand a check, the same way I understand why I have to take my shoes off every time I go through airport security.  There are people out there with bad intentions.  And over time, the laws and protocols that govern our lives have evolved to block and tackle the evildoers.  It's just heartbreaking that this is the way it has to be.  There are people in the world like Paula, who is pretty much the human equivalent of The Giving Tree, and who wouldn't dream of taking advantage of the system.  The woman gives $20 bills to panhandlers at stoplights and brings cans of tuna to stray cats.  But in the wake of a fire, her character gets no credit.

They say that community emerges in the wake of tragedy, and so it is.  A small circle of our friends took up a collection to help Paula and her daughter replace some of the basics - toiletries, clothes to wear to work.  It was unsolicited and therefore so much more striking in its generosity.  One friend's 9-year-old daughter handed Paula an envelope containing $7.  When her mother told her about the fire, she had run downstairs and emptied her piggy bank.  Paula keeps the envelope (and its contents) in a safe place.  The things left behind in the apartment will fade into distant memory, but the kindness of those who reached out their hands will leave more permanent marks.

It has been a time of tremendous adjustment as we have become (at least for now) a household of five, and there hasn't been much time to write as we all adjust to the new cadence of life.  But if I've taken anything away from this experience, it's a renewed sense of how important it is for all of us as individuals to care for each other.  Shit happens, and it happens when you least expect it.  There but for the grace...

I'm renewing my commitment to live compassionately and with a generous spirit.  And I'm looking around at all I have- in my physical, emotional and spiritual life - with tremendous appreciation.