I recently found myself in a somehow unexpected situation. Rather by chance, I had moved to a place that I thought was suitable for my various endeavors, and though I hadn't thought it a long-term jaunt, discovered myself there for 23 years. I was accused of being formed, which was the equivalent of suggesting me closed-minded, and this nagged at me, but did nothing to reduce my numbness of grant. I simply assumed I would go home to this place each day, when in town, that though I saw the forces of economics, the encroachment of new neighbors most of whom I resented or could not respect, the coming territorial squabbles, I did take my rental property for granted.


Then on the morning of January 23rd, 2014, before dawn, I sat up in bed and thought, something smells wrong. I was moved to action with the further thought, and a wishful notion, that I was to go investigate a small fire, yell at a homeless man or a night-crawling lunatic playing with matches or falling asleep with a cigarette. I told my wife to get up, collect our 6-month old son, and that there was a fire from which to flee. I entered the hall to the single staircase and heard my neighbor before me, but found him completely obscured by smoke. I returned to our apartment to announce that we were to exit through a window, down a 12' ladder some 14' onto an adjacent roof. My wife ran around for a moment collecting a few vitals, I encouraged her with a 'What are you doing?' to sequester in room farthest from the growing cloud with the boy, and I made an attempt to run around myself looking for a gas mask, wondering what I might grab. After staring blankly at my phone for a moment wondering if someone had already called the fire department, I realized I was not of a mind to make such decisions, what to put in a suitcase should I instantly be living out of one. As I walked in around in a few circles in indecision, I became aware that my throat was becoming irritated by the smoke. I then engaged a certain automatic action, to return to the back room in which waited my family, install the ladder, hand my child to his mother who stood at the ladder's foot, then one Staffordshire bull dog, then another, and then proceeded to leave my former life.


I stood on the neighbor's roof, and encountered a collapse in my chest which I hadn't encountered in decades, something I can describe with accuracy as heartbreak, a sensation I hadn't felt without lost loves. I saw flames in spots on our roof and calculated which areas were being effected, and naturally thought 'That's not good.' The emergency dispatcher probably forwarded our position to someone, but after some anxious minutes thinking about the boy breathing the stinking fog, I encouraged an emerging neighbor to find a platform by which we could escape into his flat and further onto the street. Apparently a man of head-work only couldn't quite imagine this physical labor, so I used our escape ladder instead, shuffling the dogs across nearly in a toss. We entered the street as homeless people, not something I've done before and eventually met our building mates for which we now had a new camaraderie. This was unnerving in itself, though a few relationships with the 18 people were cordial, I didn't count them as friends. We loitered, some cried, I couldn't absorb the gravity, wouldn't want to exaggerate it, so I merely thought of my history there, and was sustained by wishful thinking as to the degree of damage that we couldn't see from outside. I made jokes, and I wonder now if people thought me delusional. Neighbors from adjacent buildings were very supportive, we were installed next door for some weeks, feared not moving into a cardboard box. The ambulance chasers descended, the media lapping-up the pajama-ed pair of us holding a baby in the street, the salivating 'disaster board-it-up' guy with his generator powered circular saw, the red cross with bagels and cream cheese, who so generously gave us some credit cards for Target, etc.


There was a tension as to who would get into the building when the fire department emerged victorious. We were told the rules: One person at a time for a brief 5-minute scavenge, just to take some 'essentials.' I was suddenly aware of my position as the 'worst effected' when a hush descended. The burly fire-suited man said: 'Who's first?' to the group of us. I doubt anyone wasn't bubbling with a desire to get in, though someone quickly said of me: 'Let him go first.'


You see, there were neighbors who were responsible for this situation; I doubt their guilt was insincere. They merely knew that they had fucked someone hard, had introduced a transition in a young family's life of a magnitude that wouldn't be clear for months or years. I assume in my cynical disposition, that they think of the development as something they hope will fade, not haunt, from which they can slip out into an anonymous big city, un-pursued, un-effected. I had resented them before the incident, they were younger, just wanted friends but forced their case as the 80s pop song describes so well, imposing themselves on people in that youthful-neighbor way that causes every middle-aged person to face the shock of growing old and intolerant. When the main character came to me in the damaged hall and said: "He couldn't help but feel responsible." I couldn't receive this data, I merely looked down, mumbling something absurd and dismissive, probably suggesting 'Thing's happen.'


So I took their pity then and went in to what became called the war-zone, though I went on to resent the pity of friend and foe alike, because I don't care for playing the victim. Not because I want to turn cheeks or bloat a macho chest, but because I am stubborn and unafraid of work, mobilized by a job that needs doing. I found the house to be a mess of course, the details of which would interest only the sick of mind starving for such gore, but suffice it to say that we abandoned some things, but most things did or will constitute ‘only’ our coming years of cleaning. I had actually been making some comments, if not any effort, for a few years, at least for the sake of my son, regarding some sort of plan by which I would become a less angry man. As you might imagine, this planning has fallen away.



The subject of this diatribe is now to be approached. You see, I wanted this problem or group of problems to be addressed, and I didn't particularly mind being a pivotal member of the restoration party, not requiring that the responsible persons or an industry arrive to take care of me or it. I don't consider myself blind, delusional or inexperienced with structures such that I would be particularly unrealistic in a notion that with some money, some will and less bullshit, greed and opportunism, we could get to work, to restore our lives in our place. The blatant assumption on the part of the owners, that all the tenancies are void, their relationships with us are burned away, that they are free to do whatever they please with their property just because there's a big mess in part of it, strikes me as unfair. I would think that wouldn't I? Time went by, the owners literally could not understand what a collaborative effort would mean or how it would be mounted or why they would be asked to consider including mere tenants in any discussion of what they would consider to be their private activities. This made me angry.


After some weeks of frenzy to remove things, clean things, analyze the condition of things, find a place to live, find places to store things, the situation began to wear on me. I realized that I had been emotionally effected by the incident and the ensuing idiocy to a larger extent then I anticipated. This I resented. I consistently noted that we were not in Syria, we were not enemies of the State, we were not black. I have not suffered in my relatively privileged life. Nonetheless, I couldn't imagine how society would allow an owner who rented part of a building to negligent person to walk away from their imposition on our lives. Legal recourse for the fire is limited to suing a pair of 30-something DJ dorks, which poses moral and fruitless collection problems. I had recommended that the owner not rent to the people some 6 weeks before with the expression: “Can’t you get someone better? Unsurprisingly, they didn’t take my advice.


There were professionals offering: 'I'm sorry for your loss.' and 'I'd like to help you… uh… (but).' It is clear that these administrators work a job and couldn't care less about their clients in the end, let alone their non-clients. Their false sentiment made me angry. A lawyer told me when I suggested that endless lawsuits were part of the american disease, that I was not appreciating my american privilege; in many places there is no recourse. He would say that, wouldn't he? Of course, one could argue that our american recourse merely perpetuates the existence of a pointless expensive industry, for those of us who have blood-less turnip perps. But I would say that wouldn't I?


The fact of the matter is this: The situation is not as the landowner insinuated to me, that this was an act of god - this was an act of man. God is silent on the matter and appears to have to no address to which to deliver a summons. Man is in a position to be held responsible, though they stand idle assuming that 'whoops' is an adequate response. They are described and self-described as turnips from which no blood can be extracted. Man generally benefits from a lack of imagination, for there are ways that poor man can bring reparations within the budget of poor man. There is a position of power, when doing nothing results in a victory; I am not in this position. This makes me angry.


Then there were comments about how I would go on to use this experience to some 'creative' end, which just made me sick. But one draws from life's experiences whether one likes it or not of course. This note I guess fulfills this prediction. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.


gibbs chapman

June 2014