Fiery, But Mostly Peaceful
An apartment fire prompts some difficult questions.
My apartment caught on fire last week. I’m living in a hotel, and, as of yesterday, no longer have a permanent address. I’m not homeless—living in a Marriott is many things, but it is not homelessness—but most of my belongings are stuffed in my sedan. I suppose I can thank my Connecticut roots for my renters’ insurance policy.
It all happened last Wednesday. I finished work around 5:00 p.m. My phone had been buzzing throughout the day with chatter about fantasy football.
Like most washed-up high school athletes, I take fantasy football very seriously. Too seriously, probably. I will one day have to stand before my Creator and justify the hours and effort spent tinkering with lineups, reading scouting reports, and playing the waiver wire. I don’t like my chances.
Our league-wide group chat had been trading pre-draft banter before that night’s draft. One friend had volunteered to host the draft that night at his house. Since he is a big fan of chicken wings, I decided to fry about two-dozen wings for him and the rest of the group.
Following Carmel Richardson’s lead, I did not then and do not now own any canola oil. Instead, I used olive oil, the only thing I had on hand at the time in large enough quantity to fry the meat.
Olive oil is a terrible frying oil. It is rancid at high temperatures and can ruin the taste of the meat or starch it fries. I owned an air fryer and could have skipped the deep-frying process altogether. But I didn’t.
Instead, my judgment only got worse: To expedite the heating process, I kept the lid on the pot while it heated.
I turned on the stove and strode away from the stovetop, listening to and singing Elvis ballads in the solitude of my apartment.
With my back to the stove, I took out honey, garlic powder, paprika, and eggs to make a wing rub. About five minutes into my opera-cum-meal prep, a pungent scent hit my nose, like steaming cat urine or sun-baked roadkill.
I walked to the stovetop. Tears immediately welled in my eyes. I started coughing and wheezing like an asthmatic kid running suicides.
I turned from the stove and hunched over to catch my breath. Upon composing myself, I saw out of my wobbly peripherals a cloud of smoke emanating from the pot and being caught in the vacuum oven.
I did not want to set off the smoke detector, either in my unit or in the building. I ran to my bed, grabbed a blanket, and turned off the stove dials. I tried in vain to waft the smoke out of an open window.
If anything, that made it worse. Within seconds, the in-unit fire alarm started ringing. I sprinted across the haze-filled room to shut it, and when I turned back to the stove, a pall of black smoke was inching along my ceiling and approaching the doorway. The entire room had grown dark, a brown-grey color like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helmet or a mid-aughts Kia sedan. It was hard to see and almost impossible to breathe.
My first thought—I promise that this was my first thought—was of Purgatory, and that if the dank odor, entrapping darkness, and cream-thick air were even a dim reflection of the pains of Purgatory, I would do anything to avoid it.
My second thought, after my Catholic neurosis had taken its turn, was fear at the prospect of my little kitchen fire burning down my entire building.
The lid was trapping the heat and increasing the smoke. I darted through the kitchen, grabbed a towel to protect my hand, and lifted the lid off the pot. Like an apartment-scale Trinity test, a plume of smoke pushed me back upon lifting the lid. I staggered and coughed as now black-gray smoke filled my kitchen. I was growing increasingly desperate.
Like an idiot—no, like a toddler, whose only conception of fire safety is “men with hoses putting out flames”—I brought the pot to the sink and turned on the water. The spritz of water turned the cloud of smoke into crimson-orange flame that ran down my line of cabinets like a bullet through a cartridge.
The fire went out after that. But a black-to-deep-gray pall had enveloped my room, and the building’s alarms had sounded. I sprinted down fourteen flights of stairs to alert the front desk that there had been a fire in my unit.
The front desk called the fire department, and what followed will remain with me for life.
For context, that preceding weekend, a friend and I had organized a sports tournament with thirty-two of our friends in Washington. We had eight teams of four guys each, and played three sports. It was like field day for men.
In preparation, that preceding Friday, I had printed jerseys in my studio apartment with a heat press and built Wiffle ball strike zones out of PVC pipe and hardboard. I didn’t have any power tools in my studio, so I used the nails to puncture holes in the hardboard, which allowed me to string zip-ties through the boards and suspend them from the pipe frame.
When the firemen entered my smoke-filled apartment, they saw piles of PVC pipe, a ratchet cutter, a bucket of zip-ties and nails, and pieces of hardboard. Since I’m doing a long-form, grant-tied reported project on the history of mental-health and developmental-disability institutions in the United States, the top row of my bookshelf included titles such as Suicide by Emile Durkheim, two editions of Gutheil and Applebaum’s canonical Clinical Handbook of Psychiatry and the Law, and several books on the link between untreated mental illness and violence.
If you walked into a smoke-filled apartment and saw that, what would you conclude?
As I waited in the hall for the firemen to assess the damage, one came out and told me that while the unit will be fine, he needed to know: “What is the pipe about?”
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My stomach leapt into my throat. Sheepishly, I told him that, while I realized what I was about to say sounded ridiculous, I was building a strike-zone for a bunch of grown men to play Wiffle ball and used PVC for the frame. I showed him a picture of the strike zone, and he said it made sense. I’m still not sure if he believed me.
Hours after the fire department had been called, my entire building had been evacuated. I was out of the building, and, given the need for repairs, had to evacuate permanently.
I checked my phone, and saw I had a text from my friend. The fantasy football draft was actually scheduled for Thursday.