So I live in a city owned apartment building. It was built in 1930. I rent here. I’m fucking poor, deal with it.
It’s Friday night and someone set fire to the basement.
Someone also set fire to the pharmacy down the street. Two weeks ago someone set fire to the front yard waste bins in almost every building along the street. So my question is…
WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING AND WHY AM I INVOLVED?!
I’ve never been in a house fire. I didn’t even know that still existed, outside of the classic smoked-in-bed-and-fell-asleep. And now I need to vent.
Sometime in the evening I quip that someone’s barbecuing because it smells burnt. I could kick myself for that. Shortly after 8 p.m. someone rings the intercom. This happens, someone always forgets their key, or is trying to get into the house for less than legal reasons. So I usually play dead if I’m not expecting anyone. But then it rings again. And again. So I answer. It’s a neighbour I’ve never met, ringing absolutely everyone that there’s smoke coming out of the cellar. So, off I go, tell Boyfriend to get a move on, throw on some pants and shoes, grab my handbag, knock next door, lock my own door and high tail it outta there like I’m running on auto pilot while phoning the fire brigade because I’m not sure if anyone called them yet and hey, better one time too many than not enough, right?
Apparently not. So the man at the end of the line is really rude. I’m at the edge of panic, telling the exact address, saying there’s smoke coming out of the basement. “Really? I got a call it’s in the yard.” At this point I’m already on the ground floor and can’t see anything anymore because hey, lotsa smoke, bro ain’t never lied. “But I got a call it’s in the yard”, the man says. “No, it’s in the basement, that’s what all my neighbours say and there’s really a lot of smoke.” The man on the phone is getting audibly annoyed: “Now you listen to me! I got a call it’s from the yard. Are you there in front of the fire, do you see the fire?” Sure bro, I’m roasting marshmallows. I step out into the yard, inhale a lung of smoke on my way, and surprise, no fire. Because it’s very clearly coming from the basement. So I say no, it’s not, it’s from the basement. Dude asks me to check again. I say I can’t, there’s such a lot of smoke, I can’t see in the house, but I can tell you there’s nothing at all whatsoever in the yard! So finally he grudgingly says they’ll be right over.
Okay. I get that your job is stressful. I get that you’re annoyed because unbeknownst to me five different people called your department. But seriously, who goes into the smoke to check for its source without some protection? Do you really think I own a gas mask? Am I your colleague? Do I work for you? No! I’m a civilian, there’s smoke, come save me! That’s how it’s supposed to go! Spiderman wouldn’t ask me a million questions before swinging over!
So some guys are trying to get the garden hose going but it’s not long enough. The fire brigade takes some time to arrive, but there’s nothing productive I can do so I slowly venture away from the smoke and towards the sidewalk. I sit down for a minute and grab for my inhaler because I inhaled some smoke while on the phone and even for a non-asthmatic, that ain’t exactly pleasant. My lungs are sending me a warning sign already. Must be it, no one else is coughing. My asthma has been fine for years but little things like this remind me it’s still there. A woman I’ve never met before asks me if I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m the queen of okay. I’m just not happy with my lungs. But my faith in humanity is restoring itself for a minute.
The police come, one neighbour I don’t know wearing a neon orange shirt launches himself into a fit of rage about the rent, the construction work, the police, house management and the world in general. I sit on the other side of the street with Boyfriend and the woman from downstairs. I’m suddenly painfully aware that I’m not wearing any make-up. Not even my BB cream. How long was it since I left the house without make-up on? But that’s a stupid thought, so I shove it away.
Soon there’s a word drifting from police to neighbours to me: arson. I can’t quite believe it at first. I’m theorising about cables fire, it’s been hot these past two weeks, and the construction workers aren’t exactly careful.
Turns out I’m an optimistic idiot.
I notice for the first time we have no fire extinguisher in the entire building. No smoke alarm. Shouldn’t we have that? Shouldn’t that be in every building? I mean, it’s an old house but still. Aren’t there regulations? I make a mental note.
I’m paranoid someone will use the fire as a distraction to climb the scaffold and rob everyone. We all had our windows wide open because of the heat, no one closed them. Unfortunately I say this out loud. The woman from downstairs looks at me with eyes like saucers. I can scare people with a single comment.
They tell us we won’t be able to go back in for two hours. It’s a quarter to nine. Quite a wait for a Friday night. I suggest ice cream. The woman from downstairs suggests the bakery and off we trot. A few other neighbours had the same idea, we see as we approach. A rushed looking young woman is running herself ragged with all the new customers. My lungs feel fine by now.
So we eat. And chat. I marvel at how catastrophe can bring people together in such a way. People in Vienna suffer from a kind of cultural autism. We don’t talk. Not to strangers. Among neighbours we only exchange pleasantries. We gossip like a horde of washerwomen in the office. But we don’t say anything of substance. That’s reserved for close friends and alcoholic nights. I never talked to the woman before apart from the customary hellos in the hallway. And I will probably never talk to her again. She’s about sixty. What do we have to talk about besides chitchat and gossip about our other neighbours, some of which are admittedly very weird? (Especially the guy who robs the fuse box and glues the front door shut. No, seriously.)
We can go back an hour sooner than we thought. Stop to chat with a policeman who gives me a hint about fire safety regulations. Once I’m home I soon find the right paragraph on the internet. I’m no lawyer, but still, if this was America I could sue someone’s pants right off.
We say goodbye to the woman-from-downstairs and happily we still have power in the flat. So I set myself to writing an angry e-mail to house management. Only house management has no e-mail, just some notifying system where you can type 500 characters. So I send two messages urging them to give us some goddamn fire extinguishers and maybe an alarm system. If they’re going to renovate the whole house might as well get to it. Screw ’em. I want them to know about fire safety regulations. I’m going to regret this in the morning. My conditioning wants me to not make a fuss, to keep quiet, to be thankful it wasn’t anything worse. Nothing bad happened after all. Just a spot of trouble. Nothing serious. SCREW THAT, I say. I want to make things better. I want prevention.
And now that things have calmed down I’m back to thinking about myself. I was calm. Not running around like a headless chicken. Not scared. No screaming. Just practical and controlled. Not taking any risks. That’s good, right? But now I feel guilty in a way. I think I could have done more. I could have been more perceptive and noticed it smelled like smoke, not like someone cooking. I could have gone upstairs to check if really everyone was out. I could have gone and checked for the fire source. I could have gone around being comforting, even though in the wall of stone-faced strangers no one seemed to need comforting. I could have tried to calm down orange shirt guy who was screaming loud enough to be heard from two blocks away. Why do I feel the need to do that? Is not being trouble not enough? Do I have some kind of saviour complex?
Mostly I feel on edge. And angry. Angry like I let this happen. Maybe I’m just a control freak.
The fire was only in the cellar. Nothing ruined, just kinda smoky. Definitely arson, the police say. We’ve had a few of those recently. Who the hell does this? Why would you do this? Teenagers being bored, Boyfriend says, it’s the summer holidays after all. If that’s true, whatever happened to just getting drunk somewhere or chilling with friends, possibly while being drunk? That’s what I did when I was a bored kid.
Someone on the ground floor already has their music turned up to maximum again. Panic time over and we’re back to being cultural autists again. No talking to neighbours for a long while.
And if I catch the asshole who’s been doing this he’s going to be so dead he won’t even know it.