Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fire at 216 South Stricker Street

As I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, I saw flashing red lights and heard sirens. This is not unusual for me; I live three doors down from busy Pratt Street, and I often wake up in the middle of the night to sirens. Except, this time, they weren't going away.

I hopped out of bed, grabbed my phone and keys and a cardigan, popped on some flip-flops, and bolted out the door. I thought the fire was on Carey, a couple of blocks away, and I would have an interesting opportunity for some citizen journalism.

As I opened the door, I was hit with the smell of smoke: 216 South Stricker Street, a boarded up house across the street from mine, was on fire.

I talked with my next-door neighbors‚—'Which house is it? What's happening? What caused the fire?' They pointed out the house, but didn't know why the fire was started. I still don't know.

I ran upstairs to wake Matthew—he slept right through the noise. He didn't come down to watch the fire—he said he had to sleep.

I went back out the door. I met Angel, a neighbor from around the corner. She had come to check on her mom, who lives on my block. She shared a cigarette with Rudy, another neighbor I'd not met before.

The firemen had to cut down the front door with an electric saw because there wasn't a proper door—this was an abandoned, boarded-up house.

'Crazy shit' was a line that I heard a lot.

When I introduced myself to Rudy, he said that I sounded Irish.

I try not to sound like a PhD student to my neighbors. I try not to walk around the neighborhood wearing polo shirts, because my neighbors mostly wear T-shirts, and I want to blend in. I normally annunciate carefully, but when I talk with my neighbors, I try to mumble more and I guess I sound funny. Irish, though?

I mentioned to Rudy that I know a man who lives in abandoned houses. I hope that this man I know isn't the one who started the fire. I hope he's okay. Rudy suggested that the fire had been started by someone using candles to get some light and heat. Rudy was angry that someone would do something like that, lighting candles without proper candle holders, because that's how fires get started—it's irresponsible.

I told Rudy that I'm not Irish, I'm from the burbs. 'The burbs?' he said, 'We've got burbs right near here.'

'I'm from Bel Air, the burbs burbs. If my parents' house were to burn down, then it would just burn down. Here, if a house catches fire, it can send a whole block up in flames.'

There were eight fire trucks there by the time the fire was put out. Only one hose truck and one ladder truck actually did anything. The firemen got out a stepladder and broke the windows on the third floor. Smoke came billowing out.

I find the Internet terribly stressful.

When I was thinking about moving into this neighborhood, I was taking a walkabout, and one of my neighbors-to-be called out to me. 'Hey, you!' I didn't pay any attention—why would a stranger talk to me? It turned out this guy, Jimmy, wanted to show me how he'd opened up his garbage can, and saw a rat twitch at the bottom. He had been startled. It turned out the rat was dead, and had twitched because of how Jimmy had shaken the can as it opened. That dead rat immediately made my life more interesting, and I'm glad that Jimmy stopped me.

On the Internet, there's oodles of dead rats. The only dead rats that matter are the ones that are the most dead or the most ratty or the ones with the most witty captions written in big block letters with drop shadows.

I think a lot about whether I'm reading the blogs that are the funniest or most interesting or most edgy or most entertaining. I always have dozens of tabs open in Firefox, and I'm always switching between them. It's rare that I'll just sit down and read an article all the way through. I have thousands of unread posts in Google Reader.

When I read my friends' favorite links on Delicious, I don't pay attention to who sent me which link.

I don't care if a blogger lives next door to me or in South Africa, I care if what they say interests me. In cities, stuff matters because it's close to you. I had spent fifteen minutes, earlier this evening, talking with my next-door neighbor, Darryl, about a puddle.

On the Internet, stuff only matters if it's interesting, if it stands on its own two feet. This is why I'm diligent about defriending people on Facebook who aren't either interesting acquaintances or real friends. I don't want to read 25 things about someone I don't really know who isn't witty.

As the fire died down, people scattered. The only ones left on my block were me and two men with beards, smoking cigars. One of them had a hat that said, 'Take the edge off'; the back of his red jacket said something about the NRA pistol team. Another man walked up, they gave him a light; he walked on. One of the cigar smokers dropped the remnants of his cigar into the puddle that bothers Darryl and me so much.

I think a lot about how it takes a long time to read books, so I should take my time to pick the best books to read.

Today, I was stressed out, so I went to the McKeldin Library at College Park, where I'm taking classes this semester, to find a better translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra—I had read that the translation that I have (by Thomas Common) butchers the language. I couldn't find a good copy. I wandered around the campus and I accidentally found a farm. I stopped and watched the sheep and pigs, and I took pictures. It was good for me.

It's stressful finding the most interesting stuff. I can spend hours on the Internet, because I think the next thing to pop up will be more interesting than the thing before. It never is.

It didn't matter that I wasn't looking at the most interesting pigs—any pigs are interesting if you've not seen a pig in months that wasn't in bacon form.

If I write because I like the act of writing, I can write whatever I want. If I want to get published, though, I need a voice. I need to say something new. I need to say something shocking. This is true of my research work and of the books I want to write—if I'm not novel, if someone else has scooped me, I don't matter.

So, Darryl and I had been talking earlier this evening, a couple of hours before the fire. Our street doesn't drain properly, so there's a puddle in front of the house on the corner. The water is stinky and draws rats. Darryl periodically tries to sweep the water down Pratt Street. I told him I'd call the city—it's their responsibility to make sure the street drains properly.

Darryl and I also talked about how people leave litter on the street and how that draws rats. There are a lot of boarded-up houses on our block, and a few houses being flipped. The housing market is bad, so these remodeled houses are just sitting there, not being properly monitored—one of the houses being flipped has been broken into, and the owner isn't doing anything about it. I used to not care much about boarded up houses, and I'm not looking for the most boarded-up house on the Internet, but the four boarded-up houses across the street affect me, especially when one of them catches fire.

With water draining from the hose truck, the puddle was bigger than it had been since the snow melted. Sorry, Darryl. I'll call the city in the morning.

After all my neighbors left and the firemen had packed their hoses away, the firemen stood in a circle, telling stories. They were in the middle of the street, and I was on the sidewalk, and I knew I couldn't just walk up and listen. Still, I overheard one of them say something like, 'Did you see that woman around the corner go like...'

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