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“The Thing is You”

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By Angel Simmons Β©

If you’ve never been awakened from your sleep by fire trucks in front of your building, you may not understand the urgency in my words. I’ve experienced this three times in my lifetime, and most recently, this morning. The first time happened when I was very young. I’ve heard the stories, but I only remember how fun it was living with my uncle, aunt, her family and my cousins- with my best friend just across the street. The second time was when I was barely a teenager. There was a fire that started under our stove. We lived on the first floor of an eight-unit building and all of our neighbors were evacuated until it was under control. There was a gaping hole in the kitchen floor that remained, surrounded by a black ring of ash. I remember most of the neighborhood coming outside, sitting on their porches, or walking down to our corner to see what was going on. A few of the kids I used to play with thought that hole was hilarious and cracked jokes about it in front of me as I stood there in my pajamas, robe, coat and sneakers. I also remember that we had been having problems with our stove for a while, and the owner was well aware of it. Had we needed to go somewhere else for the night or longer, we likely would have called my uncle or my sister, both just living a five minute car ride away. Though we had multiple options, we weren’t inconvenienced to that degree. We became much closer with our neighbors in the basement whom we waved at whenever we passed by the hole and saw them looking up. It wasn’t ideal, but we were all still blessed.

Just after five thirty this morning, the hum from two fire trucks forced its way through the crack of my window. My eyes met the red flashing lights as my body turned, then flipped over to snatch the blinds open. I couldn’t tell if the responders fidgeting with the equipment were coming or going, so I grabbed my phone and headed to the living room for a better look. Once I saw one of them enter our front gate, I rushed to the door, pausing to sniff around and feel before opening it. I heard the responders talking with two of my neighbors from downstairs as the fumes hit my nostrils. My first floor neighbor said, “It’s in my wall.” I yelled questions from the top floor that I already knew the answer to. She had been having electrical problems for about a year now, and it had finally taken its toll on her circuits. At the mention of the word “evacuate”, I knocked on the door across the hall from me. We stood there talking amongst ourselves as we listened for instructions that never came. They shut off her power, told her to call the owner and the fire trucks packed up and left. By this time, we had been hanging over the rails talking to our neighbors downstairs for half an hour in our pajamas. There was now a police officer coming inside for a safety check. I went to grabΒ my sweater coat, slipped on some flip flops and put my keys and phone in my pocket. Despite the danger and potential risk that lingered, when the owner first received the call, she became highly agitated. At some point during the next few mintues, she called three other neighbors attempting to verify the story. We all discussed that foolishness, the possibility of moving, my “husbandry” options, the one neighbor downstairs who didn’t even bother opening her door to see if the building was safe, and how mama was going to react when I called her to share the adventures of the day. Exhausted and annoyed, my first floor neighbor took a seat on the stairs as we were left alone talking, me still hanging over the rails. We reminisced about how many decades we had lived in this building, how many issues had gone unresolved or half fixed over the years, and how it was time for a change. She shooed me back inside saying she would sit there until the hall light went out, attempting to air out her unit. The sun was just peeking through the windows when I went in. As I put on my clothes, I was grateful that none of us had to get dressed in the dark or in fear of not having a home to return to.

I thought back to that night decades ago, standing on the corner chatting with neighbors and wondering where we’d go if we had to leave the building. Where would I have gone at five thirty this morning??? I wouldn’t have wanted to wake anyone at that time and would have headed straight to breakfast, figuring out the rest after enjoying a meal. What would I have grabbed on the way out the door? This is what stumped me. How do you place a value on material possessions when you only have time to grab a bag and get out? Wallet, phone, charger, sweater, scarf- these were my first thoughts. As I sat still, now calm and clear headed, listening to my first floor neighbor packing up to leave with her daughter, I started questioning additional items. In an emergency situation, do you grab the laptop that you use for work? Why was my medication still on my nightstand? I thought of the dishes I left in the sink because I was too tired last night and the trash I was going to take out today. I stared at my shipment of books that I was so excited about receiving and the autographed stack that friends were supposed to pick up two weeks ago. We all had just been in the hall for over an hour without face masks on. Should I have grabbed a water bottle? Is the change of clothes in my overnight bag appropriate for the new season? Where would I sleep tonight if I couldn’t sleep in my own sweet bed? Most importantly, did the fire fighters really turn her power ALL THE WAY OFF?

While working at a women’s shelter years ago, I encountered many people that had lost EVERYTHING in a house fire. They didn’t have ID, social security cards, birth certificates, medical records or anything beyond the clothes on their backs. The threat to their safety was imminent and immediate, forcing them to flee for their lives in minutes or even seconds. They didn’t have the luxury of time chatting with neighbors about the indiscretions of the property manager, or arranging how to divide and where to store newly purchased groceries that wouldn’t last overnight without power. They couldn’t stop to call their children that lived an hour away, then wait for them to pick them up and carry their oxygen tank down to the car. They certainly wouldn’t be able to laugh with their neighbors about the Nigerian movie blasting from someone’s apartment at six forty five after all hell had just broken lose. In an emergency situation like this one, there’s no time to gather work reports, your new boots, your favorite designer bag, the flatscreen, or your class ring. Nay… In moments like these, the most critical THING you must worry about is making sure ALL OF YOU get out alive.

September 26, 2020