The apartment fire saga

Part 1: So, this morning my apartment burnt down…

Two weeks ago, I accidentally dead-bolted my best friend Ben in my apartment. I had no idea it was even possible, but he had been staying with me since returning from NYC a few weeks back, and while he was in the shower, I absentmindedly locked my door, as I’d done countless times before, left for work, and later received a call from him.

“Um, I think you’ve locked me in.”

A few frantic calls and an overpriced locksmith later and he was freed to go about his day. I felt guilty about it for far too long, and we discussed how dangerous it is that you can lock a human in a house without any chance of escape. As with most houses in Newtown, the windows are barred, there are blankets and wood everywhere, and the entire thing is a fire-trap.

A week later it was his birthday and we’d been slowly, steadily drinking all day. I left in the later afternoon, went home, and proceeded to pass out on my bed. My best friend and my girlfriend both tried and failed to get into my apartment despite much knocking and phone calling; he poked me through the window with a fence paling in order to wake me up.

These twin thoughts raced through my brain this morning as my entire apartment block was in flames. I wasn’t there at the time of the fire, but my best friend was. He awoke to a frantic knock and the yell of someone announcing the building was on fire. By the time I arrived, the entire top storey had been razed, the residents spilled onto the street and the entire block was covered with fire trucks, police who wouldn’t let me near my apartment, and ambulance workers. My real estate agent apologised to me as if she’d set the fire, and offered to get us coffees.

There was an ominous bag of asbestos sitting in the driveway; labelled loudly as if in a cartoon. I obsessed over what this meant until, “babe, the entire building is probably made of asbestos” somehow calmed me down.

Bag of asbestos

My best friend was fine — or seemed fine — but my girlfriend’s eyes welled up a few hours later upon the memory of his sick, stressed face. The police questioned him in an alarmingly direct way; he realised as they were asking who he was with, what he’d done the night before, all these seemingly unrelated questions that he was perhaps the main suspect, should this be the type of fire in which a suspect was to be suspected. He doesn’t live there, the actual tenant was absent on the night in question, and he had all his worldly possessions in a travel bag (from returning from overseas), ready to quickly exit. Then hang around and be polite and forthcoming with questioning. That’s where the police case would fall apart, I imagine.

Want to hear something wild?

Ben says as everyone was frantically leaving the apartment block, a few of them saw some guy who they didn’t recognise in hi-vis gear. He left, exited the scene and was never seen again. Maybe he started the fire. Maybe he lived in the apartment block; none of the neighbours knew him, and I realised I don’t know any of my neighbours.

I still don’t know when or if I can return, if any of my thoroughly unimportant things still remain, or what this all means to me – if anything much at all.

As we were preparing to leave, a young guy came up to us and asked if we lived in the building. He pointed to the house next door — a house that I have peered into countless times, a house with a porch light that shines angrily into my window if they come home late at night — and said that we could shower, grab some water, use his house for whatever we needed.

I thought that perhaps I should get to know my neighbours, then wondered if they were my neighbours anymore.

Apartment fire in Newtown

Part two: And then the junkies moved in

When I walked into my burnt apartment a week after the fire, there was a used needle and a tin of Milo sitting on my bed. Neither of these things were mine. Milo, after all, is a disgusting habit.

The day after the fire we were allowed in for a few minutes in order to grab a few clothes and necessities – enough to fill a suitcase. At that stage there were a few dripping faultlines in the ceiling, one of the corner eaves had been displaced, and the floor was muddy and trampled by firemen and police – but everything was relatively undisturbed.

It had been a pain to gain access again, as the building had been condemned, and insurance agencies make a living out of mitigating risk, and instilling fear. The idea of my items safely entombed in a building that I couldn’t gain access to caused me to have a twelve-hour panic attack over the weekend: we visited the building, now caged in steel and warning signs, and I manically climbed the fence ready to leap in, sans-plan, before my girlfriend calmly explained how terrible an idea this was. So I waited.

The second time we entered, things were a lot messier. The floor was a nest of records, books, and clothes.

Junkie nest

Heroin needle and milo

It was a broken, rather nice Corelle bowl near the door — which I also definitely didn’t own — that made me realise someone had been living in there. There were other weird items in my house, too, which suggested the junkies had looted all the other burned-out apartments, decided mine was the most livable, and settled in for a few nights with their treasures, their heroin, and their Milo. I get it; it was still a pretty cozy place, as far as burned out apartments go.

They were respectful to a degree; they only ransacked drawers, cupboards, places people might hide money, drugs, or jewellery. After the initial rush, they seemed to leave the place relatively unharmed. Books were left neatly in shelves or stacks, photos and DVD collections remained calm.

They stole a bunch of rare seven inches though, which suggests that at least they were cool junkies. Come to think of it, they only took the good guitars too, leaving a few cheapen beaten up guitars, and a shitty off-brand five-string bass a previous neighbour had gifted me before moving out — it’s garbage and largely useless unless you happen to be in a Korn covers band, but it’s hard to justify turning down a free bass, despite the extra string and sharp metal-band design.

I’m sure they plan to resell the guitars, but I like to think they’ll keep them and start a junkie jug band. They emptied a coin jar which had about ten dollars in shrapnel – probably what they brought the tin of Milo with.

They were young junkies I assume; two camcorders remained, as did the TV, DVDs (Seachange season one, too!), books, most of my records, and all the electrical gear. Plus, check out that vintage dope-cooking gear in the photo below. That’s stylish paraphernalia, from the era of opium dens and smoking jackets.

There were piles of clothes dragged out of the wardrobe and dumped onto the floor, too, but I feel those were removed to sleep on.

As far as makeshift beds go, it did look rather comfortable. I pick up the needle, and place it in the Milo tin, and wonder where they are right now.

Vintage dope cooking gear

(I’m on Twitter now, check me out @nathanjolly)

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