Burning Down the House

July 2007     San Francisco

While living in the Lower Haight, I and my three lovely roommates had a great old Edwardian house circa 1880, with an Irish bar on one side and a house on the other. I loved being in that bar: The sweet young bartender had been, somehow, one of my students back when I taught public high school in NYC. So I didn’t pay much for drinks, but the Irish weren’t the best neighbors. When stepping out our front gate, I often faced an obstacle course of puke, blood, undergarments, and extra-sleepy drunks. Weekends were worse.

One day stands out against the Irish. It was around 6pm, a roommate and I had just stepped out of the shower (separately), and she was blow drying her hair. I was wearing boxers, picking out tights and a cape for the evening, when I smelled something burning.

“Hey are you burning things?”

She said it was her hair dryer. OK, could be her hair. Mysterious are womens’ bathrooms – there are curling irons, flatirons, dryers, toasters, don’t ask me.

A minute later I realized I should never ask that woman anything, oh shit, ran down the hall, smoke was pouring in the window. I looked to the ground, flames were reaching up the side of the house, my house, from the feckin Irish bar’s smoker’s alley, where they liked to chatter so quietly all night. Sirens in the distance…Jesus H Christ hope the first floor windows are closed…

“Girl it’s not your f-ing hair dryer, we gots to git right now…it doesn’t matter what you’re not wearing…”

I stepped outside onto my bedroom balcony facing the street in order to get a better look before running out the front door. Damn, the smoke was thick, and firemen were forcing their way down the alley to fight the fire. Slowly I realized that there was a throng of people across the street, and they were looking up at…me. So were all the firemen on the ladder truck, which they seemed to be raising to rescue the guy in his underwear, trapped outside his window, choking on the smoke. Uh-uh. Nope. I jumped back into the house and ran out into the street, end of story. Good thing it wasn’t three in the morning when we would have been passed out, that’s all.

Afterwards I heard that my excellent female neighbor Z., Northern California’s own Rocks/Paper/Scissors reigning champion (really) was watching the blaze from her bordering yard. Z took issue with a woman fireman who was feebly attempting to chop down a burning wooden fence. So ineffective was the firegirl with the axe, that Z, a Berkeley-bred feminist, felt an uncomfortable jolt of reality and yelled “Give that axe to a real fireman for Chrissake!!” I love Z.

Three weeks later, we dodged another bullet.

On the other side of our house there dwelt a one-eyed gay French hunchback, and that is the truth. A peculiar guy, and peculiar things went on there at all hours, maybe involving the several French boyz renting there. Not a problem neighbor though, until one of them flicked a cigarette (smoking a fag?) into the hundred years of debris in the 12″ space between our houses. At around 4 am, I had already met the Sandman, but I guess I smelled the smoke once more. Back out onto the balcony again, feeling the heat and choking on smoke, I saw a burning pile of trash 20′ below me, scorching both houses. It wasn’t a massive fire, but nothing to roll over and go back to sleep about, either. I reached over to their house, banged on the 2nd floor windows, woke the poor darlings, then watched them fail to connect their garden hose to get the job done. The SFFD arrived, shined a light up on me once more and put out the fire.

This happened in 2001, after the dot-bomb, and watching these guys do a risky, worthwhile job and like it, is what turned me towards chasing that same job. And chase it I still do….

Etc: No more of these problems at 632 Haight, though the same roommate did once set her room on fire with candles while shacking up.


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