Saturday, July 30, 2011

A fire brings out the most interesting things in people…

This morning I awoke feeling a bit disoriented;  I had a hot sun on my face (I fell asleep on the couch last night & forgot to close those livingroom drapes) and my tv was blaring some insane infomercial about Oreck vacuum cleaners.  Oh that’s right, I was watching a marathon of ‘Ghost Adventures’ on the Travel Channel last night & must’ve fallen asleep in the middle of one. 

Now where was that strange BREEP—BREEP—BREEP sound coming from?

Firetrucks arriving at my apartment building this morning; oh joy!

As I’m fumbling for the remote, there’s a heavy thumping on my front door with a hoarse man’s voice yelling “EVACUATE THE BUILDING, FIRE!!”   Oh, so that’s what woke me up.  I grab my glasses & open the front door—the hallway is filled with smoke.  I shut the door and look down to see if I’m wearing pants (I am) and grab my cellphone.   “Hello Shawn?  My buildings on fire again & I have to leave!”   “Okay, call me back!”   “Alright!”

My neighbor Rich is in the hall, rubbing his eyes with his fists and looking properly pissed.  “How many times do we have to do this?”    (Y’see, we just had a fire in the building 5 months ago; that time it was in the middle of the night and we had to stand outside in the cold for 2 hours.  It turned out the deaf guy who lived up the hall from us was cooking drugs, which explained his insane laughter earlier that week while bowling in the hall at 2am.  Seriously, with a real bowling ball.)   Anyway, I shrug my shoulders and ask Rich which direction he wants to go, as the smoke is now billowing into the hall.  He says “Oh look, it’s coming from that girl’s place three doors up...” 

Now there’s a perfectly good exit right behind us, but we head in the direction of the smoke instead.  (Her door is standing all the way open, and we want to take a peek inside.)  Oh she has it fixed up really nice in there—well, from what we can see thru the haze.  I begin choking & point at the large window at the end of the hall—“Here come the firetrucks.”   Rich says “Okay, well I think I’m going to hide in my apartment and pretend I’m not home if they come knocking.”   I nod my head.  “Okay Rich, good luck with that.  I think I’ll go out the back way and sit in my car.”   

I head down the back stairwell and into the parking lot behind the building.  There are twenty or so people milling about, both dressed and not really, their hair sticking up at awkward angles and looking positively homeless.  I have to suppress a smile at all the wacky ‘dos, then quickly turn around and catch my own reflection in the glass doors.  Aw no, I look like Wildboy!

As I debate on whether I should duck down and sneak back into the building or just stand here with the rest of the sleepwalkers, my ‘Saturn neighbor’ approaches me.  My Saturn neighbor!  We’ve lived across the hall from each other for at least a decade & (aside from one instance, which I even blogged about here) have never spoken to one another.

I’m surprised at how “non-disheveled” she looks compared to the rest of us.  Her hair is pinned up nicely, her t-shirt has no holes in it (unlike the one I’m wearing) and she’s the only one out here wearing real clothes.

“Can you believe this is happening again?” she asks.  I shake my wild hair wilder, no, I can’t.  “Were you here for the last fire?  I don’t remember seeing you the last time.”   I tell her I went out the front entrance the last time to watch all the trucks.   She points at one of the goofier looking tenants standing about five feet from us. “See that guy?”  I nod.  She lowers her voice.  “Well, the last time we were out here, he peed against the side of the building, right under that first window.  I saw the whole thing...if you know what I mean.”

“That’s so wrong!”  I answer and she nods her head.  I point to the blue recycle bin.  “The designated pee area is right over there.”   She puts her hand over her mouth and laughs.  Omigosh, I look like the Unabomber’s damn protégé and I’m bustin’ a move here!  

As I’m standing there trying to decide what my next line will be, the back door opens and a fireman sticks his head out.  “You folks can come back in now… it was a small electrical fire, contained in one unit.  No harm done.”  We’re the nearest to the door and head back in.  She turns and says “I’ve been here too long, every year I tell myself I’m going to move but I lose the energy to do it.”   I smile and say yeah, me too.  She says “Well, it was nice talking to you...I hope we don’t have to go thru something like this again anytime soon.”  

Well Vanessa... you just never know.   Winking smile


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Another man’s albatross and the burdens thereof


Darn it, I’m a little shaken up at the moment. I got up this morning, all set to watch my dvr of last night’s “Ghost Adventures”; but I thought I’d check my mail first and found a red envelope waiting, my latest movie rental from Netflix. 

So I put that in the player instead, and have been watching it in fits and starts since.  It’s been very difficult to sit through this picture from beginning to end, but I have my reasons.  To be honest, I’m a little surprised.  

(Warning, this may contain some pretty graphic stuff.)

The movie is “Pierrepoint”, a British drama based on the life of Albert Pierrepoint, one of England’s “official hangmen” in the first half of the 20th century.  From 1933-1955, he executed approximately 600 criminals, all by hanging, and in a very precise manner.  He took measurements of the condemned, and from their height & weight, was able to calculate precisely how long the rope should be to snap their second and third vertebrae—providing a relatively pain-free and quick death “unlike the Americans who let them die by strangling.”   He took no pleasure in his career, and in fact hid his ‘title’ from society until after WWII, when he was asked to hang 200 Nazi war criminals.

Albert Pierrepoint, 1905-1992

Eventually though, the hundreds of executions took their toll on him and he became a fierce opponent of capital punishment, calling it “amoral, impractical and done only for revenge.”

It’s an interesting & well made film, but watching the repeated scenes of people crying, stonefaced, angry, begging for forgiveness all while having nooses slipped around their necks—it’s been making me relive something very unpleasant, from fifteen years ago. 

Back in April 1995, roughly 6-7 months before I moved to my current neighborhood, I was living in Sharpsburg—sad to say, not a very pretty community.  There were more saloons and cement than grass or kids, but the rent was cheap & I loved my apartment.  Well, aside from one small detail.

My apartment house in Sharpsburg; my place was in the back, the middle patio on the far right

Directly outside the balcony doors in my livingroom was a small parking lot, and the backporch & large picture window of my neighbor.  I had a direct view of their home life (as they did of mine), and we often caught each other watching one another.  It was a couple, roughly my age, with a young boy.  They fought often, and afterwards the man would come out on his porch & sit there and chain smoke, staring straight ahead.   I was a smoker too then, but after having my place painted the summer before, I only smoked outside.  We would nod to each other sometimes, but nothing else.  His wife only came outside to tend to her assortment of hanging baskets of plants and flowers. 

So one day I came home from work and my neighbor from upstairs stopped me in the hall.  “Oh you missed a good fight!” she said.  “That lady over there left her husband!  She had someone help her move out, and her husband was screaming and crying and pounding on their car!  Then the cops showed up & made him go back inside, and they waited until his wife left, & when everyone was gone he came back outside and ripped all her hanging baskets down and threw them into the street!  Then the cops came back and hauled his ass off to jail!”  After thanking Shelly for the big scoop, I went into my apartment and stepped outside on my balcony to have a smoke; across the way, their picture window was dark & all the baskets were gone.  The porch looked very bare.  It gave me the shivers, like all the life there had been sucked dry.  

 He came home the next day though, and spent most of his time on that porch, staring straight ahead & chain smoking.  One night I woke up around 3am, and got up to use the bathroom.  I peeked out my patio doors, and saw a small orange tip glowing in the darkness, and I knew he was out there on that porch, sitting alone in the dark.    

I kept my mom up to date on the ‘goings-on’ there, and one night she said “The next time you get home from work, if you see him sitting outside, walk over there and just say hello.”  So the very next day, I had my chance.  I walked over & introduced myself.  I made a joke about us already knowing each other from our respective porches, and he said “Yes… will you excuse me please”  and went indoors.  And for the next couple weeks, I didn’t see him again.

Friday, May 26, 1995.  It’s around 6pm when my mom calls.  As we’re chatting, I’m walking about doing things, and suddenly notice my neighbor is back outside on his porch.  He has a kitchen chair out there, and a toolbox, and is going indoors and out, back and forth.  When I tell my mom, she says “maybe his wife is coming home and he wants to fix the place up.”  It sounded good to me and I said “I think he’s going to put some hanging baskets back up.  He’s standing on that chair, and he’s hammering something into the porch roof.”   Mom says “good for him”.  We move on to something new, and I walk into my kitchen to wash some dishes.  As I come back into the livingroom (still on the phone), I look outside again.  He’s still there, staring down from his perch like he dropped something.  But something doesn’t look right.  It takes me a minute to realize the chair he was standing on is no longer upright; it’s laying on it’s side now, on the porch steps.  I feel like someone just punched me in the stomach and I stumble backward.  “Mom… he hanged himself.”  “DOUG CALL 911!”   She hangs up.  Time slows to a crawl, as I watch him suspended there.  I don’t remember dialing 911, but I hear a woman’s voice on the phone—“911, what’s your emergency…”

Without sharing any more grisly details, when the police (and firetrucks) arrived, I watched as they struggled to hoist his lifeless body down.  One of them knocked on my door, and asked if I wanted to speak with a police psychologist.  I said no, but told them how he wouldn’t stop watching me while putting up that noose.  The officer said “Trust me, he was looking right through you.  All he saw was release and revenge.”  When I asked what he meant, the officer said “He called his wife right before he did this and told her he was ready to talk about a divorce, and asked her if she’d come over.  We stopped her right up the street, she had their little boy with her.”  

.             .             .

I never went out on my deck again.  I kept my head down when I walked past those patio doors, and when that still wasn’t enough, I bought heavier drapes and kept them shut.  And just when I thought I’d have to live with the memory forever, a couple months later I came home from work and there was a Sheriff’s Notice on my door.  The owner of my building had deserted the property, it was going up for auction & the tenants had to vacate the premises.  (This did the trick, I think.  When I moved to another part of the city, I was able to put the memory to rest.)   And time, of course, heals all wounds.  Well, for most.

Ah. well a-day. what evil looks
Had I from old and young
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.