In the late 90’s I worked for a construction outfit that would take on fire restoration jobs. This is dirty work in every sense one might think. Not only was it filthy physical labor but we saw a lot of shit. A lot of loss and tragedy in the midst of trying to land a job with a less-than upstanding adjuster that we would in turn draw up a less than upstanding contract with to get the work that would sustain us, sometimes pretty well, in the slower months. The holiday season is rough on construction companies unless you can pick up on this niche. People just love to burn their houses down around Thanksgiving and Christmas and if we’re real lucky there will be some storm damage or flooding too!
The moral-cleansing element here is that at-the-end-of-the-day we did fight for the people who had loss and although they never asked for it, we tried our best to give back something better than they had (provided they were properly covered by the policy). In the very worst cases there was loss of life, and yes, sometimes human life. I’ve been on “board-ups” where we were supervised by forensics guys and told not to ask questions, take pictures or discuss what we saw. If people were lucky in a fire situation; they got out with their loved ones, the one or two irreplaceable things they valued and the house burnt to the ground. I say that because like a totaled car; a complete replacement beats any repair. That unmistakable carbon smell of burnt framing is relentless and a hot summer day it will sneak back just enough to spark gruesome memories.
One area we often worked in was Palo Alto / Mountain View / Menlo Park. Sure you’ve heard of it if you know anything about anybody who had anything to do with whatever you’re reading this on or will share on with your friends. In this area a very common style of home, named after the founding developer was “Eichler”. Ah, the Eichler, in its day (in the 50s) was the bee’s knees! Ultra modem styling, simple, sleek, clean lines, lots of glass and natural wood. These dot-com geeks took over again in the nineties and easily quadrupled their monetary value and set the trendy meter to eleven. Steve Jobs came from one – you betcha!
Anyway, they burn like a Hibachi because they’re basically designed like one. Many even had a solarium in the center for added convection effect. They had an exposed rafter and wood roof/ceiling usually pitched up to the center and tons of glass around the exterior. They also were commonly finished with lots of lacquer, floor and walls. I mean we these things went off it were like a giant kiln!
On one particular job I had the opportunity to talk to one of the old-timer fire chiefs who was conducting a preliminary investigation. He took a liking to me after the past few he’d seen me on so he was actually human toward me for once and we bullshitted for a minute. What he told me stayed with me through a lot of years of drinking and drugging and has taken on new meaning in my recovery. I used to tell the story like I was bragging about some real fireman shit, pretending I knew something about it. What he told me was that when they get a call that one of these (homes) is in flames they send out two teams; one to the address on the left and one to the right. Said at their best response time, the one called in was already gone – a total loss in about eight minutes.
Now as I said earlier, lucky us if we got the one in the middle. After we scrape the lot, new construction right? Way better than picking out the charred pieces of siding, trim and smoked-stained drywall of the neighbors’.
Now days it hits me like I’d never seen it before. As an addict, alcoholic my fucking house was in shambles and all the neighbors knew it. Heck, I’ve said it before to shit-can houses; “all this place needs is a couple gallons of gasoline and a torch.” Well ok… it finally happened. I burnt it down! I hit bottom then I stripped the walls I’d built around me and did all the hard work of admission, renunciation, inventory, recovery and service. Got me a new home!
But what about the neighbors? Why weren’t they happy for me? Look I lived! I got a new home! See? Ain’t it great? Hey… what’s that smell?
Oh. Did I do that?
All that trauma and catastrophe cleaning and I didn’t really see all the damage my damage caused. “I didn’t mean to! They were insured too!”… oops, there go the excuses again. They aren’t stoked. There’s compassion there, sure, but goddamn it – they had to do a lot to repair what they had, too.
And who’s to say the same neighbors are even still there or that it’s even me in the new home.
So, right now it’s like this. New growth, fading pain, excited about all the hope I see one minute then fighting back tears of despair in the next. Proud of my service to others one minute and ashamed of my disservice to those undeserving in the next. Seeking balance on a tightrope, humility and pride as my pole, compassion and forgiveness the rope itself. Love and light as the focus and solid ground the goal.