Last night, I dreamed about the house fire again. In 2002, in August, our row house caught fire and burned. Poorly trained roofers accidentally set the roof on fire. It started as a smoldering fire, which they didn’t notice. They left for the day, leaving a cannister of propane on the roof.
An unknown man across the street was sitting on his balcony, enjoying an after-work drink, when he saw wisps of smoke, followed by flame, licking around our roof. He didn’t waste any time. He ran across the street, and banged on every door, including ours. There were more than a dozen houses in our cluster.”Your house is on fire, get out!” he yelled.
My husband stepped out to see if it was true, and I went to the phone to dial 911. The fire department was on the way before I left the house.
You never want to see the home you owe 28 years of payments on with a “Condemned” sign on the front door. Neither do you want to walk up the stairs in the company of the fire marshal to see the night sky clearly through the hole in your roof, and have the confused fire marshal ask, “What room was this?” as you gaze in a charred mess that is piled with books and thigh-high in shingles and debris. It was amazing that I could look at him and say, simply, “My studio.”
People told me how lucky I was that the house didn’t burn to the ground, how great it was that I could buy new clothes and furniture. One of my neighbors complained the next morning that she hoped I wouldn’t leave “that mess” –the contents of my studio that the fire fighters had thrown out the windows. I was mad at the gawkers who stood around, taking photos of my ruined house, of me, sweaty and dirty, picking up my art life on my front lawn. When I think about that time, I think of the art show promoter who refused to refund my booth space fee when I told him that I couldn’t participate in the show in two weeks because my studio burned. “No refunds,” he said, and I knew he didn’t believe my story.
In the dream, however, I remember the people who helped. The neighbor who let us stay in her house, adding our three cats to her six and her neice, nephew and their child–6 of us in her two-bedroom space. Of another neighbor who was going on vacation and insisted we use their place while they were gone. Of another artist who sent me a 20-pound box of art supplies so I could get started again. Of the insurance adjuster who arrived before 8 o’clock the next day and organized the repair.
Most of all, I remember the perfect stranger who ran over from his house and prevented ours from burning to the ground. I wanted to thank him in some way, but I wasn’t even sure where he lived. He left when the fire engines squealed to the curb. He saved lives on that day, as if he did it every day.
To thank him, I wrote a letter. “One of your neighbors saved lives. He did it without thought of reward. He left before we could thank him. All we know is that he lives on this street. I thought you’d want to know who lives among you, who your neighbor is.” I went on to describe how his fast, self-less actions had brought the fire department before the row-house fire spread to other roofs. How all the neighbors left their houses with pets and children, scared, but safe. I distributed the letter to every house on his street.
In my dream, I see the man and thank him. And every time I wake from that dream, I am grateful all over again.