I awoke slowly from a Vicodin-induced comatose state. The sun was shining brightly into the living room; it was about three in the afternoon. There was an 11-pound dog sitting on my chest, and another on my lap. They’d snuck on the couch to laze in the sunshine with me. As I stirred, I heard the distant sounds of the city: The faint dinging of the cable car on Powell street, a lonely dog’s cloying yelps, the sizzle of a pan frying up what smelled like peppers for a fajita, the siren of a fire truck or ambulance, a plane overhead. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
My legs throbbed. I was just two days out of the hospital for joint pain so debilitating, some lovely San Franciscan shouted that I was a dumb drunk who should get out of the street, as I hobbled the two blocks to the emergency room at 4:30 in the morning. The joint pain, it turns out, was an allergic reaction to medicine used to treat an allergic reaction to insect bites (70-80 all told) that I’d sustained a few days prior.
I was not having a good week.
A fresh wave of pain shot through my knees and shins. I squirmed and winced, shrugging the dogs off of me and the couch. I checked the time– Another three hours before I could take my next Vicodin. I sighed. A fruit fly buzzed past my face – ”tis the season,’ I thought as I half-heartedly waved it away.
The sirens grew louder. Sounded like they were rounding the corner, but that would mean they were going the wrong way on a one-way street. Probably some trick of the Doppler effect, I thought – or maybe they had to take a back route to the hospital two blocks away … but I pushed myself up and trudged down the hall to my front door anyways. Just to check that nothing was going on.
To my shock, I was greeted by the shrill “bring bring bring” of the fire alarm in my building. This was real. I was at the top of a sixth floor building. It was on fire, and the firemen were on their way. A part of me held onto hope- it’s probably a false alarm. This will turn out to be nothing. I didn’t smell any smoke, after all. It was conspicuously silent- no screams or urgent missives. No commotion at all, really.
Still, I hurriedly put on the first shoes I could find (an old pair of Fast Flats with a hole in the toe and no real soles to speak of) and got the dogs leashed up. Grabbing my phone and purse, I rushed out of the door, dragging the dogs behind.
Top of the landing, no smoke. No smell of smoke. We head down. Beckett, a typically u-athletic Shih-Tzu doesn’t like stairs on a good day. She began to dig her heels in and resist walking. Still, I was able to get us down to the fifth floor. Halfway down the next set of stairs though, we hit a wall of smoke.
It happened all of a sudden. It was a thick mass coming at us, and was all at once pouring over us. The dogs had had it. They wouldn’t budge. I looked down to see if there was any space that had clean air for us, but the stairwell was all grey, top to bottom. The dogs would NOT cooperate, but we couldn’t very well go back upstairs when the building was on fire. Besides, the smoke was rising precipitously- It’d do us no good.
My lungs quickly filled with smoke. I felt the familiar chest tightening that signals the beginning of an asthma attack. I tried and failed to pick up the dogs — they weren’t having it. If I didn’t do something, and quick, this would turn bad for all three of us. I had a decision to make: Run through the smoky stairwell and hope that there was saving grace at the bottom (and that I’d make it all that way with my failing lungs), or head down the fire escape, leaving the pups behind (and send help for them after I was safe).
I’m not embarrassed to say I chose the fire escape without hesitation, and here’s why: We’ve all heard these stories: A man goes out into the dangerous surf to save a dog that’s been swept away. The man is killed, drowned. The dog is found hours later, unharmed. A woman falls off a cliff trying to rescue her dog, who makes his way back up the slope and stares down at her while she sits, trapped. It just didn’t make good sense to risk all of our lives. Also, I realized that if I died trying to save those dogs, my mother would resurrect me with sheer force of will, just to slay me again. No way, José. Black girl’s not going out like that.
I made my way out of the window and down the fire escape, which faces an alley surrounded by two other apartment buildings. Fire escapes are terrifying. It had never occurred to me, but between the barely-there soles of my fake shoes, and my fear of heights, the going was treacherous. When I reached the second floor, I was dismayed to realize that the fire escape no longer consisted of stairs, but that lone vertical ladder I’ve never paid much attention to. It’s a stupid one, but a fear of going down vertical ladders is something that has been with me my entire life.
I refused to turn crispy though, so I pushed forward. Again, the voice of my mother urged me on “Girl, you’d better get your behind down that ladder- and now!” Suddenly, a voice called out at me from inside my building. It was a giant fireman in his heavy uniform and helmet. He asked, “What are you doing?” I sputtered my response, surprised and confused: “there was all this smoke, and I have asthma- there’s a fire … I’m … I’m escaping the fire?” Why did I have to tell this man that I was using the fire escape to escape a fire? Like, Sir- we are both where we are for the same reason. He laughed at me, shook his head and continued up the stairs.
After calling out to him that my dogs were upstairs, and making sure he’d take care of them, I continued to make my way over to the first floor window, where I could climb in- presumably to safety.
Just as I swung my leg over the windowsill, a young man from the building across the alleyway called over to me. “Yo! Is that fire real??” he shouted.
Let’s pause for the cause. If this were a fake fire, would I be on the fire escape? Has everyone in the world forgotten what a fire escape does? If this is a fire, do I have time to chat with the random shaggy-haired dude, also home at 3 pm on a Wednesday about it? Would I be wearing this clown-like outfit (a pink blouse with tulle streamers coming off the right shoulder, tiny sleep shorts featuring the comedic stylings of Elmo, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch across my left cheek, crazy hair and nearly dismantled shoes)? “Yes! It’s real!” I called out, still straddling the old window. With that, I hopped in (doing my best Spider Man impression), tumbled down a few stairs, and made my way outside.
I and a few neighbors waited in the heat to get the ok to go back inside. A firefighter came out, said he’d found two dogs running around on the sixth floor and tied them up there. There’d been a grease fire in one of the apartments on two, and the whole building was very smoky, but everyone and everything was ok. In the next instant, I see my next-door neighbor walking out of the building with my babies. Great! I was so glad they were ok … but at the same wasn’t thrilled that they were down there with me at that moment.
Let me explain! Nearly everyone in my building has dogs. There were quite a few owners out with me on the sidewalk that day. In an ideal world, I would have gone upstairs to retrieve the doggies, put on something to more substantially cover my ass, and maybe don a hat. But now, I was already down with them, and it was unanimously decided that we must all walk our dogs to distract them from any terror or confusion they may have experienced.
|This is Milo. Yes, he has his own website.|
So, Milo, Beckett, and I set off on the queerest walk of shame I’ve even experienced. With the adrenaline rush subsiding, the pain in my joints ebbed back into my consciousness. The shoe situation quickly grew worse, and I had to shuffle/drag one foot behind me in order to keep them on. I caught a glimpse of my reflection and recoiled with a start. I was big, black Igor, legs covered in insect bites, half awake, chest burning from smoke inhalation, lumbering through San Francisco with two adorable, happy dogs who bounced down the street, unashamed of their unfortunate Mama.
That’s when the giggling started. It bubbled out of me until I was nearly doubled over with tears. I looked hilarious, and the series of events that got me there were too improbable not to be taken lightly. It’s bad luck, but it’s my bad luck, and if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t so deeply appreciate the good times I do have. Life’s too good to be beaten down!