The thing about emergencies is that there’s no hard and clear rule on when an “issue” escalates into a “crisis.”
A few months ago, a friend of mine and I were waiting for a table outside of a restaurant when we noticed smoke billowing out of a car. Watching it seemed only to fan the invisible flames, so I walked into the restaurant and informed the non-committal hostess of the event taking place outside. There, I thought, dusting it off my hands as I returned to my friend; not my problem. Yet that wonderful feeling of transference began to wear off as the minutes passed without a resolution. The restaurant was crowded, and as people began to take notice of the event, that sense of responsibility began to set back in. I mean, we did notice it first; didn’t that mean we had to take partial ownership, at least until the real owner of the car showed up?
My friend Jesse and I deliberated for a few minutes about what to do. “Do we call the fire department? It’s not very obviously a fire,” I said.
“I don’t even know the fire department’s number,” Jesse added.
“Isn’t it…9-1-1?” I pondered aloud. There is so much stigma associated with dialing the forbidden number that I hardly knew if we should have called. When the chef from the restaurant came out of the kitchen wielding a fire extinguisher and marched around the car scratching his head, Jesse however decided that it was time to phone in a professional. In a matter of minutes, the fire truck sounded its way over and with a shatter of broken glass and the gush of a fire hose, a car was destroyed along with the danger it posed. We never did get to see its owners, though. I wondered whether they stayed in the restaurant throughout the ordeal, whether from embarrassment or hunger.
And so a few months later, when I am moving into my new house and my father directs me to clean paint off the electrical outlets using steel wool and Goof-Off, I hesitate. Fire is bad. And real. And, I don’t know whether that sprinkler system actually works yet, and I’ve never much cared for finding things out the hard way. But this is my father speaking; surely, if there was any threat of danger, real or imagined, he would give me due warning. After a quick game of “are you sure? Are you sure-sure?,” I found myself mindlessly scrubbing away at the sage green paint residue on each electrical socket of the master bedroom. “What a lovely unexpected flash of light,” I thought, calmly, and looked down to find, in my palm, the homey glow of a flaming piece of Brillo. At least I had the sense to throw it down, and what amazed me more was what happened next.
As it sat on the brand new carpet, flaming higher by the second, I screamed “FIRE!” in the jazziest most soul-gripping voice I never knew I had. Of course, it was preceded by a string of obscenities, starting with holy and advancing to the opposite end of the spectrum, but that was requisite. At that moment, my mother ran into the room, demonstrating what can only be called a text-book example of the word “panic.” Before she could make a sound, involuntarily her elbows began pumping the air like a bellows (and, like a bellows, somehow made it worse), and her knees marched violently up and down like a redneck at a hoedown, but it was the look of shock on her face that startled me to my feet. Seeing nothing around that I could use to douse or smother the flames, I began stomping them with one Isotoner-clad foot. The flames licked upward and neared my hip, and I feared that my aged cotton sweatpants might ignite, so I ran to the bathroom in search of…?
A towel! I grabbed a towel, a slightly damp one at that, and spun around for the bedroom. I saw my mother, helplessly stomping at the Brillo with her foot, but three feet away from it. She had been stomping at bare carpet in her panic. Long story short, the towel sufficed where the sprinkler system, Isotoner, and panicking mother did not. The carpet looked a little worse for wear even after a good vacuuming; its singed tips had to be painstakingly trimmed, and the nap will forevermore be uneven. Yet somehow, the hardest part was after it was all over. “You ought to go downstairs and tell your father what happened,” my Mother said gravely.
Resigning to my fate, I solemnly walked downstairs to where my father tinkered with the garbage disposal. “Don’t panic,” I began, “but we had a little fire upstairs.” It took all my might not to laugh, and I quickly extinguished the vision of my Mother the Scarecrow that danced in my head.
“Oh, you must have touched the electrical screw with the Brillo and it arced out,” he responded flatly. “I thought about warning you, but then I didn’t.” Hours later, after he had surveyed the damage and heard the full accounts of the only two witnesses, he added, “well, that sounds a lot worse than I thought it would be,” which in Dad speak means, “HOLY FUCKING SHIT, FIRE!”