A Prose Piece by J.R. Johnson

Thursday: cold, overcast, and more exciting than expected. Sirens are normal in this neighborhood, but these didn’t fade into the distance. In fact, they got louder and multiplied. After the third or fourth wail I felt the low rumble of heavy equipment through the house’s foundation and decided to check it out. Western Avenue was choked with cars and, more dramatically, smoke. A few people were already on the street clutching cat carriers and file boxes. The less prepared had a jacket if they were lucky, nothing but a towel if they weren’t. Smoke poured from the roof and back of the big apartment across the street.

The building is home to a lot of young families, students, and single men. Fire alarms go off there all the time, but usually it’s nothing; not so today. More residents pushed out through the front doors. Firemen grabbed their gear and ran inside. A uniformed expediter in the street called out instructions to the seven engines, five EMTs, two ambulances, and uncounted police cars. He didn’t need a megaphone. He remained calm and focused, even when he was running. Even after three firemen came spilling from the entrance doors in a billowing cloud of dense smoke. A final engine raised its ladder from the next block straining to reach the roof over trees and power lines. All the while ambulance crews moved stretchers toward the building and people kept flooding out.

I wanted to do something, but like most in my position of voyeur, the barriers of space, time and uncertainty were too great for me to breach alone. I wanted to offer coffee from a pot I don’t own, hot chocolate in the sort of huge dispenser I’ve thought of buying but haven’t, or open up Aunt Fay’s now-empty cedar chest and bring forth warm blankets like those my mother used to keep inside. Sirens continued to scream, shivering tenants gathered dogs to their chests and rubbed each others’ arms for warmth. Western was closed down, police sending stray civilians speeding the wrong way up our one-way street to make room for still more emergency vehicles, and some poor soul in a moving van caught his first glance of his new building, sinuous orange flames waving in welcome.

Then a white and red truck pulled up, after the fire engines and the EMTs, but several minutes in advance of the inevitable news helicopters. The Salvation Army. A kindly-looking man popped out of the driver’s seat and opened up the back ready to dispense what help he could. It reminded me of something Alexis de Tocqueville once said, that there was nothing like America for civic institutions, and that if something needed to be done why, we’d just get together and do it. True, he wrote almost two hundred years ago, but I believe we are still at root a nation of people committed to a broader popular ideal. And that’s the key. It helps convince me that despite what I may see in the news everyday, “we” is better than “I.”

Hours later the emergency was over. Firemen gave the all-clear. The aid truck sent the last of its guests back into the blackened but now safe building. City workers cleaned up ash and police cars rolled out leaving nothing but order in their wake. I was left with a profound sense of my good fortune for being born in this place at this time, among these people. They accomplished what I couldn’t do myself. Together, molded into an army of mutual purpose, there are hot drinks and blankets for everyone. Alone, you’re left helpless by a window or bare-assed on the street.