A few years ago, when I was living in Elmira, New York, the building next to mine burned.
It was a two-story wooden apartment house, long and narrow, with green wooden siding. It was separated from the only slightly less ratty apartment house I lived in by only a narrow driveway, barely a car width across.
And, of course, it was flammable as tinder.
I was awoken early Sunday morning by the shouting of my neighbor, who had started a kitchen fire while fixing breakfast. A thin thread of smoke issued from his back door. It didn't look too serious. Just to be safe, I went and gathered up a few papers and things from my apartment, things I couldn't afford to lose, and moved them to my car. Of course, it being my apartment I wasn't sure I had found everything in the mess. Then I waited in the street to watch the excitement as the fire department arrived.
Arrive they did. They attacked the fire with an extinguisher, but it wasn't enough. Then they ran a hose to the nearest hydrant for water... only to discover this hydrant had been disconnected because of work on the water main. They had a small supply of water in the tanks of the truck. It gave them a small spray like something out of a large garden hose. The smoke grew thicker and blacker, and started issuing from my neighbor's window. They began to evacuate the other tenants from the building. I asked one of the fire fighters if it would be safe to return to my apartment and gather a few more things.
"Yes," he said, "but hurry." And he motioned for one of the police officers on the scene to accompany me.
I remember standing in my cluttered apartment, the police officer at the door, thinking how strange it was that everything was completely normal, utterly unchanged in my small, cluttered living room, even though I might never return there again. I gathered all of the student papers I could find, a few cherished books, not in a panic but in a surreal state. Everything was so normal, I was in my own living room, it seemed impossible there could be any danger. And yet I knew, I knew that next door a fire was starting to burn out of control. I could smell the smoke. From my bedroom window I could just see flames starting to lick through the window of the other building.
Sometimes I am struck by that feeling now, the feeling of cognitive dissonance between the danger we are hearing about, this impending recession or depression or what have you, and the way our lives are continuing on as if nothing was happening. But not that often. I think it is because the danger is not yet as real to me as that fire was. I wonder if some day we will look back on these days and have this same surreal feeling, remembering how we lived in such comfort while the system that sustained us burned.
That day in Elmira, the building next to me burned to the ground. Nothing remained but blackened beams that stunk of sulfur and ash for weeks. It still wasn't cleaned up when I left town months later. My building was spared, though the heat was so bad it warped the vinyl siding. Small blessings, I guess.
I made a big batch of pintos and rice tonight, a taste I acquired while in the Southwest for a while last year. Simple food, tasty. A small blessing. Hopefully the supply of canned tomatoes, dry pinto beans, and onions will not go away any time soon.