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Fire on the fourth floor

When I lived in a different bum hotel, a few blocks away and a few years ago, an oversensitive fire alarm in the hall cried wolf once or twice every month. Someone smoking a cigarette might set it off, or just a fart.

At that place, the hotel's Mr Patel left at 5:00 every night. When the alarm sounded after the landlord's quitting time, I'd usually sigh and stop whatever I was doing, pull on a pair of pants, and walk the halls, trying to figure whether it was just another false alarm, or is this the time we're all gonna die? 

Twice there actually were fires in the rooms, someone called 9-1-1, and along with all the hotel's many nutters and crackheads and prostitutes, I stood on the sidewalk watching the firemen do their work. But all the other times, the fire alarm was just noise.

Here at the marvelous Hotel McMillan this morning, I was lounging in my room, eating toast and reading zines, when the fire alarm sounded. First time I'd heard it, and I've lived here almost a month.

It's really quite stupid, but by habit from the other hotel, I responded slowly, assuming it wouldn't be an emergency. I finished the piece of toast I'd been munching, and casually slipped into yesterday's pants. Toast comes in twos, and with the second piece in my hand I stepped into the hall to start looking around.

What I saw was Mr Patel and his pajama-clad teenage son roaring up the stairs to the 4th floor. The landlord turned left, his son turned right, and they each took about ten steps, then stopped to sniff for smoke. Then they took another ten steps and sniffed again. They seemed well-drilled at this technique, and I surmised that they'd already done the stop-and-sniff on the second and third floors. 

"Four eighteen!" the boy shouted at his father, and started pounding at the door of room 418. The elder Patel ran past me to a fire extinguisher behind glass, and he smashed the glass, then reached in and grabbed the extinguisher.

After several loud doorbangs and shouts, Little Patel gave up and used the passkey to open the door. Everyone on the fourth floor who isn't totally non compos mentis had come out of their rooms to to see what was literally cooking, and I strolled to the open door of 418 for a better view.

The woman who lives there wasn't in her room, but I think she'd left her space heater on, and it had ignited the blanket. There were actual flames shooting up man-height, and smoke was everywhere.

They call it a fire extinguisher because that's what it does, and squirting white stuff from the red canister, Mr Patel had things immediately under control. It wasn't five seconds after unlocking the door that the fire was out, so this story doesn't end with my charred body in the smoking rubble of the hotel.

Soon there were sirens, then four fire trucks in front of the building, and then a battalion of men walking around, wearing heavy jackets and funny hats. Two of them carried clipboards to make everything official.

Some of the men propped open the emergency exits and set up big, loud electric fans to blow the smoke out of the building, but after that there was nothing for the hook-and-ladder gang to do except to keep walking around.

As for me, I made more toast, and stood in the hall eating it, watching the very entertaining show.

When three out of four fire trucks had rolled away, I complimented the landlord and his son on their rapid response. From what Mr Patel told me, near as I can piece together a timeline, he'd called 9-1-1 as I'd been buttering my first toast, and he and his son were already doing their stop-and-sniff on the second or third floor while I was leisurely zipping up my pants.

While I was still eating toast, the woman from 418 came back, looking hungover at first and then hungover but also amazed when she saw her room. 

Mr Patel told her to gather her smoky, wet things and find a different hotel, but he refunded her week's rent, which struck me as almost gallant.

I've dealt with several Mr Patels at various rez hotels in San Francisco, but seriously, the McMillan's Mr Patel is the best of all possible Mr Patels.

♦ ♦ ♦  

At Black Sheets, like everywhere else, I'm usually the quiet guy, but today I told Bill and Steve and Candy about the fire at the hotel.

Candy didn't understand rez hotels — "Wait, you don't have a bathroom?" — but that's what people always say, and why I almost never tell people that I live in a rez hotel.

Usually there's music at the office, and today it was a Tony Bennett CD, so I sorta swung as I swept the place. He sang old standards all afternoon, making every song sound as cool as, well, Tony Bennett.

The recording included on-stage banter between Bennett, the pianist, and the audience, and several times Mr Bennett told the pianist or the audience, "You're beautiful." It was charming the first two times, then funny after several more "You're beautiful"s.

I can't make it as funny at the typewriter as it was in the office, but it was dang funny. After hanging up from a long phone call, Bill pointed and smirked at the phone and said, "You're beautiful." After that, it was a running gag. When anyone talked about anything, the conversation ended with someone saying, "You're beautiful," and maybe someone else replying, "No, you're beautiful."

It's like working with Akbar & Jeff, or now I guess it's Akbar & Jeff & Candy, who really is beautiful.

♦ ♦ ♦  

After typing the above, I darted downtown on Muni ("darted" on the bus — is that comedy, or satire?) to check the mail, mostly to see if there was a letter from Corina. There wasn't, and it matched nicely with a letter from Sarah-Katherine, which also wasn't there — understandably, Sarah-K no longer writes me.

There was a nice post card from Kelli, though, saying we should hang out again some time soon, maybe see another movie… this time, with her boyfriend. Just the three of us.

♦ ♦ ♦  

By the time I got back home, the shattered glass over the fire extinguisher's cage had been replaced, the giant fans were gone, and the stink of smoke was minimal, but still enough to give me a headache.

From Pathetic Life #23
Monday, April 29, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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