Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Fire

I was getting coffee with Alicia and Scott the other day when I somehow got to talking about the fire that burned down a great deal of the Oakland Hills in 1991. I was seven at the time and though the fire came within fifty feet of my parent’s house, it didn’t burn down. A retired San Francisco firefighter lived on our street and after everyone had been evacuated, he went from house to house turning the gas off, and spraying down the roofs. He had a fire hose, but unfortunately it was fit for San Francisco hydrants, and he had to hike down to a station at the bottom of the hill to replace it. I’m still shocked that there were inconsistencies in the hoses from one city to the next.

When we returned from a friend’s house a few towns over, after a week of being away, we found nearly the entire hillside burnt away, and firefighters still putting out dying embers. Our street, though, looked just as it had before, except the sky had broadened a bit from the great redwood and pines that had fallen all around in the blaze.

For the next few years I lived amongst the rubble and the rebuilding, the homes coming up on insurance money all modern and stucco upon the scorched hills. There are streets that the fire didn’t cross, where one side is all old growth forest shading little wood sided houses and the other is a bulking row of three or four or five story monstrosities. A few of my friend's houses burned and despite the enormous loss, the seven year old me always carried around a morsel of jealousy for all the new things they had, though I eventually understood that the trade off for that big screen TV and Nintendo was their baby pictures, stuffed animals, and in some cases real cats and dogs.

My main point in my conversation, really though, was recalling how many of those new houses I actually have been inside.
My brother and our friends and I would go scavenging in the rubble, along the crumbled concrete foundations and melted rebar, burned out stoves and chimneys, and would find whatever had survived and been left when the houses were cleaned up. It was mostly trash, but we would haul bags of it back to my folks place and pour it out in the driveway in little piles, examining each little bolt or corroded saw blade.

Once the cement and lumber trucks began to block the street every day, making me perpetually late to school, new foundations were poured and scaffolding was erected around each structure. Property was poorly guarded, and in the summer, when it was light out late and the workers had all gone home, we would climb up the ladders on the side of the scaffolding and creep into open windows, wandering the corridors of bare plywood and drywall, exploring every inch until the locked windows and doors stacked along the garage floor were finally installed. I have been in most every living room, every master bedroom, every bathroom in the blocks surrounding my parent’s house. We would climb out on unshingled roofs, on single two by fours above several story falls and stare off at the bay area spreading beneath us in the hues of sunset, completely unaware of how lucky we were to bear witness to such a thing nearly every day.

By the time I was in high school most of the houses were completed and I had long moved on from the thrill of construction. There was only one remnant of it that captivated me on a regular basis, a set of adjacent lots at the top of my parent’s street that the owners had failed to sell or clean up. The view from there was one of the very best in the bay area. You could see each of the bridges that span the water, and on The Fourth of July, the entire neighborhood would be gathered in blankets, looking out at the fireworks shows from Oakland, to Berkeley, to San Francisco and Marin.

Feeling outcast at school and unsettled in my skin, I would spend a great deal of time there alone, bringing along a pad and paper to sketch or write, or my skateboard to roll around the foundation. My brother and I caught every meteor shower from that spot, and I would go up there with my first girlfriend and sit and talk and make out. It was just out of site from any other house and aside from the occasional person walking their dog, or seeking out the view, I had it to myself.

At some point in high school, one of the lots was sold, and big ugly house built upon it. The lot closest to the edge, with the greatest view, was still vacant, so as I nostalgically examined each room as it was being built, I had little animosity beside the design of the house and the materials used to build it being pretty hideous.

It took a while to be sold, but eventually a very young couple, freshly wealthy from Silicon Valley, moved in. I was going away to college, but when I would visit home, I found that little by little, my old refuge was being taken away. The new couple put up cheap barbed wire fencing around the lot that, though did not belong to them, attached to their backyard, and when my father invited them over to discuss ‘No Parking’ signs they had petitioned for in an area with little streets and tensions between neighbors already high from lack of space, they smiled understandably in his face and went ahead with it behind his back.

I detested these people, and as I write this, I realize I still do. There was a culture built up in our neighborhood that they had failed to understand, to respect, as they moved in, but there wasn’t much I could do to stop them. The Foundation, as I called the remaining lot, did not belong to them, but it didn’t belong to me either, and the real owner had always kept “keep out” signs visible, had probably been grateful for the new neighbor’s fencing. It was a familiar attitude that these folks displayed, taking control of that lot like a good fit of manifest destiny, moving in and changing things around to their liking. Its one of those stories I've heard in one shape or another all my life. I guess it never feels so great to be the ones that were there first.