Look Homeless Angel
By Max Thayer.
At around four o’clock in the morning, I was jolted out of a deep slumber by pounding and hammering so fierce it actually shook the building like a mini-earthquake. I stumbled out of my bedroom in dull confusion. Prior to all this, fighting off a cold, I had turned in early, snuggled up in sweat pants, t-shirt and socks. A shot of Nyquil and a couple of Sudafeds added a reassuring touch to the anticipation of a long and languid sleep.
The wake-up call from hell came in the form of sharp acrid smoke hitting my nostrils. After a quick check of the kitchen, I opened the door that leads to the common hallway connecting the four apartments in the building. I took a cautious step into a haze of gauzy smoke and a keening smoke detector.
What happened after that; whatever your idea of God, guardian angels or circumstance and lucky stars…something…something like that’s been forged into my consciousness forever.
A little background: I live in West Hollywood over a pawnshop on Santa Monica Boulevard. But before the image of Chris Farley exhorting that hapless family with, “I live in a van down by the river!” from Saturday Night Live comes to mind, forget it.
My place is great and I love it. Built the year Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, 1927, it now hosts a Russian deli, curio shop and the previously mentioned pawnshop. Four apartments situated on top complete the two-story building.
Working my way down the stairs, the pounding grew louder along with shouting and the sound of churning machinery. The commotion gave me pause and I hesitated a moment before opening the door. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to behold.
Scattered almost haphazardly at my front door was a squad of fully deployed fire trucks with their ruby lights slashing through the darkness. Firefighters, glowing like phosphorus puppets in the stark light of emergency lamps, were charging around with equipment and hoses attacking the front wall of the pawnshop. I leaned out of the doorway just as a fire captain supervising the action turned around. I think he was as astonished to see me as I was of him.
“Do you live up there?” he yelled over the racket.
“You gotta get out of there!”
I looked down at my socks, pondering.
“Okay… just give me a minute.”
In my mind I was thinking about putting on some shoes.
“No! Right now!”
With that, he grabbed a fistful of t-shirt and pulled me out of the doorway and onto the sidewalk.
What is it about a crisis that seems to flip us into some kind of default mode?
I stepped aside but kept the door open, which would have locked behind me.
“The apartment directly above the pawnshop is vacant. The door to it from the hallway is open. There are two other occupied apartments up there,” I reported.
He gave a quick nod and the next thing I knew a squad of firefighters shouldering more equipment scrambled through the door and up the stairs.
I stood there holding the door while they continued to rush back and forth until a fireman brought over a rubber doorstop and wedged it under the door.
It was time to get out of the way. After stepping over hoses and around trucks, I found myself standing in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard and realized it was sealed off for two blocks.
Of course. Where else are you going to park, what I later learned were seven fire trucks, a couple of sheriff’s squad cars and an ambulance? The squad of trucks consisted of combined units of the L.A. County, L.A. City and Beverly Hills fire departments.
Then, along with everything else, the previous week’s extended storm gave up its last gasp and a gentle mist began drizzling down.
Perfect. Standing there in soggy socks, I threw a cynical glance into the sky and gave in to a twinge of self-pity.
Reconnoitering with my neighbors, stranded like refugees on the corner, I learned that the dog and cats were okay but everyone seemed to be in a mild state of shock.
I wandered back towards the middle of the street and took in the scene. A hook-and-ladder had extended its apparatus from across the street to the roof, at least a sixty-foot span. Firefighters scurried up and down its length like super spiders. Meanwhile, the main force was laying siege to the wall. Picks, axes, pry-bars and, powered by a portable generator, what resembled a rotor saw on steroids. It was a hellish noise.
An electrical fire, ignited by a neon sign inside the pawnshop, was eating its way up the building between the walls. No display of spectacular flames shooting skyward but a much more insidious problem that these guys were going at with the focused fury and coordinated precision of a championship team. They were in it to win it and win they did. When victory was declared at dawn the breaking light revealed what looked like the wrap of an action scene from a big-budget movie.
Here is where it gets weird.
One of the fire captains, burly, 50’s, full mustache and holding a clipboard gathered us up near the front door.
“It’s safe so you can go back in now,” he announced, “we got it before it could get fully involved.” Then he paused.
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” he started.
He was looking into each of our eyes around the semi-circle we had formed. What he finally told us damn near gave me a heart attack.
“We didn’t initially answer a fire call here…it was an EMS.”
The head slap to the forehead came later as it dawned on me what he was saying.
“Medical responded to a homeless man who had fallen out of his wheelchair,” he went on, “and while they were treating him they smelled the smoke and looked through the window of the pawn shop. That’s when they called in the fire.”
At 3:33 AM according to the Public Incident Report I obtained. Since LA County Fire Station 8 is only two blocks down the street, you can say that the cavalry arrived just in time.
Believe me they did. In the light of day, I checked out the vacant apartment across the hall. Strangely enough, my neighbors of twelve years had just moved out the month before. Charred wall studs, visible below the holes ripped in the floor and wall, offered mute testimony of what could have been. The petty feelings from a few hours earlier raised a question. Do we do ourselves any favors entertaining such thoughts? Compared to the lives and homes lost in California’s recent wildfires, what I went through was nothing.
As it is, it smelled like a barbeque gone bad for about a week and life has gone on.
So who called in that 911 about a homeless man lying on the sidewalk?
Why did that poor soul, at that time, at that precise place, take his tumble?
You can see why something like this stays with you.
I crawled back into bed and slept for a few hours. The day before, I had planned to hit a few golf balls at the driving range on Melrose with a buddy of mine. When he came by to pick me up you can imagine the story I had to tell him. Properly awed, he had just one request. Could we swing by the beach first? He was working on a video and needed to get a shot near the Santa Monica Pier.
Why not? An unexpected trip to the beach seemed like a great idea regarding my recent unexpected event.
The royal blue sky and champagne sun shimmered off the ocean. The smell of the freshly washed earth was better than just baked bread. I pulled the air into my nose and blew it of my mouth as if I were a breeching whale. It was good to be alive.
It was when I was getting back in the car that I noticed it.
Parked at the curb was a shiny new Porsche with vanity plates. HYR PWR