Posted by: – Aug 03, 2009
All it takes is a spark.
I’m an authority on the matter. My house burned down last month. To a crisp. Lots of ashes. Lots of soot. Google it if you don’t believe me.
I was on tour with my band Friendly Fire (1) at the time. We were in New Haven, Connecticut, walking around Yale’s campus, regretting our lack of ambition in high school (2) and killing time before that night’s show. Spirits were high. Our tour was going well, we were staying ahead of gas costs, and the show that was scheduled for that evening was also a potluck. Free food is the second greatest offering you can give to a touring band next to a place to stay.
So we were in New Haven, admiring the sights and feeling generally pretty pleased with ourselves, when the phone calls started coming in. The first one was from my friend Alison.
“Carl, are you in Richmond right now?”
“No, we’re on tour! What’s up?”
“I think your house is on fire.”
“My house? How? Are you sure?”
“I’m looking at it right now. You live on Albemarle right? All three houses on that block are on fire right now.”
“Are you sure it’s my house? How bad is it? Like, a part of it or the whole thing? Are you sure? Let me call you back. I’m getting another call.”
I drifted away from the rest of our group as this phone call progressed and proceeded to have several more short phone conversations that were all more or less carbon copies of that first one. Soon Max and Harris, our two guitar players, started receiving phone calls as well. Max was my roommate, and Harris lived next door with his girlfriend, Rachel.
Despite a wealth of phone calls, nobody seemed to be able to give me much information as to what had started the fire or the extent of the damage. Finally, after several failed attempts, I got our roommate Oliver on the phone.
“Oliver, what’s going on? Is our house on fire?”
“Yeah, Carl. It is.”
“What the fuck! Why is our house on fire?”
I may not be the most tactful individual in times of crisis.
It took about twenty minutes of phone calls for us to determine that:
A: Our houses were on fire.
B: Nobody knew why, but it had apparently started on a couch on one of the house’s porches.
C: No people were hurt.
C-1: Oliver was the only person in any of the three buildings when the fire started and, being the keen fellow that he is, he removed himself from the building when the situation made itself apparent.
C-2: The status of the many animals that took residence in the homes was unknown.
C-2-a: Max’s cat, Lewis, and Harris and Rachel’s dog, June, were okay. (3)
C-2-b: Harris and Rachel’s cat, Gannon, was missing.
C-2-c: Our neighbor Michael had a dog, named Duke, who was also unaccounted for.
D: Oliver is a fucking superhero. (4) I’m talking about some Peter Parker/Incredible Hulk shit.
E: Our tour was over. It was time to go home and deal with what waited for us (not much).
The drive home was long. Loooooooooooooooooooong. It took nine hours, and we only stopped at Taco Bell one time (this is more impressive than you might initially believe, considering our usual Taco Bell habits whilst on tour), to get some food and charge our cell phones, which were working on overtime. The first few hours of that drive were spent in cycles of shock. We would move seamlessly between awed silence, panicked conversation, hysterical shouting, and empathetic consolation. Our van was a cheap strip mall buffet of emotion. About midway through the drive, we started to get used to the idea of what had happened. We received news that Gannon the Cat had been found under the house by firemen, and would be okay. His paws had been lightly toasted, and he had inhaled some smoke, but thanks to the efforts of Oliver and the forty-four firemen on the scene, he would make it. As the hours went by, we started to become comfortable enough to make some jokes about our situation. By far the most popular was when one of us would pretend we had forgotten that there had even been a fire, at which point we would complain about some other mild misfortune in our life, always ending with the lines: “Oh well, it could be worse, at least the house didn’t-“ This pause was essential. It was the hook of the joke – the artificial epiphany that held everything together. We would close the joke out with a solemn, “Oh, yeah.” Nervous laughter would follow, and then silence. We talked about what we would have grabbed if we had been there and only had time to grab one thing. Our pets, our records, photographs and family keepsakes. We talked about changes we were going to make in our lives when we got home. All of us agreed to rededicate ourselves to our music and to our friends, those things being essentially all that we had left. The idea of doing a benefit concert for the local fire department and the Richmond SPCA came up. We briefly touched on the idea of opening a community space or venue – an idea we had discussed before. Ramey and Alex sat mostly in silence, comforting us when they could.
We arrived back in Richmond around 1:30 am, parking on the street near our house. Albemarle Street was blocked off, and construction crews were already hard at work, making sure all the gas lines were secure.
We should have had a better idea of what the houses would look like before we ever made it back to Richmond. We’d been in pretty heavy contact with our friends back home who watched them burn. We had seen pictures of the fire itself on Max’s phone (thank goodness for technology these days). We had seen the charred remains of other fires on television and on the news before. But we had no idea that the damage would have been that bad. No idea. The sight of it was too much for me to handle. The front of the house didn’t exist, except for a smoky skeleton that had once been the framework of the house. You could see into the remains of our bedrooms, but there wasn’t much to look at. All we could make out by the light of the construction workers were impressions of our former belongings -- charred shapes that represented bookshelves, desks, and beds. The front yard looked like a graveyard of literature: single pages of Twain, Fitzgerald, and Vonnegut were scattered all around us. I had to walk away.
When I came back, Max was coming out from inside the house with our bikes, which, miraculously, seemed like they might be salvageable. We locked the bikes to a street sign and went to our friend Lily’s house a few blocks away, where we had made arrangements to stay the night.
The next day was busy. Really busy. We tried as much as possible to maintain normalcy in our lives, which to us meant breakfast at 821 Café. After complimentary breakfast and several rounds of mimosas we decided to go get a better look at our former home.
We went into the house and rummaged through our rooms, trying to see if anything was worth keeping. Upon entering, the first thing that hit us was the smell of stale smoke. The water from the hoses had put out the fire, but had essentially waterlogged the entire house while beating the smoke into every object of furniture around. There were standing pools of water in most of the rooms, and small ashy raindrops fell on our heads from the ceiling as we explored. The structure of the house was stable enough for us to walk inside, though the top two steps of our stairs were a little sketchy – they creaked and groaned and you could see through them at points – but we decided they were safe enough to grant us passage.
Not much in my room was still recognizable. I dug around anyway, checking to see if there was anything worth keeping. The same was the case for Max. Oliver, who lived towards the back of the house, which had received the least damage, was able to retrieve many of his books and other personal possessions.
I was able to pull the following items out of my room:
A: My father’s old Boy Scouts necktie. He had given it to me when I was very young.
B: My saxophone. The case was crumbling, but upon opening it up I found that the instrument seemed to be in reasonable working condition.
C: An old photo album, with pictures of my family and a few of myself as a kid. These may have been better off if they were lost to the blaze. I am not entirely comfortable with how awkward I was as a child. Coincidentally, I’m not entirely comfortable with how awkward I am as an adult. Go figure.
As we were rummaging, the Dean of Students for VCU showed up. He wanted to speak to us. As he didn’t seem too thrilled with the idea of coming upstairs to meet us, we all ventured outside to chat with him. He told us that the school wanted to do whatever they could to make things more comfortable for us. He set us up with a storage space and gave us his business card. I called him the next day and arranged for us to stay in the upper classmen dorms for as long as we needed. (5)
We met a lot of other people outside of the house who wanted to help out. We were told to get in touch with the Red Cross, we met Reverend Phillip Turner, from the church across the street, who was raising money to give us gift cards for food and clothing, we met lots of other people who wanted to give us things. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, “Is there anything you need?” After a while, I couldn’t stand all of the generosity being shown, and started effectively telling people that we had everything we could imagine needing. It was just too much to deal with. If this comes off as ungrateful, you misunderstand me. I am incredibly appreciative of everything that everyone did for us following the fire, but sometimes I would get swept up in an overwhelming desire to just move on. Every article of clothing, every donation, every time someone expressed their sympathy was just another reminder of the things I had lost. A similar feeling came over me when I was searching through the house with my mother later that week. She kept pointing out things I had not taken on my first few trips through the house. “This is still good,” she would say. “It’s not like new, but with some cleaning up you can still use this.” And she was right. But I couldn’t help but feel that with some of the things she wanted to save, it just wasn’t worth it. It was just stuff, and its practical purpose did not outweigh the negative associations that would forever be present every time I ate from that plate that was discolored from the ash, or listened to that record that no matter how many times I had cleaned it still smelled like smoke.
Being a charity case is a position of extreme social responsibility. An unofficial contract had been forged between those of us affected by the fire and the community around us. We were a symbol of human good will. Everyone and their mother wanted to help us, to dote on us, to nurture us back to health. In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke, the narrator abuses that charity. He intentionally chokes on objects in public, and when some brave citizen comes forth to rescue him, a symbiotic relationship between the victim and the rescuer is formed. The benefactor feels a parental obligation to make sure the victim is doing well. They send him money on his birthdays. He is living proof that they are a good person. I became intensely aware of the contract that had been formed between society and myself, and the pressure to uphold my end of the bargain was too much to handle at times. In time, I grew to resent that charity. I didn’t want it because a little voice inside my head screamed: “You do not deserve this. You are a fraud and it is only a matter of time before they find you out. And when they find out the many ways you have betrayed them, they will exact their revenge upon you.”
I eventually went back to Lily’s house and showered, trying my best to get the smell of smoke out of my hair. This was not a remarkably successful endeavor. From there I continued to receive phone calls from concerned friends and acquaintances. As the evening settled in, I decided it was time to go to Mojo’s and start self medicating.
I remember the following things about that evening:
C: Finding out that Mojo’s was planning a benefit concert for that upcoming weekend.
The next day was one long headache for Max, Oliver, and me. As fun (I think) as the night before had been, there was much to do in the coming weeks, and we recognized that drinking constantly would not get us through it. It was time to get on with our lives. We went to the Red Cross; they gave us hotel accommodations for a few nights, along with a credit card that we could use for (more) food and (more) clothes. We made arrangements to have Friendly Fire play the benefit concert at Mojo’s. We discussed the possibility of playing the last few days of our tour but decided we had too much to do, and that to leave Richmond for that long would be selfish.
We decided that a good compromise would be to play the last scheduled show of our tour in DC. At the end of the week, we loaded up the van and shot up 95 to a small house called the Girl Cave, where the show was taking place. It had been turned into a benefit show, and some of our friends played a fundraiser set where for a five-dollar donation they would play any song you requested of them. Any song. By any band. It was like a very sloppy, but well-intentioned, punk rock karaoke. Needless to say, it was a huge hit. With their help, along with some other very generous donations (6) , we were able to raise nearly 500 dollars. We packed up after our set and drove as quickly as possible back to Richmond to play the Mojo’s show.
Just under two hours after leaving DC, we pulled up in front of an amazing sight - there was a line going out the door at Mojo’s. We parked the van right in front of the bar. Before we started to unload the van, I decided to go inside and give Marissa (the beautiful saint of a woman who had organized a great deal of this event, and who represents all that is good and right in the world), the money that we had raised at the DC show. It took a few minutes for me to navigate through the crowd to the bar. This was partially because it was too crowded to move, and partially because for every five feet closer I got to the bar, I ran into someone I knew who wanted to either:
A: Hug me.
B: Buy me a drink.
C: Tell me where they were when they heard about the fire, and describe to me what the fire had looked like and if they hadn’t personally seen it that was okay because they knew someone who had and that they had heard all about it from them. Oh and how was I holding up? Did I need anything? If I needed anything, anything at all, I should give them a call. They had a spare couch/bedroom/comfy sleeping bag and if I needed to stay with them it would really be no trouble at all.
Once I made it to the bar, I handed Marissa the money, explaining that it was from the benefit in DC and that we wanted it to be added to the fund that she had started for us. She asked me if I was sure that was what we wanted to do with the money, and when I reassured her, she gave me the world’s biggest eye-hug from across the bar.
Moments after I had ordered my first beer, I was dragged into Mojo’s take out room by a very excited Rachel. The entire room was filled from wall to wall with bags of donations. Shirts, shoes, movies, comics, books, and all other manner of things filled the entire room. I started to explore the donations, but before I had much of a chance it was time for our set.
Our set went well, I think. We were much too loud for the packed room to properly accommodate us, and our style isn’t exactly accessible for an audience as diverse as the one in attendance that night. Everyone was very patient, however, and we drank and played our way through our set without any major setbacks. All night long I had been thinking of things that I wanted to say to the people in that bar. I wanted to let them know that they had made our lives so much more tolerable in the few days since the fire. I wanted them to know that they had restored my faith in humanity, and that I couldn’t be more proud to call myself a Richmonder, and that even though we had lost our houses, they had made it clear to us that we still had a home. What I finally mumbled sounded more like: “Thank you all so much. Really…grateful...generous...community…thank you...love…support…bottom of our hearts.”
After our set, we continued to drink and mingle and reconnect with old friends. Most of the people who had lost their houses stuck fairly close together throughout the night. We were brothers and sisters in misfortune. One of the saddest moments of the evening was a conversation with Michael Guedri about Duke, his dog, and the fire’s only casualty. He was a great dog, and I know how much Michael cared for him.
All too soon, the night was coming to an end. Marissa closed out the night with a heartfelt and teary-eyed speech. We all filtered out into the street and said our goodbyes. Oliver, Max, and myself went back to the hotel room that had been provided for us. Around four o’clock in the morning, Marissa called us to let us know that between the donations taken in at 821 Café that week (all of which 821 had matched out of their own pocket), the money from the DC show, the money from the door at the benefit, and the tip money that the Mojo’s staff had donated that night, a staggering total of $5,208 had been raised. Split nine ways, this was enough money to cover first month’s rent and most of a security deposit for every person who had been displaced by the fire. To this day, I cannot properly express how overcome with emotion I was at the end of that conversation. People amaze me.
As time went on, the effects of the fire started to wear off, and life started to return to normal. We all had jobs to return to. Our hotel vouchers expired and it was time for the three of us to move into the dorm rooms that VCU had provided for us. I had lived in the dorms during freshman year and it was an experience I had vowed to never relive. However, sometimes life throws you a curveball and you are forced to make the best of it. Max and I each had rooms on the fifth floor of the Cary-Belvidere upper-classmen dorms, while Oliver had a room on the third floor. We all entered the building together, agreed to get settled and meet up later on, and went our separate ways. It was time for us to get acquainted with our new homes.
Five minutes later we were all sitting at the bar of the Chili’s next door, wondering what in God’s name had just happened. Oliver had entered his suite to find that no one else was home, and left a note explaining his situation. He left his phone number and encouraged his suitemates to call him. They never did, and he never returned. Max, on the other hand, knocked several times without receiving a response, and then entered the room. Inside was his suitemate, playing video games. Max tried to exchange pleasantries but was greeted so coldly that he too felt he would be better off finding a different living situation. (7) And for me, there was Arman. My suitemate was a Pakistani undergrad, and a very awkward (albeit nice) guy. From what I can tell, he never left the dorms unless he was in class. He ate, exclusively, microwave dinners, and spent most of his hours in his room. He spoke in broken English, though apparently has lived his whole life in America. Despite all of this, our first conversation ended with me feeling socially awkward and embarrassed. We talked for a bit about our interests and he asked me questions like:
A: What time do you go to sleep?
B: Do you ever use the refrigerator?
C: What is it like to kiss a girl? (8)
At this point I didn’t really know what to do, or how to approach him. I felt bad because apparently VCU had given the kid absolutely no warning that I was coming, and I didn’t want to intrude on his space. In order to get a better sense of who he was and how I needed to behave around him, I asked, “Do you have any special needs?”
“DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL NEEDS?” What the fuck was I thinking? He was sheltered, not handicapped. The poor kid. I was so embarrassed that I quickly excused myself and fled the scene, joining a bewildered Max and Oliver in the lobby of the building. Shocked by what we had found within the walls of that building, we went next door for a drink to do some serious soul searching.
It was somewhere around my third or fourth drink that it hit me. This fire was no accident. I was a terrible person, and God/the universe/Cthulu was punishing me. I needed to repent. I needed to make amends with the world that I had betrayed. The answer came swiftly, as it was something that we had been talking about for a long time before, and was discussed once more on the drive home from Connecticut. We needed to open a venue. That was the solution. We could give back to the community, be more involved with music, and be more productive human beings in a general sense. It was a positive focus for our youthful energy – the answer to all our problems. Salvation was upon us.
1) You can’t make any jokes about our unfortunate name that we all haven’t already made several hundred times. Just don’t bother. You’d be wasting your time. Our time. Really, just everyone’s time, so give it a rest.
2) No offense, VCU. I still think you’re neat. It’s just that Yale is really, really pretty.
3) We knew this because Oliver had the decency to bring Lewis the Cat with him as he made this exodus. He then went next door to Harris and Rachel’s apartment, used his shoulder to break in their door, and grabbed June the Dog from the inferno.
4) See number 3.
5) Thanks, VCU! I told you that you were neat!
6) One person alone donated $100! Holy crap! Thanks!
7) He ended up finding a room in a large house with seven female art students who, having heard about the fire, were all too happy to take him in. Sometimes it’s hard having your house burn down, ya’ know?
8) Okay, that was mean. And no, he didn’t actually ask that. But I promise you I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did. I promise.
Article by Carl Athey