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What Would You Grab in the Event of a Fire?

I remember the first time someone asked me, “What would you grab in case of a fire?” I was in the fourth grade and it was part of a fire safety presentation. All of the students in my class were asked to write down what one item they would grab in the event their home was on fire. I answered my most prized possession: my book of basketball cards. One kid swooned the teachers by saying he’d grab his baby brother. Two other kids cracked everyone up by saying one would grab a TV and the other a Nintendo. The teachers all said they would grab photo albums, since those are the one thing that cannot be replaced.

My relationship with things has changed a lot since the fourth grade. Growing up, I kept everything that I was ever given or made. We moved alot, so my things brought me comfort. No matter what new city we were in or what new room, I always had my decorations, my books, my toys, and so forth. I think that created a bit of an unhealthy attachment to items, and when I moved back to North Carolina at the age of twenty-one I found myself drowning in items that no longer served me. Long story short, it took a while, lots of writing and thinking, but slowly I discarded of things and found ways to make peace with letting them go.

Over the years, between my Buddhist practices and my own beliefs on the value of physical items, I’ve stopped worrying about things. That was actually the first warning sign that I was too attached at 21, I would leave the house and worry about people robbing me or a fire breaking out. How would I ever replace all those things, I’d ask myself. I came to realize that things are just things. They are all destined to break or be destroyed and when you can accept that your favorite cup will one day be broken and discarded, you learn to appreciate it while it’s in front of you and free your mind of worry about the future of it.

Last night, around 7 PM, Brandy had just left to go to her book club, and I was settling down in bed with my laptop ready to finish up an episode of Northern Exposure. All day long I wanted to watch an episode, since the show has really become a calming comfort show for me. I was nestled in my blanket on this chilly evening and about a minute into my show I heard a sound I hadn’t heard before. A loud, obnoxious ringing, not too unlike a school bell. At first, I thought it might be coming from my neighbors’ apartment, but as I got up and walked to the window, I realized it was indeed the fire alarm. I walked down the hallway and heard the sound coming from the other alarm located by my front door, so I calmly put on some jeans, a hoodie, grabbed my wallet, laptop, phone, a Diet Sprite, and Marley, our dog.

I let Marley use the restroom about the time a woman was running door-to-door knocking and yelling for people to get out and that there was a fire. I let her know my apartment was empty, and Marley and I minded our business as the rest of my neighbors slowly emerged from their homes. I don’t think they took the alarm too serious. [Side note: I think everyone should read The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood. It’s a fascinating look at the psychology of why people die in situations and well, a lot of the time it boils down to we are sheep and need someone to directly tell us to do something or we won’t do it.]

I put Marley in the car along with my laptop and I saw there was indeed a fire. People had already grouped outside and were pointing to all the smoke coming from a third floor apartment and the flames they could see inside. It was located in the apartment furthest away from mine, which was a bit of a relief, but this was no trash can fire. I decided I would walk back over to my apartment and grab a couple of things in case this got worse.

Now… here is where we loop back to the question, “What do you grab in the event of a fire?” Now, I was in no immediate danger and I had time to grab whatever, but when I walked in the only thing I could think about was wanting to relax and be entertained for the evening. So, I grabbed my iPad and then decided to grab Brandy’s stuff. I walked over to her office and picked up her work laptop, her work bag, and her purse. Yea… I didn’t grab anything sentimental. It honestly didn’t cross my mind.

I feel like part of my decision was based on logic, but I feel like it also goes to show how disconnected I am from my things, which in a lot of ways makes me extremely happy. Of course, by the time I was back in the car I realized I probably should have grabbed my little fire safe with important stuff in it, but the fire trucks were rolling in (all seven of them) and ladders were being extended and I wasn’t going to be that guy getting in anyone’s way. So, I got into the car and watched my episode of Northern Exposure.

It took a couple of hours for the firefighters to get the blaze under control, but slowly the fire trucks left and a group of my neighbors, who lived on my side of the building, checked with the firefighters to see if we’d be allowed to go back in. Luckily, the blaze was contained to the roof and that one side of the building, so our side didn’t even fill with smoke nor did the sprinklers go off. I’m very grateful that the firefighters were so organized and good at their jobs.

Marley seemed quite happy the apartment was potentially going to burn down.


Last night, I was faced with the question for real, “What would you grab in the event of a fire?” Apparently, not much. This morning, I couldn’t help but think about the Robert DeNiro quote from Heat, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Apparently, I haven’t.

We dodged a bullet last night, and it was a nice reminder of how temporary everything is. My wife did mention two things she would prefer I grab if I had time instead of her work computer (which she thought was hysterical) and well… they were very reasonable requests. I’m just hoping I’m never in another situation where I have to make a decision like that.

(Side note: It was disheartening to see the way the fire was handled by our neighbors. Our building sits in a loop and everywhere you looked you saw folks in their windows, on their porches, or even in the road in lawn chairs watching the fire fighting. One guy, recorded the whole thing on his cell phone. I’m not the type of guy to slow down to take a look at a car crash, but I guess I’m in the minority with that. I’m not exactly sure what it says about society or fear. I’m sure I’ll be rumbling with that for a while.)

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