|Corduroy, the teddy bear Aabye had since birth, survived the fire.|
Those first few nights after the fire, we could have stayed at the Red Cross shelter, but instead we stayed in my brother-in-law’s small basement apartment. We had friends living upstairs, and they included us in their meals. (We ate extremely well those first few post-fire nights.) Staying with friends and family so nearby was extremely comforting. They helped us with practical things like lending us socks, shirts and sweaters. They also gave us the moral support we needed.
We might have stayed in this first temporary home longer, but one of the landlords complained about us being there, so we scrambled to find another place to stay after just two nights. Where would we go now?
The challenge in finding a place to stay was that we had no idea how long we’d be displaced from our apartment. We were given the option of breaking our lease, but we decided to wait for the reconstruction. We had our reasons for waiting: Our rent was affordable, and we loved our spacious apartment, helpful superintendent and vibrant neighborhood. Finding all of those things within our price range hadn’t been easy, and we didn’t want to give any of them up.
Two friends came to our rescue. They were living in a three-bedroom apartment in Union Square, and offered us the third bedroom for a month (rent free!). They would have let us stay there longer, but they are frequent generous hosts, using the bedroom to house out-of-town guests on a regular basis. I’d always wanted to live in Manhattan. And having a month to live with friends (rent free!) while we searched for long-term temporary housing lifted a great weight of worry off of our shoulders.We accepted their generous offer happily.
Then came the hard part: A day or two later, it was time to assess the damage to our home. As we approached our building for the first time since the fire, we had no idea what to expect. From the street we could see that the roof over our portion of the building was riddled with holes or completely missing. The lobby was a lagoon; water dripped from the ceiling and ran down the walls. The air was heavy with smoke, and everything was tinted gray or black. There was no heat and there was no electricity.
We cautiously walked the five flights of stairs to our apartment, and our super let us in. My husband and I stood in the threshold, awestruck. It was a sad scene to behold. The apartment that had been full of warmth and twinkling Christmas lights just a few days earlier was now cold and dark. All the windows were either open or missing; and they were our only source of light. We started to make our way around the apartment—trying (in vain) to avoid getting dripped on by the water still coming through our ceiling.
Fortunately, the fire had not reached our apartment, but the water damage was extensive—bad enough that everything would have to be completely gutted and rebuilt. Fire hoses had been trained on our apartment (and those above it) for hours during the blaze—thousands upon thousands of gallons of water at high pressure had drenched everything. Firefighters had needed to break through parts of our walls and ceilings. Everywhere we looked there were holes.
It was so disheartening to see what our home had become. Just days before we’d been lounging on our coach, but now that couch was soaked, moldy and covered in rubble. Our laptops sat in a puddle on the coffee table. Unopened Christmas presents lay soggy under the tree. But we still knew we were lucky. We would be able to save things like pots, pans, silverware and dishes—anything that could get wet (really, really wet). But our neighbors in apartments where the fire had raged wouldn’t be able to salvage anything.
We packed up our soggy, sooty clothes and began a massive dry-cleaning and laundry campaign. (In about two weeks we were wearing our own clothes again.) Everything I touched was heavy, laden with icy cold water, and my fingers grew raw. The smaller things that we could carry, and expected to need in the short term, we took with us (like metropolitan nomads) every time we moved. Friends and family members offered up their basements and closet space to some our stuff. But the bulk of it we left to the professionals. We hired a company that could come the very next day, pack everything up, and take it away to be stored. So while our hearts remained here in New York, most of our stuff ended up in Newark.
In the end we were rather fortunate, we primarily lost stuff that's relatively easy (literally and emotionally) to replace: furniture, appliances, shoes, clothing and accessories, fridge and pantry items, and books. We lost a lot, but most of the sentimental things I would have been broken-hearted to loose, survived: Corduroy (the teddy bear I’ve had since birth); the toy chest my parents bought and painted for me when I was three; the wood-mounted photo of my parents on their wedding day; photos that were taken before the digital age; my mother's wedding ring.
I am so grateful for everything that survived the fire. Things are just things in the face of having one’s health or life, but some things are so entrenched in fond memories, that losing them is like having an emotional amputation. I am grateful for every photograph (especially those of my late mother). I cherish every item from my childhood. I have renewed appreciation for the mementos from our wedding (like the poster our friends and family signed at the reception). All the things that we didn’t loose are even more special to me now; they’re mini miracles—survivors, like us.
In the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life,” I’ll tell you about our five minutes of fame (one minute and twenty-nine seconds, to be exact).