“How do you always get the best of me?/
I’m out here living in a fantasy/
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing”
Jason Isbell, “Anxiety”
New firehouse, new crew, new shift and yet another new chapter in life. The last 19 months in the last fire station were a mellow adventure to be sure, learning about so many other aspects of the department, but lacking in terms of, well……fire. The crew was great, the water rescue team was a totally new learning curve, and once again, my personal life took a trip off the rails.
So when the tones dropped for a house fire out in the new district I dutifully loaded up on my new assignment, something of a beaten up old Ladder Truck, and we motored further out west where the historical odds of it being a “worker” are relatively slim. We rounded a curve and the column of black smoke tells us that the odds are wrong. It’s in a mobile home park which means it’s one of the bread-and-butter fires where your movements are routine, but a good warm-up and stretching of old muscle memories with regards to Truck work; we pull apart thin metal siding, up & down in a rhythmic chorus, big mules with big shoulders doing an oddly repetitive dance. It feels good to hear the cacophony of the fire ground, people murmuring tasks into the radios, each of us in a weird, trained choreography that makes sense only to those in the business. It’s not enough, though. Not enough to stop my mind from yapping criticism in my ears.
It’s never enough.
I crave the chaos. I need to feel the world feel unwound to feel at home. This craziest of hearts has taken a turn towards the sad and seemingly inevitable and I don’t WANT it to be inevitable, I want to believe in the hope, and I crave, desperately, a sense of purpose. I need for my bruised-up soul to be cloaked by the quiet sense of urgency that only a good worker can bring, where something dangerous hovers in the background and I can let two decades of training take the lead, urging me into the unknown. Religious folks seek the Communion, the Enlightened seek answers, and for me, well….I just want to be where I belong, where I know what to do and where it all makes sense.
So we do what we do at the single-wide mobile home, and lope back home where computer reports and gossip and a hot meal await this motley blend of firefighters. Late into the night, in a quiet and big station, I seek the comfort of a podcast to keep me company, to help me avoid the void that is in my heart. My person has left again, and she is gone for good, likely. I am not enough, and all that I can be is simply not in sync with what she seeks and needs in her world, and once again, there is this awful blank unknown in my soul, and sleep is an elusive thing. The truth of this lonely state is more than I want to admit, so in the murmuring ramblings of other thinkers and dreamers, my own fitful bouts of rest drop by for a while.
And then as if on cue, the tones summon us again. Not just a medical, not just a car wreck, but a working house fire, in the heart of Center City. We dutifully don our turnout gear, and as I work the wailing howl of the siren sleepily, I can hear other fire rigs arriving on-scene to a worker over the radio, with the jumped-up sense of urgency. A quick adrenaline dump and my eyes start their chaotic dance as the roll call of responsibility scrolls across my thoughts. This isn’t just a “good times, let the water flow and we’ll just see if we crash through a basement floor and into the history books as a another casualty of the fire service” kind of situation. My guys have families and lives and those who need them at 0700 tomorrow, so these days it’s a whole new game. Heavy is the weight of their safety, and you best not show just how fucking stressful it all is, for they look to you to be someone calm and cool-headed, not some unhinged broken-hearted weirdo with an unusual obsession with late night pots of coffee.
Assignments are doled out as we roll up, and we are tasked with Primary Search, which is a critical function of the Truck Company. We are to quickly search the house like a bunch of purpose-driven lunatics and find those who are trapped or hidden or overcome, and yank them to a better place, one that isn’t on fire. My firefighter, engineer and I clear the first floor, and for the briefest of moments, I pause at the basement stairs. They are narrow, water is flowing and fire is above us, and this, this, this moment is one that all my years in this game cause a red flag to shoot up. A basement is where firefighters die, disproportionately. If it all goes to hell, and we are down there, that will be where they find us. Two deep breaths, and down we go, into some weird-ass labyrinth of chopped up flop-house “rooms”, separated only by thick hanging blankets. We try to locate people in each area, every moment tinged with the whole “is this where we get shot by some psychotic junkie?” feeling that is undeniable. Thankfully, we’re able to clear it, and I report dutifully to Command that we’re all clear. Fire still hangs around in unknown spaces, and there will be plenty of firefighters working to knock it down. For the briefest of moments, I take a pause in the dark, wet and lonely basement, so much unknown swirling around yet feeling more at home than I have since about 2014.
My firefighter turns around to look, sensing I’m not immediately behind him. He’s good like that, and I trust him implicitly with my own life. But I need this moment. I need it alone here, in the chaos. I need to feel like I belong, like what I’m doing matters. It’s been seven years before its own mast, our journey, and it’s gone. When she said goodbye and softly made it clear she didn’t want me to be a part of her world, I began to cast about seeking external validation in the absence of this tremendous void in my soul. Success in the real estate world, my children being able to come home to a warm and safe refuge from the chaos of middle school, the House of Distinguished Rogues being a place for the wayward to feel comfort and support as they navigate this crazy life……all of it, immeasurable as to that place in my heart that still yearns, against all common sense.
The Fire Department has given me the closest thing to normal, in the quietest of ways, in a burning basement while the world comes unwound. I needed to hear my own breath over my air pack, the rhythm of a metered response, as it all burned around me, to feel the calm in my own soul. I need a tribe, a place to belong and people who actually value all that I am willing to give them. My heart may be closed to anyone else who might again inflict the silent whip of rejection, but I still long to give my very best to the chaos, to make a difference in the lives of those I encounter. I needed to stand in the basement for a moment, secure in the notion that it was relatively safe, even as the house burned around me.
I need the chaos to feel alive.
“You got to give me a minute/ I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak/
I want to be strong and steady, always ready Now/
I feel so small/ I feel so weak”
J. Isbell, “Anxiety”
Heading back up the narrow staircase, our task completed and conveyed across the radio, my turn in the barrel was served, momentarily. Firefighters the world over know this feeling, undoubtedly. We need to feel we’re doing our part, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our own lonesome wandering, so that for the briefest of moments, we’re doing right by someone.
I stumble and wander like a fool in the dark while sweetly and evermore chained to loving someone who has long since moved onto another chapter of her own life. Knowing this, and knowing the uncertainty of it all, I seek the comforting chaos of a junkies flophouse basement on fire, with all of the unknown danger that lies around each corner.
The alternative is a lonely, scary place, and before me is wild and unknown journey, but a path to take nonetheless.
I’d just as soon find myself in a house on fire.
**A great acoustic version of Jason Isbell’s “Anxiety” is here…..