Up in Smoke

A major brouhaha erupted last week over the undue influence of key PR firms like Burson-Marsteller and Porter Novelli on the media. I had a chance to watch sophisticated PR in action when I had to deal with one of those (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime calamities.

The Florida returns may have saved my life. After staying up late to watch “the election that never was,” I finally turned in around midnight.

At 5:30 a.m., I thought I’d check online to find out who the next president was going to be. Nights in Northern California start getting chilly right about now, so I pulled on a heavy shirt as I headed for the computer room.

Returning to bed to share the news of this extended limbo, I said good morning to my parrot, Bozo, as I passed his cage, and to the parakeets sleeping under their night cloth.

After a few minutes, I heard a loud POOF, and in a little while, the sun came out. In the hall and in the room, all was rosy and red. Leaping out of bed, I found sheets of flame climbing the walls over a small wicker end table.

“Fire, there’s a fire!” I yelled, and my partner leaped out of bed, considerably less dressed than I was, and headed for the phone and dialed 911. She shooed the dog out the back door while I tore a thick woven tapestry off the wall to smother the flames, calling for buckets of water.

In no time at all, the fire burned through the tapestry and spread to the adjacent couch. As thick smoke filled the room, I grabbed Bozo’s cage and tried to open the parakeet’s cage. This time, much heavier smoke and heat sent me to the front door to hand off Bozo. When I turned to go back into the house, there was a wall of flame illuminating thick, rolling smoke and a blast of heat that blew out several windows simultaneously.

From the sidewalk, I, barefoot in PJ bottoms and that heavy shirt, and my partner, wearing her nightgown plus a blanket a neighbor brought over, watched our house and pretty much all it contained thoroughly burn as firemen with respirators, helmets, and yellow coats fought it to a sludgy black ember with axes and a hose.

To appear as roadkill in the street that you live, surrounded by caring neighbors who are certain that night to be checking their smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, is a humbling experience. But it’s nothing compared with the horror that awaits re-entry.

The TV screen that only recently sported images of premature victory celebrations in Austin is blown out, its glass eye exploded. The stereo spilled into the room in jagged coils and spikes of molten black lava. All the furniture is gone, replaced by a black boneyard of frames under a blackened ceiling of melted unidentifiable stalactites. Photographs and files were burned and are gone; all clothing is stained with the smell of the burnt house. It was a scene from hell, complete with sulfurous fumes and the death of innocents: The parakeets didn’t make it.

In the process of picking over salvageable things — a photograph singed but whole, a surprisingly spry-looking painting untouched by the conflagration, an unburnt backpack — a reporter from a local paper showed up. Picking her way over the solid, stinking blocks of what once were carefully selected flea-market antiques, she said, “Hello. Sorry to bother you right now, but I’m [so and so] from the Press Democrat. What happened here? How did it start?”

Briefly, I told her what little I knew. She already had the police-blotter report.

“Why don’t you just go in,” I said, as I knocked some particularly noxious char off what I thought might have been my cell phone, “and see for yourself. That’s actually the story. Or talk to the neighbors who’ve given us coffee and clothes.”

“That’s OK,” she said. “I’d just like to know how you feel about it.”

“Well, the way I feel is you can either pick up a trash bag and give me a hand here or get lost.”

So much for press relations. Up in smoke.

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