Friday, December 12, 2008

Renter's Insurance & "Vacation"

This is definitely an "other stuff" item for any regular readers who have noticed I've been absent this week.

That's my apartment building, which -- though you can't tell from this photo -- was on fire Tuesday morning!

I have tried to avoid navel-gazing on this blog as I really doubt anyone cares about what I ate for breakfast or what party I went to last Saturday.

But my experience on Tuesday was unusual. And it's potentially educational for you, dear reader, so I thought it merits a post.

Tuesday morning I woke up with that feeling of, 'uh oh, I don't think my alarm went off.' Reluctantly, I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was 8:15 (which really means that it was 8:05). I shut my eyes and opened them again, somewhat more conscious. Then I realized my bedroom was full of smoke. Thick smoke. I ran into the kitchen, thinking that I had the stove on or my coffee maker (set on an alarm) had shorted. The kitchen was equally smoky and then a moment later I heard people yelling in the hallways and banging on the doors. 'Get out! Get out! The building's on fire!'

I put on a pair of sweatpants and scrambled for my coat.

My family and I have always had somewhat dark conversations. 'What's the worst way to die?' is a subject that can entertain us for a long car trip. We've also talked about what we'd grab in a fire so I was fortunately prepared for this moment. After putting on my coat & grabbing a pair of thin-soled shoes (more on that later), I got my signed anniversary edition copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and my jewelry box. I also got my wallet and cell phone. Unfortunately, I failed to grab a pair of glasses and forgot to get my camera. I'll remember them next time.

I got out of the building as the fire department was arriving. Everyone in the building was able to get out safely. The smoke detectors never went off. This is scary, but it's also really annoying; the damn thing goes off when I scramble an egg! Pretty much every time I cook something, it goes off.

The Chinese restaurant that is on the ground floor, diagonally below me, runs a dim sum cart in Chinatown. Most mornings I see them load the cart with food and late at night I see them wash the cart down. Tuesday, as they prepared spring rolls and dumplings, a grease fire erupted in the ventilation ducts above the stove. It quickly spread to my next-door neighbors apartment, who lives directly above the restaurant.

Some things you should do in a fire, in case your memories of grade school are hazy:
1. Check the door before leaving a room to see if it's warm. I didn't do this, though I did hear people in the hallway so I hope on some level I knew the hallway would be safe. It didn't even occur to me to use my fire escape, which when I think about where the fire was, it would have been the safest exit!
2. Shut the door behind you. I actually debated for a second about this and left it cracked. I thought it would be easier for the fire department to get in (most NYC apartment doors self-lock). BUT, that also makes it easier for the fire to spread. So better to shut the door.
Somebody evidently DID shut my door as it had been pried open by FDNY with a crowbar.
3., If you can, grab a pair of shoes that are at least somewhat thick-soled. Because standing out on the street in December with a thin pair of flats and no socks gets really, really uncomfortable after a while.

There are so many reasons I am lucky. At this point two such reasons come into play. My friend & coworker Dave lives around the corner from me and was able to take my jewelry box and book. Standing outside my apartment, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to get mugged. I wouldn't even be able to ID the perp, since I was half-blind at the time! I also live close enough to my office that my other friend and coworker Lauren could bring me a cardigan and a pair of socks while I waited out the fire.

When I think about it, I'm pretty sure the best way one could meet their neighbors would be at a party or a picnic. But I suppose a fire works as well. I met some great people and we all had that great 'we can take it, we're New Yorkers, fer crissakes' attitude that I last witnessed during the blackout in '03. We took turns holding each others pets and bought coffees for those of us who had forgotten cash.

Around 11:30, they let us back in. The hallways were smoky and full of broken glass -- the firefighters had broken all the windows in stairwell. My neighbor's apartment was almost gutted. It appears as if the fire came through the floor under the stove. It's funny the places your things end up after the firefighters have been through your place. Her refrigerator had been tossed into the living room and for me, well, my bicycle ended up in the sink. It's understandable; they have better things to do than redecorate, and they also need to make sure the apartment is fully vacated, so they must look under beds and behind furniture.

The fire hadn't spread to my apartment, though my place had (has) the worse smoke damage in the building (next door neighbor & Chinese restaurant aside, of course).

Here's a shot of my bedroom floor. That gives you the idea of what everything else looks like. It coated with a sticky, smelly, smoky film. I have since learned that smoke from a grease fire is particularly bad.

My neighbors and I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the super to secure our apartments. The Red Cross was there, as did the Department of Buildings (my neighbor's place & the restaurant are officially condemned and I meet with DOB Monday to have them reassess my status, given the fumes that have persisted in my bedroom). By 5pm, I was finally able to make an appearance at work, and then headed to a friends' place for the night. It wasn't 'til I left the house that I realized how badly I smelled. It's almost exactly what you'd smell at a fireplace or a campfire.

I have renter's insurance, thank God, and I've never been so happy to have it. I have it with USAA. I spoke with them Tuesday and on Wednesday they arranged for a crew to come and pick up all my clothes and other soft items like drapes, towels, luggage. It's a strange thing to have an inventory of all of your clothes. I own 68 blouses/tops and 9 scarves, for instance. I own 30 sweaters and a shocking 18 handbags. Who knew?

I also had an estimator come to assess how best to clean all my other belongings (furniture, books, appliances). They come back this coming Tuesday to take everything to a warehouse where they will clean it and essentially fumigate it. The smoke detectors never went off. I know I already said that, but...WTF?

God knows when the landlord will actually clean the place. I think they're gonna have to replace the floor in the bedroom. That stuff won't budge. It looks like you could write your name in it, but you can't -- it's too sticky. God knows where I'm gonna end up living. I am (again) extremely fortunate in that I have friends who have a guest room -- AND a washer/dryer (!!) in their apartment. I have a few pairs of jeans & pajamas there and they've been wonderful hosts. I also have awesome friends with fabulous taste who have lent me sweaters & a winter coat. I've been offered keys to apartments all over this city.

I have no idea if I'll stay or leave or when I'll get money back for unused rent or if the Chinese restaurant's insurance company will reimburse me for my deductible. I need to buy a new bed, air conditioner & curtain rods, and I'm pretty my bicycle's frame is permanently bent. This is all covered by insurance, thank goodness. But it's still a ridiculous headache, and I have no home. If you know anyone who has a 1BR apartment, preferably downtown, let me know!

All week I've been dancing on the brink, but this morning I finally got my door repaired (the super had jerry-rigged the door locked, but today I finally got a new casing & deadbolt). I've got a few clean sweaters and I know how I'm gonna get all my stuff fixed. And it's finally sunny (ish) and not raining -- that helps. AND, my fabulous mother is on her way to NY to pick me up and take me to the beach, where my awesome sister will be waiting for us, with a bottle (or three) of wine and more clothes to get me through the holiday party season. AND, the surf report is pretty good this weekend, and I can't imagine anything more therapeutic than surfing right now.

Sooo, that's the whole story. Thank God I'm okay, and everyone else was, too. I'm not gonna review this or edit it or craft the language in any way. But I did want to put this up so you all sign up for renter's insurance TODAY! And you keep warm boots by your beds.

It really did smell that bad!