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Fire bawl

I recently went by to gawk at the Deering Street apartment building that burned on April 6 -- not because I am an ambulance chaser, or one of those idiots who find entertainment value in the misery of others, or because I am still pining away for the West End and will use any excuse to flee the Hill to spend time over there. (OK, so the last thing might be just a teensy bit true.)

No, I went to gawk because I am a former resident of that building, and I wanted to see what happened to my old digs. You see, from 1984 to 1987, 26 Deering Street was Peavey Central. Even though I have lived in a number of apartments across town, this was The One, the place I battled out the height of my terrible twenties. In the memoir I have been languidly penning for nigh 10 years (quit pushing, it's coming), there is actually a chapter titled, "Deering Street." I might even get around to filling in the pages someday.

The apartment had two rooms. In the living room/bedroom there was a fireplace, in which I could burn only Leisure Logs. I would buy these logs at Joe's Smoke Shop, which is kind of ironic, since the logs don't smoke. You lit the thing, it burned in a smokeless loaf for three hours (no more, no less), then it turned into a big, turdlike cigar ash and, with a poof, crumbled instantly. I spent many hours sulking in front of this spectacle, so I should know.

In the kitchen/office, I had two enormous closets, the doors of which I always kept open. I used to explain that I did this so marauders could not hide therein -- but the truth is, having the doors open made me feel less lonely. Please don't ask me to explain.

There was a window in back of the stove, and in spring, that window would explode with cherry blossoms -- a big, quivering display of pink that would alarm me. One afternoon, a group of friends who were watching a Celtics game at my house got to witness from that window an act of questionable taste between a man and woman taking place under the lilac bushes in my back yard, which abutted Joe's parking lot. My friends climbed atop the stove and crowded around its edges. I tried (to no avail) to distract them by announcing, "Canapes, anyone?" as I rattled a potato chip bag. I decided at that moment home entertaining was, perhaps, not for me. It took days to get the shoe prints off the stove.

The "office" part of my kitchen/office was, in fact, my kitchen table. Since, at that time, I ate only when someone else fed me, this didn't pose much of a prandial problem. From the window over the table, I viewed my "triangle of blue" -- a slice of Back Cove, seen through trees and buildings. I kept tabs on my neighbors, watched for the mailman, stared at the sky, leaves, rooftops, the weather, the panes of glass. Occasionally, I wrote.

It was also in this apartment that I finished the play that would finish my playwriting career. As I tore the last page from my electronic typewriter (how modern I felt), the stinkometer went off. I'm not talking a dainty P-U. This play was King Limburger. I laid my head down on my desk/table, leaked unctuous, bulbous tears and whimpered, "I can't write." It was at that moment my career in journalism was born.

Yes, life was an emotional food processor at 26 Deering Street, a constant maelstrom of new loves and broken hearts, bad haircuts and good friends that defined my youth. But the most lasting memory of that apartment was the night my mother and two brothers came to take me home to bury my father. I recall little of those blurred days surrounding his death, but I do remember the four of us crowded in an awkward embrace in the building's foyer -- a snapshot that does not fade.

A little over a year later, the contents of that apartment were disassembled, boxed up and stowed away at my mother's house. I said my goodbyes and headed west for San Francisco. With that move, I left 26 Deering Street and my youth behind.

All these thoughts and memories came back to me as I stood gazing up at the blue plastic tarp fluttering in the breeze where there once was a roof. The gothic Victorian outline stood hard against the bright sky. Burnt boards heaped up in the back yard. Slate roofing shingles were scattered like scales. A charred vacuum cleaner lay amidst the ruin. It looked like a casualty from a "Star Wars" battle.

This was not my first fire scene. I have friends who have lost their homes to fire. I have helped sift through the rubble. I knew this sight, and I knew this smell. Fire terrifies me. When I am far afield, I will sometimes call my home just to make sure the answering machine picks up. I used to stow my 20 years' worth of journals in my refrigerator when I traveled. I still feel a shudder of relief when I return home and see my building intact. It seems something of a miracle to go away and find what you left standing. A leap of faith.

One that sometimes fails.

Elizabeth Peavey sends her sympathies to the building's residents and apologizes for gawking.


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