Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thursday Afternoon

Just to be fair, because I know I'm usually sort of a zealot in this area, I'll start with one of our less-enjoyable experiences of city life.

Eric was out on a college visit with his little brother Thursday afternoon when I noticed a police car pull up in front of our apartment. There is nothing unusual about a police visit in our neighborhood. We are, rather, quite excited whenever we see that MPD logo, ever hoping that the drug dealers are finally going to get busted. Two bored-looking women emerged from the car and wandered off down the block. A bit later I noticed that the car had been joined by an ambulance. That piqued my interest just a bit more and when the fire lieutenant arrived I had a really hard time focusing on dinner preparation and began to hover in my front window. A few women arrived who looked like social workers--no uniforms, but professional dress. By this time I'd figured out that the excitement, such as it was, was focused in my building. My building is fifteen units divided among three sections. The cops were busy in a section that does not communicate with mine. One of the social workers came back out, retrieved a few hospital face masks from her car, and went back in. Hmmm. Several minutes later the entire party--cops, fire lieutenant, and social workers came out to the sidewalk and milled around.

Then the real excitement began. Over the next ten minutes we were joined by two more ambulances, two more police cars, two bike patrol cops, a couple more social services types and at least three fire trucks. This is only what I could see from my window. Our street was closed. The young, burly-looking firemen climbed out of their trucks and started donning white haz-mat suits, complete with those masks that make you look like a giant bug.

This is where I started to get a bit nervous. Criminals I already know about, heart attacks are sad but pretty self-contained, it seemed clear that there was no fire burning next door, but why the need for haz-mat suits? We mostly know, at least by sight, everyone who lives in our building. There are a few residents we know well enough to wave hello and comment on the weather when we pass in the street. The other residents we know the best (and that not very well) are a young, newlywed couple who live in the section the police were busy in. At the height of all the chaos out on the street Thursday the wife of that couple came home from work. They tried to stop her from getting home but she managed to get through just as I went out to the street to invite her in.

Shortly after that at least one person was brought out and taken away by ambulance and Eric came home just as the haz-mat guys were getting sprayed down with a fire hose. Then they all went home. Eric had tried, on his way in, to get one of the firemen to divulge some information but they weren't forthcoming. I wondered a few times as I craned my neck out the bay windows trying to take in the street or listened hard trying to catch some of the conversation if it wasn't a bit perverse to take such a lively interest in what appeared to be some kind of crisis. I used to get really mad at "rubber-necking" at freeway accidents. Eric pointed out once that it's a bit callous to just drive by a horrific traffic accident as if you don't care. It's annoying to get stuck in traffic but all that traffic slow-down is probably a fitting show of respect in the case of a car accident. I felt the same way about what happened on my street. Every door on my block was filled with someone watching our building to see what was happening. I might even have gone outside if not for the kids. The haz-mat suits gave me concern for my own well-being but, before that, I was wondering about the other residents of that part of the building. Had something happened to the young couple? Maybe the reclusive old woman on the first floor had died and finally been discovered? These people aren't friends of mine but we live in close proximity and share the same frustrations about the mice in our building, and the loud rap music in the summer, and the Maryland drivers who take our parking spaces.

We called the young couple in our building later to get the scoop. We aren't really friends with this couple but we know them well enough that we can call when a haz-mat team has invaded our building. They only knew what had happened because they'd badgered the fire department over the phone for awhile. The condo association is evicting a resident (not the young couple or the recluse) and the police, I think, had gone to serve notice. Upon arrival they found four people living in squalor. We only know a few of the ways in which the apartment was "squalid" and I'll let your imagination fill in what kinds of conditions required six firemen in haz-mat suits. Our neighbor was pretty shaken to realize that such a close neighbor had been living this way--though he hadn't been entirely ignorant of the problem. The residents will be finally evicted within the month, we hear. This particular tenant likes to sit on the corner of our back patio, drunk, and talk loudly to his buddy while smoking at exactly the time I'm putting Margaret to bed so part of me is glad to be rid of that problem. But it is sobering, in a healthy sort of way, to have some exposure to the sadness and poverty of the human condition.

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