June 30, 2015 Leave a comment
When I was a kid, my mom showed me the secret safe she kept hidden behind a fake painting in our house. “For all the important things,” she explained, slipping the $50 savings bond I won in a school contest into an envelope marked with my name before cramming it back inside the cast iron hole and swinging the painting shut in front of it. “This is fireproof, so even if the house burns down, everything in here will be OK.”
Mind blown, I spent weeks casing the house for more secret caches and panicked when I found nothing. Why would my parents keep only the one, tiny wall safe, and not even put anything good in it – no watches or jewelry, just a bunch of dumb papers? Were they nuts? The whole place could go up at any minute! Lucy could knock over another one of her candles, or Katie could try to cook stir fry with stoneware on the stove again, and WOOSH… all we’d have left to the Voss family name would be a couple lousy birth certificates and a $50 savings bond that I would not be sharing.
As I got older, I realized I had nothing to worry about, because a) my parents’ money wasn’t kept as cash under their mattress, but rather, in gold bars buried deep beneath the house, and b) fire was something that happened to other people. Sure, my dad’s arm had a pink scar from when his fraternity house burned down, but that was in the 60s, before modern building codes and smoke alarms. (And firemen? Weren’t they all Dalmatians back then?) The only other house fire victim I knew was my buddy Greg, who, as a boy, was saved from a burning house by the family’s cat waking them up just in time. (This according to a local newspaper, which, coincidentally, I had read years before meeting Greg, in a college journalism class that studied examples of clever pet angles on stories. According to Greg, the real hero was a carbon monoxide detector.)
Then, a month ago, my aunt in Mississippi lost her home to a fire. It happened overnight while she was away, staying with one of her daughters. Her whole house was gutted. The pictures were surreal and scary, but luckily, no one was hurt.
And still, losing one’s home to a fire seemed like something that happened to other people. Then, that other person became me.
In case you somehow haven’t heard by now, the apartment I shared with Patrick Stubbins and Sarah McLean on Hortense Street in North Hollywood was destroyed in a fire on Friday, June 19, after a construction site next door became engulfed in flames and the fire spread to our building. None of us were home at the time. It was a near total loss – the building was gutted and most of our belongings were ruined by flames or smoke, save for a few things in our bedrooms. We’re currently homeless and staying with friends while we look for a new home and put our lives back together.
I’ve slummed it on couches before during life transitions, but never like this. It’s a weird left turn that I never imagined taking – upending enough to throw everything into chaos but too benign to be considered a true “tragedy.” (In the same week, for example, several friends of mine lost family members, and people were killed in a church in Charleston. By comparison, a smoky phone charger isn’t too tragic.)
I’ve avoided writing long, memoir-y posts in recent years to focus more on comedy/narrative material, but my subconscious is so preoccupied with processing what happened that I can’t sit down to write anything else. So to help me move past this mental block, and to give any interested parties an insight into my state of mind, below is what I’ve been going through for the past two weeks.
The fire started around noon, in a hazardous construction site near our building. The eyesore had been a well-known trouble spot since it was abandoned in 2008, left to unfriendly cats and the occasional disturbed squatter who tapped on exposed pipes at night.
Earlier in the week, a group of construction workers arrived to finally tear down the structure. Some claim the men were negligent, operating loud tools too early in the morning and too close to our building – without a permit, no less. (Police were called on them a few times in the days prior.) While it’s still under investigation, one theory is that sparks from the tools ignited dry wood or sawdust. The structure went up in less than a minute, and workers were seen fleeing the scene, one of them (according to one witness on social media) saying into a phone: “I fucked up!” The flames melted nearby cars and spread to our building, torching half and filling the rest with smoke before firefighters managed to contain it.
I was at work at the time of the fire, 10 minutes away in Studio City. Sarah was in Irvine for work. Patrick was at work and planned to leave for Sonoma for the weekend. Sarah alerted me via text – a photo showing a fireball in our neighborhood – with a message from our landlord saying our building was “gone.”
A news article online showed pictures of the construction site in ash, the fire apparently extinguished, and our building standing… but smoking.
I left work and arrived at the scene. Caution tape, emergency vehicles, firefighters, news vans, Red Cross. The half of our building facing the site was torched: our front door and windows had burned away, and the inside of our living room appeared black. Firefighters were on Sarah’s burned balcony, hosing down the charred lot below. Smoke billowed out our fake chimney. A guy taped up red “condemned” signs. On the other side of our building (away from the site), a ladder led into Patrick’s bedroom window, fire hose running through. I couldn’t see into my bedroom, which was above Patrick’s.
Our landlord, Charles, put his hand on my shoulder. “A total loss,” he said. Our neighbor Patty’s puppy died. Patty had to jump out the back window and hurt her leg. Two other people were in the building at the time, and one was treated for smoke inhalation. Other than that, no injuries – just a dozen displaced tenants wandering among the onlookers in shock.
I called Sarah and Patrick. I called my parents. I called work. I called friends, looking for places to sleep for the night. Those went to voicemail initially, and I started to panic. Red Cross volunteers tried to get info from me, but the sweet older lady couldn’t hear me or read my driver’s license, and she was two feet shorter than me and a big sun hat blocked her face, so I walked off. Adam Wasser showed up to find me muttering about the hat lady, and he offered me his spare bedroom to sleep that night. My phone began to blow up with texts from concerned friends and family, checking in, offering help, and in one instance, asking about an old improv blog post I wrote. (Word hadn’t gotten around to him yet.)
The area reeked of smoke and chemical fumes, and the foam the firefighters sprayed on the burned rubble floated around and landed on us. The water from the fire hoses made the air thick and the ash sticky. In other words, burned rubble possesses none of the charm it has in movies.
A random onlooker joked to me that he heard Unit 1 – my unit – wasn’t hit at all. (It suffered some of the worst damage.) I turned to him and deadpanned: “I don’t really have a sense of humor right now.” I couldn’t resist – how often is one totally justified in being a humorless prick? His mortified reaction was priceless.
Patrick arrived and Wasser left to grab keys for me. The firefighters told us we would be able to get in after they inspected the building for hot spots. Another firefighter told me that he wasn’t surprised – they had been running drills for the day the site would inevitably go up. He also said that sometimes it’s cheaper for owners of abandoned construction sites to torch their own units than to tear them down. “Just sayin’.”
A man in the apartment building next door let me use his bathroom. He told us how sorry he felt for us, and how he wished he could do more. We became “victims.” Red Cross people gave us toiletries, a cash card, and pamphlets on recovery. The calls and texts were draining my phone battery, so I posted on Facebook to explain the situation and assure people we were all OK. That just amplified the response. Meanwhile, the improv blog inquiries were incessant.
Joel Anderson arrived, and soon after, firefighters finally escorted us in two at a time to grab whatever we could carry – essentials – and we could come back later for the rest.
Our living room had shrunken. Everything burned beyond recognition – the walls, the sofa, the TV and electronics, the books, the dining table, Patrick’s fancy road bike – all withered and black. A total mess, very Guernica. The fumes were suffocating.
Mushy ash and insulation covered the stairs as I made my way up to my room. A hole in the ceiling now let in sky light, while water dripped on my head from where the roof fire was hosed out. I poked my head in Sarah’s room, and it was like the living room downstairs: a volcano eruption. Little salvageable (a term I would be using a lot in the coming days).
The firefighter told me that my bedroom door must have been closed, which is why the flames didn’t spread in there. Still, smoke and ash stained all in sight. Everything was pushed into the center of the room and covered with a tarp. I lifted it and began scavenging items from my mental checklist – important documents, phone charger, computer, ash-covered boxes of eye contacts, Del Close Award for Student of the Year – and stuffing it all into greasy luggage. I opened my closet to check my clothes, flicking on the light without realizing the power was obviously cut off. When I opened the door, a puff of smoke came out. Nope.
I gave the room one last glance over. It began to hit me how surreal this was. There was the bed I slept on, the mirror I crouched in front of to brush my hair because it’s too low on the wall, the dry-erase board with all my sketch ideas scrawled out on it. Now they were all toxic and ruined. (The sketch ideas were still gold.)
This wasn’t my home anymore. This wasn’t a home anymore.
I numbly dragged the luggage back to my car down the street. Patrick, Joel and I decided to meet somewhere for food, but first I sat in my car, collecting my thoughts. At that point, I had been outside in the smoke for 6+ hours. I smelled like fuselage. My face was red. My hands and arms were gray with ash. Feeling more physically drained than I ever had in my life, the emotions began to well up and I… lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, and snuffed it on my palm. Because that’s what men do.
Just kidding. I don’t smoke. (Well, I have given off smoke a few times in the past few weeks.) In reality, my head dropped to the steering wheel and I sobbed like a baby for a few minutes. It was bad. A family rushed past on the sidewalk and pretended not to notice.
Now homeless and smoky as a Dickens character, I switched into survival mode. What do I need to get through the next 12 hours?
- Clothes to change into after shower (preferably oversized and hand-me-down, to milk the sympathy)
- A bed
- REVENGE Contact solution
Night 1 was spent going down that checklist. After a burger with Patrick and Joel (Dave Hauer and Jennifer Milani stopped by), Patrick began his six-hour drive toward Sonoma. (Tear-free I’m sure, the guy’s tough as nails – I once slowly drove a meat thermometer into his leg and he didn’t flinch. The temperature? Zero degrees.) I dropped by work to send a few emails and frightened coworkers with my creepy chimney-sweep look. Then, I made a quick Target run and totally didn’t cry again in the parking lot. Wasser and Jodi Skeris welcomed me into their Studio City apartment with open arms, two cats who loved me, and a dog who (rightfully) hated me. I thanked Wasser and Jodi and called them “saints” – a compliment that made the two Jews shudder.
As the days went by, the survival checklist extended from the next few hours to the next few days and weeks:
- Redirect mail to friend’s address.
- Send scary pictures to family.
- Check computer. (Still works! As a writer, it’s the equivalent of finding a kitten alive.)
- Scrub smoke smell out of phone charger. (Unsuccessful.)
- Make list of places to sleep, order them by:
- 1) Eagerness of the offer. (Some people want to be nice, but aren’t all too stoked about their place smelling like toasted refugee.)
- 2) Least amount of inconvenience caused by my presence. (My night terrors will be a bit of a handful from the floor of a studio apartment)
- Find a dry cleaner that treats smoke damaged clothes and doesn’t ask questions.
- Foolishly stuff drier sheets into every nook of car.
- Buy large storage bins, ask cashier how many bodies they can hold.
- Separate items from “clean” to “a little smoky” to “why did I save this?”
As I worked through these steps, the help began to pour in. I’m blessed to have a lot of amazing people in my life. The Voss clan sprung into action, offering the gold under the house, a fleet of jets to airlift me to safety, and the usual support network that I too often take for granted. Filup Molina and Holiday Kinard treated me to dinner and a movie, and I totally didn’t cry at a singing volcano. Alison and Mike Coen, who avoid social media, learned about our plight by driving past our burned building on Sunday as we cleared out the rest of our stuff, and, relieved that we were alive, brought us lunch and offered help.
Aid reached George Bailey heights with an online donation campaign Dave set up, with everyone from old friends to random strangers throwing in. Co-workers began collecting money, clothes, and furniture for us. I’ve had mixed feelings about this outpouring of support – how am I supposed to launch a Kickstarter for my web series now?? – but in all honesty, with random expenses sneaking up at us and the total scope of the damages still unknown, the money is being put to good use. (Except for the $1,000 we gave to ISIS… sorry about that.) Thank you for all your donations… it’s so overwhelming.
Wasser and Jodi housed me for another night, followed by Joel Anderson and Jeff MacCubbin on Sunday, and Jill Czarnowski for the next week. (Jill was out of town, leaving her Hollywood apartment open for Patrick and me – apologies to Markeia McCarty, who was scheduled to housesit.) Filup allowed me to stink up the back of his truck with my smoke-damaged stuff until I could scrub it down, throw some of it out, admire my Del Award for a while, fit everything in two bins, and store them in Mike Canale and Megan Grano’s garage.
Help can take odd and interesting forms. I’ve received a houseplant and survival packs containing pictures drawn by children. Some people sneak up to me, slip money in my hand, and scamper off, like reverse-pickpockets. One of the more relieving moments was a tour of a Bel Air mansion that Kristen Studard was house-sitting. Floating in a millionaire’s infinity pool is a hobo’s dream.
Yes, you can get the smell of smoke out of clothes, if you scrub with baking soda and wash repeatedly, then give up and overpay a dry cleaner to do it. You cannot, however, get the smoke smell out of your car, no matter how long you leave the windows down and how many drier sheets you keep in the glove box. For the rest of my days, April Fresh Downy will always smell like fire.
Returning to the routine of the day job and comedy projects provides a pleasant illusion of normalcy. Handing cards to talk show hosts and preparing for sketch shows have distracted me from the visions of a prop baby doll’s face melting in my closet. Of course, the illusion fades at 10pm when I start to drive to my old apartment, just to remember my migrant status and head back over the hill for the nightly parking hunt. Whereas life in the valley provided a refuge from the realities of Hollywood – less noise, convenient parking, a commute that steers clear of scary street people – this stint as a Hollywood nomad has reacquainted me with real LA urban culture. A sun-washed vagrant declining takeout, maybe because he’s not homeless, he’s just resting, asshole. Impromptu pride parades and Hollywood Bowl concerts clogging the streets with angry drivers. Tourists targeting me for my non-threatening demeanor – “Griffith Observatory is how far? Oh no!”
The best part of returning to normal life as a “victim” is I get to have the same conversation over and over:
- I’m OK.
- Yeah, it is very crazy.
- Staying at a friend’s apartment, but I’ll let you know.
- Thank you. Seriously, thank you.
- It could have been way worse, and everyone has been so generous. It’s just a huge inconvenience, really.
- No, no renter’s insurance. I know.
- No, not really focusing on legal stuff now.
- No, I don’t remember running over a gypsy.
The truth is, I love this conversation. It’s a nice feeling to have people interested in my well being (or regretting having wished me dead), and it’s a welcome break from work gossip and comedy shop-talk. My war story now trumps everyone else’s, with a mock-guilt-trip kicker than can get laughs if I time it right. “Oh, someone stole your Greek yogurt? Sorry to hear that. My house burned down.” From a comedic standpoint, My-house-burned-down has become my You-might-be-a-redneck.
I’ll admit I’m not crazy about the pitying looks I get when people find out I didn’t have renter’s insurance, like I’m the penniless couple who has to stand up at church after their mobile home gets sucked up into a tornado. I’m not some hopeless dope wearing a barrel – I’m just one of the 50% (by my estimate) of sensible young professionals I know who rent apartments and don’t bet on their buildings becoming engulfed in flames. (But, yeah, you can bet I’m getting renter’s insurance for my next place.)
There’s also the uncomfortable question of reparation. “Will there be any insurance payout?” “Are you going to sue?” Of course, it’s natural to demand justice for victims of negligence, to seek a silver lining in a tragedy. And when you’re stuck in a depressing conversation, the prospect of a payout is way sexier than the soul-crushing despair of homelessness. I won’t say too much about the legal side of this, but right now it’s at the bottom of my priorities. Resettling and moving on with my life will be enough of a victory for the time being.
We’ve been looking at a few places. Patrick and Sarah will continue the search while I’m in Florida through the weekend. We are keeping our options open and will have some decisions to make soon. I’ll be OK with anywhere that’s not next door to a powder keg.
When your life is abruptly thrown into disorder like this, all your thoughts shift to the present. The routine. The checklist. The day-to-day moves you make to get to the next step. Meanwhile, the big picture – long-term plans, projects, where you are in the scheme of things – fade into the background. For example, my sister asked if I wanted to go on a trip next February. February? What’s that? You might as well ask me what kind of college meal plan I’m getting for a daughter who hasn’t been conceived yet. Cart before the horse. (Though, yes, a trip sounds nice.)
Thoughts about the past work the same way in this scenario. I’m normally very much a nostalgic, consumed with memories and regrets. In the past month, I went on a reunion weekend with college friends, responded hat-in-hand to a shitty email I sent someone four years ago, and recounted the exact lyrics to songs I made up in school. When I depart anything – a job, school, a relationship, camp, a production or comedy team ending its run, ABC’s Lost – I become flooded with highlight reels of the wins and revisionist histories of the missed opportunities.
Strangely, I find it difficult to summon this kind of nostalgia for the home I lost. I lived in the Hortense apartment for two and a half years – the longest residence of my life, aside from the house I grew up in in Florida. Yet, my memories from college dorms and short-term subleases are clearer than the ones from the recent apartment.
I’ve joked that this has been the easiest move out I’ve ever had – no stress over clearing and cleaning everything to retain the security deposit, nothing to move into a new place. But because there’s no move out, there’s no goodbye either. It’s like the kid who doesn’t attend his high school graduation – it’s just ceremonial, sure, but it’s a crucial step in the transition. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a Hortense highlight reel.
There are a lot of elements of this experience that I will continue to process as time goes on — namely, the troubling thought of spending 2.5 years sleeping soundly next to a ticking time bomb — but my hope is that eventually the positive memories from the apartment I lived in will overtake my ambivalence toward the burned-out hell hole I turned my back on two weeks ago. Here are a few of the things the apartment was to me — things that may be tougher to replace:
- The venue for four New Years Eve parties. Some were chill and intimate, others were crowded and wild. At the 2013/2014 one, for example, a girl head-butted me in the back, two female strangers made out in our living room, and a guy we didn’t know dumped a candy dish into his pockets. Sarah glared at all of this – mostly the candy.
- Also, the venue for a number of birthday parties, including in some cases people who weren’t technically residents. At my birthday party one year, two close friends of mine met each other, and would later fall in love and get engaged. (I’m of course referring to Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello.)
- A rehearsal space for dozens of improv and sketch teams, including: Wheelhouse, Mr. Body, Key Party, The Cartel, It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way, Taste Test, and Dad Jeans. It was also the set for shorts and web series, like “3 Strikes,” “Time Jumper,” and “50 Shades of Mom.”
- A collective screening room for Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Super Bowl, the Tour de France, the World Cup, and two seasons of Orphan Black that Sarah “watched” despite never looking up from her laptop.
- A go-to place for game nights, with “Settlers of Catan” and “Puerto Rico” being favorites. Patrick found a Tour de France-themed game called “Cycling Party” (that he bought on a Kickstarter by the Spanish guys who invented it), which would take several days to complete. It’s a terrible, terrible game that he and Joel loved.
- A place that suffered damages from drunk friends vomiting on couches and in houseplants without telling us, chucking bang snaps at the floor, and at least one cat puking on the rug.
- A gallery that displayed a large, family-style portrait of the three of us, taken only to replace the family portrait Patrick and Sarah had taken with Dave, whom I replaced on the lease. Ours depicted us in white dress shirts and jeans. We took it on Easter outside in our neighborhood. People passed us, smiling like we were taking a photo to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
- A place where I spent hours with friends, laughed, cried, growled in anger, built things, broke things, wrote things, consumed things, got inspired, recovered from exhaustion and sickness, and sometimes, just sat around doing absolutely nothing. I made new friendships there and strengthened existing ones.
- And, for all the things it was, the Hortense apartment was not much of a bachelor pad. Just useless. Maybe that’s just what happens when you live with a veritable chick magnet like Patrick Stubbins. Whatever curse hung over my head, I hope it died with the fire, like curses always do in the movies.
As I continue to recover, resettle, and remember, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart, to all who have helped in this transition. The feeling of losing a home has been diminished by the overwhelming hospitality of friends and family who have reached out with their generosity and well wishes. Perhaps because we live in a city like Los Angeles, where most of us are transients far away from our original homes, now creating new homes for ourselves, the instinct to provide community for each other is so strong. Or maybe it’s just human nature to want to help each other. Either way, faith in humanity restored.
And a special thanks to my family, both by blood, and the surrogate family that has adopted me in this time of need: the American Red Cross, Dave Hauer, Jennifer Milani, Adam Wasser, Jodi Skeris, Brad Allen, Jessica Richards, Jill Czarnowski, Filup Molina, Holiday Kinard, Joel Anderson, Jeff MacCubbin, Debbie Friedman, Matt Cavedon, Katie LeBlanc, Ricky Klopfenstein, Jennifer Francis, Liz Anderson, Mike Coen, Alison Coen, Mike Canale, Megan Grano, Kristin Matthews, Kevin Hamburger, Shana Lawrence, Ann Rogerson, Matthew Lutz, Collin Cunninghame, Bryce McLeay, Ronilyn Reilly, Erin Cote, Franco Pelliccia, Laura Fagin, Jerianne Keaney, Leah DiPaola, Liz Ball, Stacy Young, Danny Verdugo, David Lowenstein, Alison Tafel, Dan Hardcastle, Padraic Connelly, Cameron Conrad, Blake Hogue, Kaiser Johnson, Amanda Barnes, Joe Herrera, Dan Torson, Leo Margul, Drew Coolidge, Jillian Saint, Leslie Watkins, Jennie Newman, Karolyn Russo, Ayn & Roy LeBlanc, Charlie & Ann Anderson, Jackie Durruthy, Pat Babbitt, Lindsay Stidham, Kristen Studard, Bern Hyland, Sophia Zolan, Norm Thoeming, Molly Erdman, Lindsey Fisher, Stacy Rumaker, Carissa Deist, Nick Bush, Nate Ballard, Chris McGowan, RC Fill, Graham Beckett, Carrie Barrett, Dan Hamamura, and all of the dozens of others I don’t know, donated anonymously, offered to help or helped in some other way I’m forgetting. I am in debt to all of you, and I’ll never forget the support you’ve given me the past two weeks.
If home is indeed where the heart is, my home is with you all.