8 Million Stories: Up In Smoke

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I spent all week anxiously watching the news. On Sunday it was nothing—a blip on my scan of the morning papers. By Monday, the coverage had blown up like the fires themselves, moving fast and seemingly everywhere. I’m not well-versed in California geography, so the name Witch Creek meant little to me. My boyfriend Angelo was the one who pointed it out.

“Witch Creek,” he said. “That’s near La Jolla. Have you spoken to Brian and David?” While Angelo sometimes needed help to get from Brooklyn to the West Village, his grasp of geography outdid mine when it came to anywhere not accessible by subway.

Brian and David owned the apartment we took care of. For the last year and a half, I’d been a semi-professional house-sitter.

I moved every few months, from vacation home to pied-à-terre and back. Usually, I arrived somewhere as everyone else departed and packed my bags just as the weather started to get nice. When offered the chance to watch a duplex in Park Slope, I jumped at it. New York, I thought to myself, has no off-season.

Not so California. Reading the news coverage, I was reminded of that old joke about the four seasons of Los Angeles: flood, earthquake, riot and fire. With the worst drought on record and unusually strong Santa Ana winds, October 2007 was shaping up to be fire season in a major way.

A quick email assured us that Brian and David were safe. But they had bad news: Depending on what happened, they might have to shorten their stay in California. Angelo and I had been prepared to move by December; now, we had to be ready to find new housing by Saturday.

We began to study the maps. Witch Creek was a bare 60 miles from La Jolla. Stunned newscasters were reporting that the fire was traveling west at speeds of up to three and a half miles per hour. At that rate, it would reach Brian and David’s house in less than a day. From a continent away, I watched the fire threaten my home.

I’d always considered house-sitting to be the perfect solution to my simultaneous desires to own nothing and have everything.
When it came right down to it, none of the stuff was mine. I now saw the flip side of the arrangement: Though I was living in Brooklyn, the California wildfires were about to make my apartment go up in smoke.

On Tuesday, the University of San Diego—where David worked as a professor—cancelled classes. Deaths were being reported. The ecological destruction was massive. The smoke from the fires was visible from space. But all I could think about was my apartment.

I never meant to become a full-time house-sitter. My lease was up and my friend Jon needed someone to look after his place in Vieques, Puerto Rico. All I had to do, he said, was prevent the wild horses from eating his banana trees. When that ended, a second-cousin asked me to keep an eye on her house during the winter, to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze. Word got around, and more offers came my way. Some worked out; others didn’t. I always found somewhere to go.

By Thursday, it seemed clear Brian and David were coming back. UCSD had closed for the entire week. Brian mentioned their imminent return to a mutual friend. I watched the footage of people sobbing over the burnt wreckage of their former homes, and in my melodramatic, self-pitying heart I thought, “Yes! I know what you’re going through.”

I could have found another place to house sit. Even a casual mention of my possible eviction had offers appearing on the horizon. In the time I’d been in Brooklyn, though, I’d put down roots. Like Angelo. Things I was not willing to drop when the fires appeared on the horizon. Now it was all going to fall apart, and though I wasn’t about to lose everything I owned, I still felt panicked.

By Friday, the situation in California was coming under control. La Jolla seemed safe, but I realized it didn’t matter if Brian and David came back. It was too risky, living where my home could be taken from me at any moment. I wanted a place of my own, even if that meant a tiny studio in a bad neighborhood, or not being able to leave the country whenever I wanted. The beautiful thing about house-sitting was the complete freedom—or so I thought. All it offered was the freedom to leave. Not the freedom to stay.

While waiting to hear from Brian and David, Angelo and I studied maps again, but this time, they were of Brooklyn. “Which train goes out to Sunset Park?” he asked. My days as a house-sitter were over.

Hugh Ryan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Stalk him at www.hughryan.net.

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