The text from my son came in at 10:07 last Monday morning.
“House behind us on fire!” it read.
Now, Davis Jr. doesn’t use exclamation points lightly. His phone keypad requires that you hold down the “Fn” key to get this particular punctuation mark so, like most members of his generation, he’s going to avoid any extra effort if at all possible. I knew the message was serious.
I started to text a question asking for details, but it seemed like the urgency of the situation probably demanded direct telephonic conversation. I generally think texting is a great advancement over one-to-one personal interactions. However, when lives are in danger, the back-and-forth nature of texting (Me: Is fire dept. there?; Him: Embers floating onto our roof; Me: Maybe you should evacuate; Him: Arrghh! Burning alive!) is a bit slow and awkward.
After confirming that the home only ten yards or so from ours was indeed a raging inferno, I drove home from work to see the situation for myself. By the time I arrived, there were a half-dozen fire trucks lining our street and things seemed to be under control. My house and family were safe. My neighbors’ dwelling, though, was going to be a complete loss.
I stood on our back deck, looking through the shrubs to see what I could see. My wife had already learned that the two inhabitants of the home were at work when the blaze broke out and were therefore unharmed.
Despite the fact that we lived so close to one another and had done so for about ten years, I didn’t know much about them. They were of the Homo sapiens species, they worked at the local college and their house was yellow. I wasn’t sure what their names were, though if their mailbox was any indication, they either went by the name “845 Shadowbrook Drive” or “American Standard Postboxes”. They’d be facing a nasty surprise when they got home that afternoon, even worse than what I experienced the previous Thursday when the city hadn’t picked up our recycling up on time.
As I stood watching the firemen finish up their work, it occurred to me this would be a golden opportunity to exhibit the traits of a caring person and try to help my neighbors out. I wrote in this blog a few weeks back that I was going to start making a concerted effort to be more friendly, more concerned with my fellow man, more sympathetic to the plight of others, in the hopes that I’d get a karmic payback to help with some of my own personal troubles.
A few tentative moves in this direction had been awkward: While jogging past a neighborhood daycare a few days before, I thought seriously about retrieving the kickball that flew over their fence and into the road. The night before, we had gone to buy fresh strawberries at a local fruit stand, and I passed on the last basket of mushy, overripe berries so that a father and his three girls could get it. Just that morning, I swerved slightly as I was leaving our subdivision so I wouldn’t run over a squirrel.
This would be a much better chance to do good in a significant way. As I drove back to work, I resolved to offer whatever assistance I could later that afternoon, as long as it didn’t involve having the victims come into my house and use my bathroom.
Around dinnertime, I walked into the cul-de-sac to see what I could do. A gaggle of neighbors stood in their yard across the way, probably discussing what had happened and what could be done to lend assistance. I thought of approaching them to join in the planning, then realized I didn’t know any of the folks and possibly wouldn’t be welcome. It would be much easier, and probably more helpful, to rubberneck a little bit longer, kick at a few twigs that had fallen onto our property line, and wave “hi” at the crew of firemen who had returned to make sure the smoldering was finished.
The folks who had suffered the terrible loss were not to be seen. There was a camper parked on the curb, and I thought I saw a figure inside. I guessed that maybe the victims were making this their temporary home, so I approached and made a tentative knock on the door. I wasn’t sure what I would say, or what help I could offer. Fortunately, a vicious dog lunged out of the shadows and began barking angrily through the door at me, so my attempt at offering comfort would have to wait.
I walked back around the side of my house, and noticed a long stretch of watery mud that had accumulated in my yard where the fire hose had connected to the hydrant. The fire plug was on my property, something I guessed I could take credit for. Also, I resolved to let the minor lawn damage done by the hose pass without complaint. At last, I was finally making a contribution to addressing the hardship of my neighbor and, frankly, it felt pretty good.
I still wished I could make a more concrete contribution to the recovery effort. Emotional support and looking concerned carried a lot of weight, I was sure, but they wouldn’t go very far toward allowing these poor people to rebuild their lives.
I sat down that evening to check my email, and there I found a way I could help without putting forth too much effort. Another neighbor had volunteered to coordinate a fund-raising drive among everyone in the subdivision.
“Just $5 per neighbor would allow us to purchase a gift card for $250. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” asked the writer. “What are your thoughts? … Walmart, Target, food places?”
It was the modern equivalent of an old-fashioned barn-raising. We’d all come together — virtually, at least — to pitch in to the attempt to help two afflicted members of our community recover. They’d see that their neighbors cared about them and wanted to help in any way they could, as long as it didn’t involve getting ash on their clothes or straining any muscles.
A wave of generosity poured over me, as I called my wife into our home office to read the email.
“Let’s give $20,” I suggested. “Maybe it’ll be enough to let them buy cards to both Applebee’s and Olive Garden.”
And so, the healing begins, with Pick ‘n Pair Lunch Combos and unlimited breadsticks. As the Applebee’s slogan says, “There’s No Place Like The Neighborhood©.”