My first week alone in my first apartment, I managed to burn a pizza in the oven. Actually, it caught on fire, complete with flames that wafted menacingly when I opened the oven door. The quantity of black smoke pooling on the ceiling combined with the screech of the fire alarm and the fact that it was my first week, alone, being an adult, and I panicked. At a loss for what to do, I ran next door and enlisted the help of my neighbor. He grabbed a bucket and ran to my apartment, smoke still filling the air, alarm still sounding, but when we opened the oven door there was nothing but the blackened pizza. Embarrassed, I insisted that the rush of air from opening the door must have put it out; he agreed, and we set about trying to turn off the fire alarm. Only it didn’t actually have a button to turn it off, so we ended up covering it with the bucket– his idea– until it stopped sounding.
The fire alarm turned out to be annoyingly sensitive. Situated on the small patch of wall between my kitchen and my bathroom (it was a tiny studio apartment), it picked up smoke from both rooms. There was no fan in the bathroom, so if I took a really hot shower, the steam would set off the alarm. The first few times that happened, I would dash out, sopping and nude, and throw a towel over the alarm to muffle the sound. Eventually I learned to ignore it.
The following year I moved to a larger apartment in the city, the sort of place with a courtyard and a keyed entrance, and synchronized fire alarms throughout the entire building. These were the alarms I remembered from high school, the type that flashed a blinding white light and squealed a high pitched shriek when they went off. Which they did, the first night that I moved in. These were the sort of alarms that, if one went off, the entire building went off. These were the sort of alarms that alerted the fire department, whom arrived in full fire fighting garb, and myself in my pajamas because it was 3am late, and watching with wide eyes as they thundered up the stairs. And I hurried across the hall to my friend’s apartment, pounded on the door, and she was in her pajamas as well, and bleary, and annoyed at the fact that I’d woken her for such little thing as the fire alarm going off, because apparently that was a frequent occurrence. So frequent that it happened the next night, and the next; every night that weekend.
There was never a fire. It was always a malfunction, oversensitive smoke detectors, somebody burning their dinner or lighting a cigarette. The alarm panel was right outside of my apartment. When the alarm sounded, the screen would always flash “Status– Not Normal” and then the offending apartment number. The fire department would come (and we were nearly friends for how often I saw them, and I considered baking them cookies) and they would check the alarm box, then troop up to the apartment in question, with axes and fire extinguishers, and then they’d troop down again, coast clear, and punch in the code to turn off the alarm.
I was the keeper of the code. I’m not sure how that happened, except that my apartment was right there, and other than school I was almost always home; after the third or fourth time of being called in for false fires, the landlord told me the code to turn off the alarm box. The fire department didn’t even know it. So whenever that alarm went off, I knew I was on call. I’d have to hop out of the shower, roll out of bed, put on pants, because I knew in five, ten minutes, they’d be buzzing at the front door, and I’d have to let them in, and give them the code.
Our landlord was charged each time the fire department came, which was practically weekly. And then the fire department stopped coming. And I became fully responsible for the alarm. No matter what day or time, I would dutifully trudge into the hall and turn it off. I had long since stopped worrying that there was an actual fire. The alarm was background noise. It was meaningless. It was the boy who cried wolf, and if there ever really were a fire, all of us, the entire building, would have probably died. I always knew when someone new had moved into the apartment, because when the alarm sounded they’d come running into the hall in a panic. They soon learned.
I’m now conditioned to ignore fire alarms.