Monday, March 12, 2007

Burning Down the Apartment

THIS DAY WENT TO HELL early, but this evening I came close to bringing the flames right to my kitchen. Nothing like a visit from the town emergency crews to wake a body up, to say nothing of the rest of the building's residents.

I bailed early on work, having no work to do and not needing to stick around either to monitor the outsourcing gang or to search for a job. I was looking forward to dinner — not just the eatin', but the makin'. As part of my plan to eat more wisely, I had purchased some beautiful Empire chicken breasts at my local Trader Joe's. My plan was to grill these on my cast-iron stovetop grill, making at least four meals' worth of protein for my accelerated gym schedule.

For those who have never visited my apartment, its major flaw is a lack of ventilation. My apartment building is a hotel-style structure, in that I have one wall of windows, the other being contiguous with the central hallway. I have a floor fan and an air conditioner, but they only blow air around and into the apartment. The fan over my stove only filters fumes, and has no port to the outside. On those few occasions when I cook anything smoky, I have to be quick about it, lest I set off my apartment's smoke alarm.

Being aware of this, I halved the breasts lengthwise to make them thinner. I then brushed them with olive oil and sprinkled them with McCormick Lemon Pepper & Herb Grill Mates rub. I brushed the grill with oil as well, let it heat up, and dropped on the chicken. At their thickness, I figured 6 minutes on one side, 5 on the other, and they'd be done.

I got through the first 6 minutes with minimal fumes. The smoke began collecting during the second stretch, mostly from particles of the Grill Mates shake that were carbonizing rapidly. Although I had my floor fan aimed at the stove to carry any smoke away from my main hallway, I still got a complaint from my smoke alarm. I turned the chicken, then aimed the fan directly at the screaming disc on the ceiling. It quieted down. I turned back to the kitchen to find it billowing with smoke . . . which promptly sparked the smoke alarm again.

I dragged my stepladder under the box and pulled it down from the ceiling, hoping to disconnect it. No dice; even as I did so, I remembered it was wired into building current. I had a black wire going one way and a white wire going another and it was still BEEP BEEP BEEPing in my hand with my other hand clutching my ear which didn't do squat. . . . and by this time I could barely think straight from the alarm, which I would like to say explains the inscrutable burst of logic that motivated me to open my apartment door, after turning off the stove, to let the smoke vent into the hall. . . .

. . . where the building fire system began shrieking.

The building fire system, which is wired straight to the town fire department.

I ran back to the stove, double-checked the OFF status of the burners, tonged the chicken (which looked quite nice, actually) onto a plate, and dumped the still-smoldering grill into my oven. Then I called the list of local resident managers (ours just got canned, so we have a trio of backups from other, nearby buildings) to let someone know the company wasn't in imminent danger of losing an apartment building. By this point, the town fire alarm, sounding like an air-raid siren, was echoing across the landscape. I knew I'd have guests soon. I decided to go downstairs to let them know there was no danger — and then a knock came at my door.

It was one of our local policemen. I quickly assured him there was no fire and no damage, that it was just a cooking mishap. (I also thanked my lucky stars I hadn't hosted poker the previous night, and have a table full of professional plastic cards and high-denomination chips in great lovely incriminating stacks to explain.) He seemed relieved. I told him I was going to meet the firemen downstairs to let them know there was no emergency.

Outside, the chaos I had inadvertently wrought was in full swing. The average age of the residents here is about 66. My dear elderly neighbors, bent over canes, trunding along with walkers, were slowly making their way out of their respective lairs, shuffling in pairs as though they had chosen fire buddies upon moving in, making their pained way down the stairs . . . I felt so awful. I tried to say to them it was under control, that there was no danger, that it was just an idiot bachelor overreaching the limits of his cooking abilities, but they just dutifully kept descending the stairs.

Around 15 of my co-residents had already gathered in the lobby, and were milling about trying to decide whether it was a real fire or a false alarm. I told some of the more attentive ones the facts, relying on them to spread the news. At that moment, two firemen came in, casually dressed rather than fully garbed for an inferno, and I quickly told them the basics. I led them up to my pad, now slightly less smoky but at least getting no worse, while the strobes and sirens screamed in the halls and still more stunned residents poked their heads out to see what the ruckus was. I felt like crawling under the rug.

Two more firemen, these guys actually in the traditional suits, arrived on my floor from the opposite direction, and their cohorts confirmed there was no need to escalate matters to ladder-and-hose work. They checked out the area, made sure my windows were open and the air conditioner was on, and deemed the place under control. One guy went down to check if the stairwells were vented, which — if they were — would enable them to shut down the alarm. Fortunately, they were, and in a couple of minutes, as one guy advised the team on the truck to stand down, the mind-shattering shriek from the halls fell silent.

I should add that each time I encountered another fireman, I apologized profusely for being such an idiot and dragging them out for nothing. In turn, they all told me not to worry about it, that it was no problem, and that it happened all the time. (Not to me!) I assume they were just relieved to find no full-fledged fire in progress and no lives in jeopardy.

The cop who had arrived first took my name and number, just for reporting purposes; I hadn't committed a crime, though I joked I was guilty of aggravated crappy cooking. I also went downstairs to thank the rest of the firemen for arriving so swiftly and, one last time, apologize. As before, they shrugged it off. Considering we just lost nine children from the same family in the city to a horrific fire this weekend, a simple stove mishap on the part of a solitary retard must have been a joy to find. I wandered back up to my place, telling any neighbors I ran into that I was sorry. If only to spare my enduring embarrassment for the rest of my stay here, I hope some of them lose the details of today's events to senility.

Alone at last, I steamed some broccoli, dropped two pieces of chicken onto a plate with it, and ate.

And for all of the tsuris its creation evoked, that chicken was pretty damn good.

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