September 28, 2006
Pico-Robertson: Live in the Hood
On that day, David was having lunch in his study. His kids had gone off to sleep-away camp a day earlier, and he was about to start on a writing project that was behind schedule.
That's when the doorbell rang. It was the house painter, and he told David that there was smoke coming from the roof. David asked the painter to get a garden hose while he called 911 and quickly grabbed some framed family photos, which he brought to the next-door neighbor.
When he returned a minute later, the smoke inside the house had become "billowy white." While the painter tried to spray water, David grabbed more family photos, this time with a wet towel on his face, and he again brought them to his neighbor.
When he returned, a ball of fire tore through the ceiling. By now, instead of billowy white smoke, there were hundreds of surreal, ash-grey "floaters" orbiting throughout the house. The first of 13 fire trucks had already arrived, and one of the firemen asked David to immediately leave the house.
In all the commotion, with fire sirens blazing and neighbors starting to gather on the street, David had forgotten about Ripley, his golden retriever mutt. It was too dangerous for him to re-enter the house, so he yelled for the dog while a fireman looked inside. After a few minutes, from seemingly out of nowhere, Ripley quietly appeared. He had been hiding under the dining room table.
Outside, a neighbor had already alerted David's wife, who was on her way over. While the firemen worked quickly and diligently to control the fire, David's personal doctor, also a neighbor, showed up. His first words to David were something to the effect: "Please move into our house tonight."
As he recalls it now, over a Diet Coke and a cellphone ringing with calls from insurance agents and adjusters, David's initial emotion was not one of devastation, or even deep loss, but simply shock. When someone had suggested that he and his wife should still go on a cruise they had planned, the idea seemed so ludicrous that he couldn't answer. The first night, when they were sleeping at their friends' house, he remembers having his eyes open all night, and feeling as if his system had "shut down."
When his hosts asked him if he wanted privacy, he replied that privacy was the last thing he wanted.
He was realizing how closely his house and his life were intertwined. His house was the sanctuary where his family was happy and safe, and where he had the peace of mind to do his writing, which is how he makes his living. This sanctuary, which had walls full of memories, was now ripped apart.
It didn't take long for the sense of shock to give way to a sense of deep gratitude. David and Deena received so many offers to "stay at our place" or "eat at our place," so many Shabbat invitations, so many messages reaching out to help, they had to be careful not to offend anyone when they kept saying "Sorry, we're already invited, but maybe another day."
It seemed that every time they turned around, a neighbor would offer something. A meal. A coffee. Clothing (they were lucky that the kids had taken a lot of their clothes to camp). Household items. Anything and everything.
Thanks to this outpouring of support from friends and neighbors too numerous to name (including fellow congregants at Beth Jacob Congregation), during the past two months of their ordeal -- and it has been an ordeal -- at no time did David and his family ever feel alone.
As I reflect on this story, part of me is in awe at the power of a neighborhood to rise to the occasion during a time of crisis. When the Brandes house came down, the same conviction that animates one to go to synagogue on Shabbat or drive a kid to school was there to help shelter a neighbor. I love that.
Another part of me looks at what happens in this neighborhood every day, when there is no crisis, no emergency, nothing special going on. I think of a neighbor calling from the market to see if anyone needs some challah; or another neighbor offering to take the kids to the park; or yet another neighbor letting a father know about a Shabbat drop-in party for his teenage daughter, and the list goes on; and I love that, too.
We're in that time of year when Judaism seems larger than life. The Book of Life. The Days of Awe. The Day of Atonement. It's easy to get caught up in the high drama of these big days, and forget that our Judaism lives and breathes during the quiet little days, after the big show is over and we all go home. I remember that before his house burned down, my friend David would always tell me about the little things he loved about his neighborhood -- those quiet, everyday gestures among neighbors that accumulate over the years to create a real community.
He didn't need the drama of a fire to know he was surrounded by an extended family. He knew it all along.