(Photo: If only Mrs. O’Leary had had an annunciator. Credit: Cushman Collection.)
On those nights when they burn the house down at the House of Blues, we shudder in Marina City condos above. Most of us are familiar with the midnight din of emergency vehicles looming loud and coming to a halt beneath our bedroom windows.
Older neighbors with so many moldy unwanted loveseats and bed frames crammed onto balconies that sound no longer gets through are excepted from this familiarity. So are the young. Primarily the persistently drunken college students who are frequently witnessed crawling on all fours down circular hallways to dump hot coals down high-rise garbage chutes.
Occasionally they lose their way back to their apartments and make the rounds in the hallways until collapsing into comfortable pools of sick sometime before the blue-haired ladies leave for their morning constitutionals. They could care less about burning to death. They think their livers are sufficiently saturated to protect them from harm, like a hosed-down roof in the face of an L.A. brush fire.
Several years of waking up to just such brush fires in garbage chutes haven’t been enough to get the condo board to ban coal barbeques on balconies. They must enjoy the pleasant smell of lightly smoked sofa; I suspect certain members own stock in Febreze.
Leave it to the city council to bolster the safety of Marina Citizens. Chicago’s 2005 fire-life safety code finally pushed the board’s hand–at least somewhat. Considering what a fat and slothful hand it tends to be, any movement at all is not a mean feat by anyone’s measure. All year, the percussive rhythm of fire-life safety equipment being installed in residential units has reverberated throughout the storied corncobs.
Of course, loopholes in the law allow buildings of Marina City’s vintage to forego putting actual sprinklers in residential units. We’re getting heat sensors and automatic “annunciators”–a fancy word for loudspeakers, instead. We may still burn to death, but once those annunciators go off, we will at least be assured of being wide awake when it happens.
Lucky for the installation crew I’ve been job hunting lately and have had my Fridays free. Life-safety-device installation crews only work on Fridays, you see. After spending Monday through Thursday scaring building managers into the need for their services–also known as business development–it’s the only day they have left to do the actual grunt work.
Most of this year, I lived in awe of this business development. They must be very busy from it, they missed every one of their appointments with me until this morning.
I didn’t move anything out of my dressing-room closet until Antony showed up at 9:05. I wasn’t making that mistake twice, boxes of National Geographic unread since the early 1970s are heavy things to drag off shelves for no reason.
“You mind if I prop the door open like this?” asked Antony, as he stuck a stainless-steel dongle into the doorjamb.
“Well I have a cat so I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
“But I’m gonna hafta come in and out about 30 times to get this done.”
“Can’t you bring your tools in the apartment and work from here?”
“But then your apartment would get all dirty.”
“Aren’t you gonna be power-drilling big holes into my concrete walls and ceilings anyway?”
“What’s your point?”
Camoes gave me a dirty look before I dropped him into the bathroom tub and closed the door. He knows giving up an argument on a technicality when he hears one, and frankly he expects better of me.
But I couldn’t complain. Who expects repairmen to be on time? At 9 a.m., not Internet scribes like me. At that time of the morning, I still have a sinkload of last night’s dishes, a pot of unmade coffee, and a still-open futon to attend to. I was just happy to have chores to keep me from hovering. I figured Antony suffered enough over-shoulder watching from the blue-haired set upstairs in the 50s.
I knew my karma would remain unblemished when Marge Tini peeked out from behind her next-door door.
“Can you drill a little more quietly, sweetie? That tool of yours is so positively loud.”
“I’m sorry, these are concrete walls ma’am. What kind of a drill would you like me to use?”
“I dunno. Do you have anything manual?”
“Just my hands, ma’am. But I’m already using those.”
Points accrued for Antony, while a befuddled Ms. Tini began her morning constitutional to the elevators on all fours. While down there, she bumped heads with my other neighbor, Ronnie Walker, along the way. Some nights I sit in bed wielding my TV remote like a baton and conduct the drunken wall-banging emanating from the apartment walls on either side.
Had I known when I moved in I’d get sandwiched between two classic Marina City cocktail-heads, I’d have opted to live somewhere classier. But I can’t afford the rent they get in the non-Section 8 section of Presidential Towers.
“Okay, sir, I’m all done. Want me to tell you how this works?”
“Sure.” I lied.
“Well, this is your heat detector. If it detects a fire, the annunciator will go off and someone downstairs will tell you your house is on fire.”
“Good, good, because Marge has so much crap on her next-door balcony now that the sound of the emergency vehicles barely makes it through anymore.”
“What you really need to be careful of, though, is this here smoke detector.”
That’s when the dread appeared in the pit of my stomach.
“Do you cook a lot?” Antony asked. “Take hot showers? Run the water to warm it up?”
“Yes…?” Now I remembered why I hated the condo board. When you lay down with low bids, you tend to get up fleeced. If the board ever replaces the elevators, I swear I’m going to start taking the stairs. God knows, my paunch could use the effort.
“Well don’t do those things from now on. This thing is sensitive. Burnt toast, cooking smells, steam, hot showers, they’ll all set it off. And the only way to stop the alarm is from downstairs, but you’ll have to wait for building staff to come up and check your apartment first. But, hey, you don’t have to put batteries in it, at least!”
“Well, that’s a relief. And as I tend to cook big meals, I’ll always have plenty to offer building security when they show up to test my doorknob for warmth…So is there any way to turn it off from inside my apartment?”
“Pretty much only with a hammer. Well…unless you rewire it.”
I knew spending two years with a handyman would pay off sooner or later.