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A Bad Day in Greenwood

By Dave Fox
Seattle, Washington 

The fire down the street started more than 12 hours ago, and TV news helicopters are still hovering over my condo.

It’s been a weird day.

It’s not every morning you get a 5:45 a.m. phone call to inform you your neighborhood is on fire, but that’s how my day began. My girlfriend, Kattina, woke me up to say goodbye. We could hear a helicopter outside. I joked that the paparazzi wouldn’t leave me alone. I rolled over in bed as I heard the front door shut. Sixty seconds later, Kattina phoned from out in the street. “Greenwood’s on fire,” she said.

Greenwood is the name of my North Seattle neighborhood, as well as the major shopping street that runs parallel to my street, a short block away.

“What do you mean Greenwood’s on fire?” I asked. I had already pulled on a pair of jeans before I finished the sentence. No time for boxer shorts.

“I don’t know. There’s a huge fire burning somewhere around Greenwood and 85th.”

“Is my building safe?”

“Yeah but you might want to see what’s going on.”

Okay, so there was time to put on a shirt. No time to find my camera. And it didn’t occur to me until I had sprinted halfway down the block that my bladder needed attention.

The intersection a block away was chaos. Four businesses were burning. Even in the early-morning darkness, I could see the air filled with smoke. Fire engine ladders and microwave antennas from TV news trucks were poking into the sky, and a mini swarm of helicopters was hovering overhead. My heart sank when I realized one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place called Pho Tic-Tac, was among those burning and unsalvageable.

If you read my blog on a regular basis, or my website or Twitter feed, or if you’ve ever had a conversation with me for more than a few minutes, you probably already know how much I love Vietnam. I made my first trip there in April, 2008, and was so captivated by the people and landscape, I went back again 11 months later. On the last night of my last visit, after I said my goodbyes to friends there, I remember walking down the noisy street around midnight thinking, “This feels like home.”

And I get homesick. I think about the country every single day and calculate how, and how soon, I can get myself back there. (I’m returning next month to organize a small group tour for 2010. Stay tuned or subscribe to my free e-mail list for details.)

IMG_6153 When I can’t be in Vietnam, one of the things that has kept me sane is Pho Tic-Tac. The restaurant, right down the street from me in Seattle, has served the most authentic Vietnamese food I’ve found outside of Vietnam. Their pho was like the same traditional noodle soup I slurp for breakfast in Saigon. Their pork chops, grilled and served with sticky rice and a side of fish sauce for dipping, rivaled the late-night Saigon street food I gobble at makeshift restaurants.

This afternoon, Pho Tic-Tac is a smoldering pile of rubble. You can see the melted fridge through a hole in the wall. It feels eerie peering in and remembering where my favorite table was.

I stood in the rain and shivered in the early morning, watching fire fighters try to keep up with hot spots that flared inside all four businesses, but they could only stop the flames from spreading further. Three restaurants and a coffee house were gone — and while it looked like Taproot Theater, the little community theater next door, would be spared, it too suffered major water damage.

But eleven kitties were evacuated from a shelter down the street. They’re all okay. And other than a fire fighter who sprained his ankle, no humans were injured. So, yeah, things could have been worse.

After the sun rose, and the drama of fire hoses and live coverage grew redundant, I went home to work, but I couldn’t focus. I wandered down the street for some breakfast, then called my friend Solomon, who had been scheduled to do a late-night storytelling performance at the water-damaged theater. He was at the theater, helping salvage sets and costumes. So I went back and started at the spectacle some more. Then I went home and tried to work again. But my plan for today was to work on my monthly humor column, and that just wasn’t going to happen.

I went back to the scene of the fire again in the afternoon. I didn’t want to be a gawker, or one of the attention-desperate people who insert themselves in front of TV cameras. I just didn’t know what else to do with myself. All day, there’s been a small crowd gathered, staring in shock, so I stared some more with them.

The most popular business among the four destroyed was the Green Bean, a coffee shop whose owner has a well-deserved reputation for community involvement and charity, both locally and globally. They also display work by local artists. I’m guessing somebody’s original stuff was lost.

“That’s tragic about the Green Bean,” a woman standing near me said to a guy I’d been talking to. “Those other restaurants don’t matter, but the Green Bean was so important to our community.”

I almost lost it.

“Those other restaurants don’t matter?”

“Well I didn’t mean it like that,” she said.

“Those were all family-run businesses. They’ve just lost everything. I don’t think they’d agree with you that they don’t matter.”

“You’re getting me all wrong,” she said.

I was too depressed to get into it further. I shrugged and turned away.

“I don’t care about those other restaurants,” I overheard her say a minute later. “It’s just so sad about the Green Bean.”

At that moment, the family that owns the shell of a building that had been the Szechuan Bistro walked by.

“Well now I feel like a schmuck,” the lady said to me once the family had passed us.

Good.

I explained to her, as calmly as I could, about my love for Vietnam, and how Pho Tic-Tac was my neighborhood connection with a part of my spirit I needed to feed. I think she got it in the end that it isn’t cool to stand in front of somebody else’s tragedy and say it doesn’t matter. At least I hope she got it.

It was dark out when I got out of bed this morning. It will be dark again soon. A crowd is still gathered. The TV crews are still here. So is the fire department. The buildings are still smouldering, and I have a feeling the neighborhood is going to smell like smoke for weeks.

What’s the point to all of this? Hell, I don’t know. I had planned to work on my monthly humor column today, but that wasn’t happening. After my mini-confrontation with Ms. “The other restaurants don’t matter,” I felt a need to write something.

In the world of personal essay writing, there’s a fine line between telling a good story and being pathetically self-indulgent. If I’ve crossed that line this afternoon, thanks for humoring me and reading anyway. And this doesn’t even qualify as personal essay writing. It’s unedited, stream-of-consciousness rambling I just had to get out of my system. I needed to do something other than watching th
e news for another three hours or continuing to stare at a smoking pile of rubble until another spectator pissed me off with a flippant remark. (There have been others I don’t have the energy to write about.)

Pho is one of my favorite comfort foods, and Pho Tic-Tac has been a place I’ve gravitated to when I’ve needed comfort. It’s not a place I can go this evening. So I’m writing instead.

Published on Saturday, October 24, 2009

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