The mayor was here a week ago. News crews scurried around, getting the best angles and making sure the audio was clear as the mayor stood on cracked and weed-strewn concrete and talked about urban revitalization. He used the word “rebirth” nine times in his thirteen-minute speech.
The thing about birth is that everyone thinks of the end result. No one thinks about the labor.
A week later, and it was just me and the soot boys, getting ready to burn down 1300 abandoned houses. It’s funny how ‘R’ words like revitalization and rebirth sound nice, but raze, ruin, and rip out really don’t, even when they’re two sides of the same coin.
“Go down Derby Street,” I told the soot boys, consulting the burn table. “We’ll take down the left side this morning, numbers 34 to 68.” We had to check each house to make sure they were empty, then Ronnie and Jimmy went in with what were basically commercial flamethrowers and physics did the rest. We didn’t have a firefighter crew on standby. If the fire ever did spread, that would just mean less work for us further down the road. We were at least five miles away from any property worth saving.
“Got a squatter in number 44,” Andy said over the radio.
“So make him move,” I said. “He’s got ten minutes.”
“He won’t go.”
I sighed and walked down to the house. The man looked like a typical squatter: long, unkempt hair and clothes whose time between washings was probably measured in years.
“I’m sorry sir, but you’re going to have to move,” I said. “We’re burning this house this morning.”
“You don’t understand.” There were tears in his eyes. “I live here.”
“I understand, but you can move to another house.” No point in mentioning that we’d be burning them all down eventually.
“You don’t get it. I bought this house fifteen years ago,” he said. “The bank took it after we’d been living here for ten years. My kids were born here!” He was crying now, but didn’t try to wipe the tears away.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said again. I hated to see the human face of the job I had been contracted to do so I put on my best mask of professionalism. “The bank has sold this property to the city revitalization trust. They have contracted me to remove all existing properties. This particular property is on the schedule for today.” I showed him the burn table.
“This used to be a thriving neighborhood,” he said, throwing out a skinny arm to encompass the morgue of broken-windowed, sagging-roofed houses that surrounded us. “You know, the first weekend we moved in, all the neighbors came over and helped us move. John Grant, over there at number 55—”
I didn’t want to hear any more. “I’ll give you until this afternoon,” I said. I picked up the radio. “Change of plan, guys. Switch to the right side for this morning.” I walked away before I could see if this pitiable creature was grateful or angry.
There were no squatters in any of the houses from 29 Derby Street to number 59 and soon Ronnie and Jimmy were walking down the street, spewing roaring, smoky destruction onto the decaying embodiments of failed dreams. I wonder how they thought about it, but knowing those two, it was nothing more than x dollars per hour. The whole row was a wall of flames by 10:30, and we retreated back to the truck to eat snacks and watch the fire do our work for us.
“I think it jumped,” Andy said, pointing down the road. There was smoke rising from the left side of the street.
“Crap! He didn’t, did he?”
“So let him. Less work for us.”
“What if he’s inside?” I said. They didn’t care; he was just another squatter to them, but to me it was an investigation and possibly a reprimand if someone died on my watch. I didn’t want to get the truck that close to the fires, so I walked as quickly as I could down the left hand sidewalk, knowing there was nothing I could do if the squatter had set the house on fire with him inside.
The man was sitting on the sidewalk, watching as greedy tongues of fire snaked out through blackened glass and out from under the eaves. He was not crying any longer, but the look of pain on his face was worse.
“Sorry, it just didn’t seem right to have strangers do it,” he said. “Will I get in trouble?”
I shook my head. “Be careful, though,” I said. Then, “You want something to eat?”
He nodded and stood up. With one last look at the doomed house, he turned his back and we walked away.