The boss peeked around the doorway, his eyebrows raised, as if he was about to say something funny. Instead, he asked, "Hey, you know what time it is?" Without waiting for an answer, he said, "It's time for us to go home."
It was early in spring and when I opened the door the sun's warmth pushed through the air while the afternoon breeze pushed it back. As I put one foot inside the cab of my truck, I heard, "There's smoke back there."
I made a pivot, leaving my truck door open, and we walked towards the smoke.
The fire was behind our building, alongside a canal and in an adjacent lot filled with materials used for highway construction. The lot was sealed off by a beaten up chain link fence topped with layers of rusty barbed wire. We dialed 9-1-1 and cautiously walked the length of the building to get a closer look. I was warned, "Watch out, they have propane tanks over there." The "They" were the people who lived among the girders and concrete pipes. These structures served as their home but we referred to the people who lived there as The Homeless. I assumed they had left the area and abandoned their fire, started for warmth, and the fire had taken over.
I was walking and talking to the 9-1-1 operator when I noticed him sitting on the ground, his back to me, leaning up against the other side of the fence. He was wedged into a pocket of space framed by a stack of massive steel girders and a pile of thick yellow resin highway barrels. The barrels were stacked on top of one another, eight feet high, like giant Solo cups. His right shoulder leaned against them, propping him up. I could have reached through the fence and touched him.
A looming tower of thick hardwood planks burned in front of him. They snapped and popped as the fire fed from its base and regurgitated particulates into rolling black clouds that were immediately dispersed by the wind.
"Buddy, you have to get out of there," we told him.
He turned his head, looking up at us with confused recognition. He mumbled and it was hard to hear anything over the combustion.
Time stood still. We waited for the fire department and for the man to get up and walk away. Why was he just sitting there?
Time passed. The fire took advantage of the lull and continued to consume. We began to yell at him to stand up and run, through the flames if he had to. His exit was now closer to blocked, yet he stayed right where he was, and even turned away from us and towards the flames, as if he were watching a campfire.
Time flew. Panic set in. Flames were fanned and licked closer, yet he remained rooted. We sprinted for a pair of bolt cutters. We tried to think our way through a problem that, we began to realize, may not have a solution.
Time, we tried to buy some, hoping to find some measure of collected rain water in a bucket. All the while, he sat there with a bewildered look on his face, as if he could not understand what all the fuss was about. The wind continued to blow over the canal, exposing the undersides of the leaves and breathing more life into the flames.
We heard sirens.
We began to realize what we were about to witness.
When the stack of yellow barrels ignited, the fire roared upwards in a spire of oily black and orange flame. Bits of material melted away, like spider webs, and landed on our clothes and the ground around us. The heat seared our faces like a sunburn, and as we made one last approach towards the fence, it repelled us.
The bolt cutters were useless.
We were useless.
Finally, he stood up. His expression told me he understood his predicament. The grimace on his face looked like a smile.
He stared at me. I stared at him.
Time ran out.
I ran away.
It is my assumption that the man on the other side of the fence had a lot of failure in his life - one does not live among concrete pipes without it. It is also my guess that he had been failed by a collective us, as society does not let one of its citizens live and die among concrete pipes without some measure of it.
I was the last person to fail the man on the other side of the fence and it is a difficult thing to come to terms with. I do realize that it is not my job to save lives or humanity, but on that particular day I tried...and failed; but at least I tried.
The firetrucks, the police, and the newspaper reporters swarmed. Bystanders gathered. I heard jokes. Someone snuck a picture on his phone. The man on the other side of the fence did not have a home and he died alone, that is two tragedies. That the death of a human being was devalued is a third.
My truck door was still open. I climbed in.
My face was still hot from the flames.
For the lucky ones, home is a place you go to be safe, to be told everything is going to be alright. This time, nobody needed to ask me what time it was.
It was time for me to go home, again.
For more information on the State of Homelessness in America, click here.
To make a donation to a home for those who are without one, click below.