The fire alarm went off. The fire escape was blocked. I was eating a sandwich and watching TV. It was Thursday night, and my suitemates were all out getting drunk. I thought for some reason — probably because I was drunk too — that the sound was coming from some stupid toy my roommates had bought.
“That’s not funny,” I yelled, turning up the volume.
When the suite across the hall ran through my room toward the fire escape, I realized the noise I was busy ignoring probably wasn’t the toy.
“We finally get to use the fire escape,” they said, laughing, and then: “What the hell is all this shit?”
My suitemates and I store all of our trash and unused furniture in the fire escape. In that narrow staircase adjacent to our room, there are three enormous cardboard boxes. There is a huge, ugly love seat that we don’t like. There are two beanbag chairs pressed together covered in extra blankets. My suitemate, who has a double, has sex with his girlfriend on those beanbag chairs. I think he lost his virginity there.
Instead of panicking and leaving the building another way, I panicked and started clearing the fire escape of the various items we kept stored away in there. Death I could handle; the enormous fine we would incur for a fire-code violation, I could not.
When I finally got outside (I was the last person out of the building), everyone else was milling around aimlessly in the freezing cold. I came out holding my sandwich. No one seemed the least bit scared. And for good reason, too, because there was no fire — it was probably just someone smoking a joint under a smoke detector. In any event, it was pretty clear to everyone that this was no emergency.
If there had been a fire that day, someone living in the three floors above us would probably have died. That wouldn’t have been good. But then again, if we cleared all the trash out of the fire escape, we wouldn’t have any space to store all of our extra shit. That wouldn’t be good either.
Fire alarms and fire escapes are all about safety. And safety is all about survival. And survival is what humans are supposed to care about most. So why don’t we give a shit about safety?
We feel immortal, that’s why. We don’t believe that anything bad will ever happen to us anymore. And we’re probably right. Nothing life-threatening ever happens to us. Not in the everyday, running-from-tigers way, anyway. We are so immune to the fear of death that we actually seek out and pay for life-threatening scenarios. I don’t know about you, but hurtling down a mountain strapped to pieces of wood sounds like an emergency to me. But some of us drop some serious cash to do that every weekend, and barring freak accidents, nothing bad ever comes of these artificial crises. At worst, we get an expensive medical bill for our insurance company to cover.
We have been taught through hundreds of emergency drills that real emergencies aren’t actually real. And so we create emergencies for ourselves.
And it is one hell of a surprise when real emergencies do occur. Like when the earth decides it wants to shake uncontrollably. I don’t pretend to know anything about the Japanese, but when the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, I bet those people on the Bay Bridge must have thought at first that the shaking was an aftereffect of their hangover from the previous night. Those people were wrong, and they were screwed. The rest of us, though, were just sitting around in a shaking house. My mom, for one, wasn’t worried as she cradled my infant brother that afternoon. She just put him to bed and started eating a sandwich as she waited for the TV to come back on.