Julie Stalmer 8:30 a.m., March 23
The Hillcrest Fire: Gwen's Story
On Monday, July 25, at 7:30, Moxie Theatre hosts "After the Fire - a Benefit Jam for Jason Connors and Gwen Fish." They lost everything in the recent Hillcrest fire.
During the day, Gwen Fish teaches English as a Foreign Language at UCSD. At night, she's an indefatigable stage manager for Diversionary and Moxie theaters.
Last Wednesday around 3:30, her landlord left a message on her cell phone. Gwen was teaching and didn't check calls until 4:30. The message said: "Are you okay? We've been trying to reach you...about the fire."
Gwen called a friend. "Fire?"
"On the news. Looks like your building. 1033 University, right?"
The friend picked her up. As they drove into Hillcrest, the traffic thickened. They had to park several blocks away from a perimeter set up by police. They came upon a turmoil of fire trucks, bulging hoses snaking across the street, giant ladders angled toward a roof. Helicopters hovered near a pillar of smoke rising from her home.
"It was so strange for it to be at my place. Like watching a horrible car wreck and hoping everyone's okay? Only this is my car wreck."
People from the Red Cross approached her in red vests. "You live here?"
"Yes," Gwen replied with a crazy smile ("Nothing had sunk in yet; it was all surrealism.")
The Red Cross people "took control," Gwen laughs, "like a stage manager." They offered granola bars and asked residents to fill out some forms. "All very orderly - a point of focus and a big help since everything else was unreal. Just filling out forms - it felt like a positive step."
She couldn't enter her second floor studio apartment until Saturday, after city and fire officials had made safety checks. Even then, they discouraged her from going up: she could "walk away" and dispense with all possessions, or stand in the doorway and point to the objects she wanted. She couldn't go inside.
She climbed the stairs, walked down a hall coated with water-soaked soot. At her door, a shock: the roof had collapsed through the third floor and onto her apartment. She could see the sky.
"Pieces of roof and electrical wires and a blanket of soot covered the room - and this horrible smell! This was my home? It was so bizarre the sadness and loss didn't hit me then. Still hasn't, in some ways."
She saw a file cabinet with her important documents and asked her guide, in hardhat and goggles, to retrieve it. "Everything else was destroyed."
"I got this need to salvage something - like my priceless garlic press; something metallic I could scrub clean of all this gunk" - but couldn't.
She also felt suddenly exposed. "I'm a shy, private person, and here was where I lived - my little charred home now open for public viewing"
She has driven past several times since. When she sees her broken window she wants someone to "board it up!"
She has mixed feelings about sympathy. "I understand the gesture, but hey, nobody died." Her upbeat reply reflects her personality. "I say, 'isn't this crazy?' and just laugh."
Though "totally not a materialistic person," Gwen says she misses what she had. "Stuff is cool. Stuff can be great. I'm not anti-stuff.
"I was happy to have what I had. It's weird not to have it - like losing your identity. My apartment said 'these are my things; this is my house and why I have it this way.'"
She's staying with friends and in no hurry to find a new apartment.
"I don't like the idea of moving into a place with no stuff. Just standing in an empty apartment - I think that's when it will hit me."
More like this:
- The Hillcrest Fire: Jason's Story — July 21, 2011
- Take Me to the Pilot -- Stalker Stories — Sept. 26, 2009
- When black smoke hits your eye from a big pizza pie, that's amore — Jan. 19, 2009
- Blogs in the Key of... — Aug. 4, 2008
- Pliers for Flyers — March 29, 2008