We’re all gamblers in various ways — betting against the house when it comes to smoking, or overeating or, in my case, delaying purchase of renter’s insurance while being positively petrified of a fire breaking out in my building. Well, after years of sitting bolt upright in bed every time a fire truck turns onto my street, last night it finally happened. They stopped out front and a phalanx of firemen came barreling into my building, boot buckles clinking and oxygen tanks clanking and shouting at the top of their lungs that they had to get into an apartment 3 floors above mine. Strangely enough, after years of expecting utter self-dissolution at the prospect of imminent immolation, I reacted perfectly calmly. I got up, got dressed, collected my financial documents and placed them in a backpack along with the external hard drive from my computer that holds about 100,000 files pretty much containing the digital representation of my life for the past 15 years. Then I looked around my apartment and thought of what else could not afford to be lost. Almost without having to think I settled on 3 items: a stack of hand-written journals that I’ve kept since I was 18, a small porcelain doll that my mother treasured as a child in Ireland and one of the few things she was able to pass along to me at her death and a white clay pipe of my grandfather’s that had been passed on to her. That’s all.
The fire turned out to be a minor event, quickly extinguished by the firemen who clomped out of the building about 20 minutes after they showed up. When it was over and I was unpacking the backpack I was a bit amazed that the most valuable items that had emerged from decades of living were a few artifacts of identity — physical traces of myself and those who came before me. Talismans. What had been mere sentimental mementos minutes earlier were revealed, in the moment of crisis, to be absolutely essential. I wouldn’t have guessed it.