Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13 2
When you’re like me and have to buy all things new that a month ago were old, you get your fill of the brand spanking new fast. When you’re like me and the only thing old in your apartment is you, you yearn for the old and worn things; things that fit your life like comfortable old shoes. When you’re like me you yearn for things that have a touch of grey, a wisp of Wabi-sabi. When you’re like me and you are replacing your life on a budget, you go to tag sales; a lot of tag sales.
She was haggling over a cast-iron frying pan and I was there to haggle over a chair. It was inside a cold Quonset hut out by the railroad tracks at about 8:00 on a Sunday morning. She was almost old and certainly haggard with long lank strands of white and grey hair around a too old for her eyes face. She was making jokes and laughing with the tag sale lady as she worked her down a buck at a time. She worked her down with that tone people have when every dollar is important to their cash flow. Then she heard me ask the quiet question we are all asking in Chico when we shop for everything to replace everything we’ve lost, “D0 you have a Camp Fire discount?”
She came over to me with her hand already holding her cell phone and asked the question Paradise refugees ask each other when they first meet, “What street were you when the fire came through?”
“Scottwood. Where were you?”
“Driving my school bus. We’d started at 6:30 and then after I picked up some kids we were called back to the bus yard near the school.”
“Did you go?”
“Couldn’t get there. The fire was already there. I just told the kids to stay in their seats and I got to the K-Mart parking lot.”
“I thought that burned to the ground. The whole shopping center.”
“No. No. It was okay when I was there with the kids. They had other cars there too and a fire truck hooked up to a pump.”
She flips her fingers back and forth on the screen of her phone looking for the pictures we all took of what we were up to on that day. I think a lot of folks took pictures of the fire surrounding them thinking that at least something, maybe their phone, might survive that recorded their final agony. Some might have. We don’t know yet.
“Here. See that? That’s the fireman who trained his hose on my bus. Kept us cool inside all that heat. Took nearly four hours to get us out. Kept it up all that time until we could move then went along with us with the fire truck.”
“More like four and a half really. Little girl in my bus couldn’t hold it. I told her it was okay and she could just pee in the back of the bus. She was embarrassed. I told her, ‘It’s alright honey. Nobody’s gonna see.”
More images of the school bus being wet down in the parking lot flicker by with a flick of her fingers. Then images of the tunnel of fire on Clark or Pentz with a fire truck in front and the fireman still hosing down the bus behind him in this fire tunnel caravan.
“What did you lose,” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Oh, house and garage. Everything.
“I even lost my car. Here’s a picture a friend sent me of my car parked in the bus yard.”
She shows me a grim, but far too common, image of a row of gutted and burned out cars. Her’s is in the middle. It’s some sort of small hard-used banger common among the Paradise people who lived on a “fixed income.” It’s just a gray burned metal shell like those to the right and the left of it. It’s beyond minor body work. She’ll have to get a new very used car. She’ll have a hard time affording one.
“It is what it is,” she says. (We all say that a lot these days.) “But it could have been worse. Much worse. Look there.”
She blows up the photo and scrolls to the right of the burned cars. There are two very large metal tanks about 15 yards away from the ranks of incinerated automobiles. They’ve got “3,000” stenciled on them.
“Those are full of diesel for our buses. And in front, underground, are some of the bus yard’s gasoline tanks. The fire took the cars but left the tanks. Could have been worse.”
It’s hard for me to imagine anything about the Camp Fire that could have been worse but I see her point.
The tag sale lady behind her is making that turning away move people make when they need to get on selling the old junk they don’t need to someone who does. The bus driver shrugs and puts her phone away.
“Yep, could have been worse, but we got the kids out.”