After the Fire

Bird on a wire, a few days after the Clemens fire, temperature 101. Photo by Thom Fletcher

I was born on a Monday, which apparently means I am full of grace. (So much for the wisdom of Mother Goose.) That nursery rhyme further elaborates that Wednesday’s child is full of woe; maybe that’s why I have always been suspicious of Wednesdays.

On July 12, our neighborhood had a very bad Wednesday:

That’s my neighbor, Mr. Bell, being interviewed in front of my house. Those are my bushes, and my shabby-looking irises. (Hey, it’s been a hot summer!) Somehow I managed to sleep through that insane fire, and firemen pouring water on the roof, and mulitple emergency vehicles going up and down the street, and Fox 2 shooting in front of my steps. I woke up at 6 a.m. as usual, and smelled smoke. I panicked, assuming I’d left the stove on. But it was off. Standing in the kitchen, I saw a firetruck through the back window, and guessed it was a nearby house—we have an uncanny number of house fires in North St. Louis. Thom went outside, came back in, and said, “It’s the Clemens Mansion.”

Not a warehouse, as the fire department first thought. But a building about that big, for sure.

The odd thing: St. Louis Magazine (my employer) ran an in-depth piece on the history of the house a few weeks before it burned. Somehow I’d missed the fact that James Clemens—Mark Twain’s uncle—built the house for his late wife, Eliza, who’d died of cholera. Her face is all over the house: in the lintels, in the paster ceiling medallions, everywhere. Here are Paul Poiret’s images for the Library of Congress’ Historical American Buildings Survey, circa 1960:

As you can see, it was looking a bit scratchy and worse for wear even back then. Though the driveway into the grounds was at the end of my street, and was totally open and unboarded, I never went in. Though I saw plenty of little goth kids strolling in and out of there to get their UrbEx photos. The first time I set foot in there was after the fire, when reporters showed up after several days of neighbors agitating at the Health Department and Paul McKee—both had been mum about cleanup. Though the boiler and such had been remediated for asbestos, the roof had not; that’s why there are huge chunks of black, unburnt asbesots debris all over the neighborhood. All over. The EPA made a dispersion map, and my street, Helen, was right in the middle of an angry red blob that indicated we were ground zero for most of the debris, but the stuff blew over Highway 70 and maybe as far as the Mississippi River.

The Clemens Mansion was always a ghost mansion, a gothic tribute to a dead woman, every architectural detail a momento mori. Its burning feels like a cremation, Eliza Clemens’ ashes everywhere.  This new age person says that asbestos is a “spiritual vacuum cleaner,” absorbing negative energy, though it never discharges or heals it. My poor neighborhood has seen plenty of negative energy, and it is easy for me to imagine all of that bad energy concentrated in that toxic roof. Maybe Thom was more right than he knew when he said that the debris reminded him of the final (yes, truly awkward) scene of Time Bandits:

“It’s evil! Don’t touch it!” That’s the first rule about asbestos. Also: DO NOT WEAR SHOES IN THE HOUSE. I bought myself a pair of ugly mint green polka dot boots from Rural King, two sizes two big so that I can slip them off and on without touching them.

I don’t have a grass yard; there’s a serviceberry tree, an elderberry bush, mulch and more mulch, purple coneflowers, lavender, hydrangeas … I don’t know how they are going to truly clean up our yard, because they can’t just use a vacuum like on the lawns and grass lots. The men in moon suits are expected to arrive soon, but who knows if they’ll really get us back to the point where we have a clean, safe space. So I continue to go outside in my ugly polka dotted boots. I wear them when I step out on to the back porch to throw stuff in the recycling bin and the compost bucket. I wear them when I go out in the yard to feed the feral cat that has adopted us. I wear them when I fill the birdfeeder, as I wonder whether I should even be filling the bird feeder, should I be attracting birds to a yard full of asbestos ash? I watch dozens and dozens of bees visiting my mint and chamomile plants. I watch hummingbirds feeding off the pineapple sage flowers. I can’t pull the plants out to discourage the wildlife because it’s contaminated, so I can’t touch it. I can’t make the bees go away, or the hummingbirds. They see flowers, and they are going to visit them. There is a baby opossum living under our hydrangeas—he stood three inches away from me the other night. I am terrified for my neighbors and my neighbors’ kids. I worry for everyone and everything, down to the tiny little sweat bees swirling around my flowers, down to the weeds and the ants.

It’s hard to explain how awful it is to suddenly have your sanctuary turned into a SuperFund site. To have all the things that previously brought you delight—all the neighbors and birds and the butterflies and flowering plants—suddenly transformed into things that worry you and make you sick at heart. Not long after the fire, my purple coneflowers started turning brown and dropping petals. Is it because it’s 100+ degrees outside? Or are they being poisoned? What will happen to our outdoor cat? What are we breathing? Have we tracked this stuff into our house unwittingly? Is it all over our floors, our clothes, our bedsheets? We were told to wipe things down with paper towels, put those in a sealed plastic bag, and call the EPA to pick them up—paper towels with dust on them, suddenly toxic waste. I started the summer off by treating myself to tickets to Opera Theatre’s production of The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name. Little did I know that it was not just going to be a trip to the opera—that this summer, Kafka would become my Virgil, my psychopomp.