Mr. Landy was always dressed in a felt hat, an old brown suit with a white shirt, without a tie, buttoned at the collar. His bent frame of an old man’s body would take a “daily constitutional”, as he would call it, to a neighborhood grocery store, Sherman’s, half a block away. His purchase might include bread, milk or cold cuts. But the one purchase he always made was his daily pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. I knew because my mother had borrowed a cigarette from him once, and remarked how they both liked the same brand.
One summer, I was awakened from a sound sleep by fire engines and then someone banging on the front bedroom window. My mother was pulling her all night shift at the White Tower,while my brother and step father somehow managed to sleep through all the noise. At the window was a fireman, yelling about someone’s house being on fire and if anyone knew if there were more occupants in the house. I ran out to find out what house was on fire. It was Mr. Landy’s house.
The fireman was somewhat relieved to hear that there might not be anyone else living there. Mr. Landy had been taken out, barely conscious, and was on a stretcher trying to get his breadth back.
It seemed Mr. Landy had been smoking in bed and the mattress caught fire. He had miraculously managed to call the fire department before he totally passed out from smoke inhalation.
As I stood there in astonishment, watching the fire rage through his basement apartment and listening to the fireman yell at him for smoking in bed,
I knew this would be a lesson learned.
Not so. This happened again a month later. The same exact thing-smoking in bed. The same drill, firemen waking the neighbors, making sure no one else was in the house, and reprimanding Mr. Landy for the same foolish act.
He was a lucky man, so far.
The 3rd fire was the last. The final time I saw Mr. Landy, he was being carried out on a stretcher by the firemen. Burnt to a crisp. That’s the only way I can describe what I saw. He didn’t wake up in time, couldn’t call the fire department, and couldn’t get out alive. He burned to death. To this day the vision and the stench remain in my mind.
Three strikes and you're out.
So much for the first two fires being a wake up call.
Many years later, in my 30’s, my mother called during the night. This was nothing unusual. She had a habit of “crying wolf” to get my attention for any reason. She would feign sickness, fainting and/or heart attacks just to get me over to her house. It was a game, and I played it like a champ, or maybe chump, but she always won.
On this particular night when I went over, I noticed a strange yet somewhat memorable smell in her apartment hallway. There were about 100 apartments in the complex. It smelled like burnt toast.
I walked in her apartment and realized the stench was coming from there. She too, had fallen asleep smoking Pall Malls, setting fire to the mattress. I doused the rest of the small but smoldering inferno with water.
What did I do? I dragged the smelly, wet, burnt mattress out the back door of the apartment, stuck it in my car, took it to my apartment, threw it in the dumpster. I then dragged the mattress I was using back to her house for her to sleep on.
And oh, why did she call me in the middle of the night, and not my brother who’s a FIREMAN and lived closer than I did? Her response was that she didn’t want him to know she had done something so stupid. God, the rules never applied to her.
I’m sure there’s a message in here somewhere, but I don’t know if it’s for me. I’ve never smoked.