Fire and ice

It's a quiet day in Portland. You would expect that, as it's a holiday weekend, but the stillness is really profound because we are under a deep freeze that started Friday afternoon. Yesterday the temperature on the front porch ranged from 11.9 degrees to 13.5 degrees Fahrenheit. At midday today it's hit a balmy 21.7.

Now, people in other parts of the country laugh at what passes for extreme cold here. But the rare day like yesterday, where the temperature was in the low teens with that nasty east wind we get off the Columbia Gorge dropping wind chills below zero – well, we don't how to handle it.  Our buildings aren't built for it, and neither is our utility infrastructure. Tall trees fall on power lines, and it can take days to get the juice flowing again. Yesterday even the gas company warned that they were running low, and they asked people to turn down their thermostats.

That's a big ask, given that owners of the many older homes here in town are worried about our water pipes freezing in our uninsulated walls. We've got the faucets trickling, the cabinets under the sinks open, space heaters strategically placed where the pipes might freeze, and so on. People who don't usually pray much can be heard launching a shout-out to whoever's up there.

And it's far from over. If Portlanders make it through the initial cold, wind, and snow without mishap, they invariably have a miserable experience to look forward to when things finally start to warm up. The air above gets a lot warmer than the air below, and we get freezing rain, which causes even more havoc than wind and snow. The "silver thaw," the older locals call it. At present, it looks like we'll be experiencing that on Tuesday. Cue the dread.

By Wednesday or Thursday, we hope, it will be just plain raining and in the 40s again, and we can all go back to whatever it is we do. But for many, there will be a lot of damage to clean up and repair.

In the meantime, not a creature is stirring on the streets, and we gaze out our windows in wonder at how cold it got yesterday. On the news, there are the usual weather-related-tragedy stories. Trees falling on houses, and cars, and people. Street people freezing to death. And the fires – always, the fires. The things people do to heat their indoor spaces against the extreme cold often aren't safe.

Today I was looking with sadness at the photos of a church fire on Sandy Boulevard in the 60s. The church was operating a homeless shelter in its gym, and a fire broke out there before dawn this morning, spreading to the house next door. Two people died.

What never fails to catch my eye in images like those is the ice. When the firefighters douse the flames, the water that runs off freezes, sometimes on the side of the building, always on the street. To me it's a miracle that the hydrants work at all in frigid temperatures. And the giant frozen sheets, waterfalls, and blocks that form seem like the ultimate sign of how fragile life is.

I remember the first time I saw fire and ice together like that. There was a bar up the alley and around the corner from where we lived in the Down Neck section of Newark. It was not one that our fathers ever went to, and if I'm remembering correctly, that was because it was one that the Black people went to. Our neighborhood had a little bit of every ethnicity, and we generally coexisted without incident, but drinking and socializing were still starkly segregated based on skin color.

The bar was on the corner of a busy street, with two floors of apartments above it. Nowadays this is what the urban planning overlords drool over as "mixed use."

One extremely cold night – could it have been New Year's Eve? – the building caught fire. I don't recall ever knowing how the blaze started, but it got going pretty good before the Fire Department put it out. Some people who lived upstairs died.

By the time we kids were allowed to walk up to the corner and see it, huge globs of ice were hanging down the sides of the building. There were quite a few burned-out windows. We had heard about the fatalities, and this was as close to real death as some of us had ever been. Lots of cowboys and Indians and soldiers died on TV, but this was different. It was spooky. Especially the ice. I'll never forget it.

Amazingly, the building's still there, something like 60 years later. It's a restaurant now, I see, and people still live upstairs. I wonder if any of them know about the history. It's just as well that they didn't. May they add their own happier stories to the place. 

And may they have sprinklers. That work.


  1. Where on earth is Tina Kotek? You’d think she’d be having pressers.

    1. She has been so off the radar, that sometimes you forget that she is the sitting governor. Probably for the better anyway.

    2. Pressers? What exactly are you hoping to hear from her? "It's cold outside, stay warm"?

    3. At least she could show up and say, "I'm cold, too!" For all we know she's done a Ted Cruz and is at a Club Med in Mexico.

  2. When you mentioned photos of a church fire "in the 60s" I thought you meant the 1960s. Is that a Jerseyism? I grew up in Portland and never heard anyone in my neighborhood say, "I live in the 40s."

    1. I don't know where I got that expression. If I had meant the temporal decade rather than the streets, I would have placed an apostrophe before "60s."

  3. Brilliant writing, Jack


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