I wake up to the repeating blip of a fire alarm. It’s the sound one makes when its 9V is low on juice or possibly the dumb thing is just old and confused because its manufacture date is sometime circa 1980. But it’s not the fire alarm.
It’s the carbon monoxide (CO) alarm. I stumble out of bed and grab a chair from the kitchen. My naked body flexes and strains on tippy-toes to unscrew the ugly little off-white hemisphere from the top of the ceiling. I resist the temptation to pull the 9V and go back to bed. My pre-coffee eyes strain to read the words printed on the back of the device, set in sadistically small type:
ALARM IS NOT OPERATING PROPERLY (MALFUNCTION):
HORN: Three chirps every minute
ALARM LEVELS OF CO ARE DETECTED:
HORN: Sounds loudly — 4 beeps, pause
Fuck. I listen intensely, like a wild animal. Was that three chirps? Or four beeps? I wait anxiously for the next sound, still nude. I need coffee. Shit. I count four chirps all in a row. Pickles meows to let me know he’s ready for his morning kibbles, then softly bites my ankle. I squint at the instructions again. The void between the high-pitched tweets is quiet and filled with the familiar muted rumbles of the morning traffic on 14th Street five stories below. This is real, I try to convince myself. My apartment is filling quickly with a lethal, odorless gas. I say it to myself in my head. I consider the possibility that I’m already dead. My heart is racing and my body instantly feels heavy like lead, which is either an early sign of CO intoxication or possibly that I just need my morning coffee fix, I can’t be sure which. I need to get out now.
I open up all the windows and throw on some jeans and a white Hanes crew neck and chase Pickles around until I catch him and shove him into his baby blue carrier that he hates and has a history of pooping in. As we walk down the five flights of stairs, I consider the possibility that all of my neighbors are dead. Or just as likely: that in my foggy haste I’ve simply miscounted beeps and now appear as a madman, frantic and unwashed, clutching a demonic baby blue bag that’s shifting back and forth and emitting animal noises and will probably soon radiate the earthy aroma of fresh cat feces.
The sidewalk is bright and crowded. I stand there with Pickles and watch a construction crew of sweaty-browed Chinese men go about their work, emerging from and descending into a square hole in the sidewalk outside the Chinese-Cubano restaurant that occupies the ground floor of my building. I don’t know what to do.
I Google “carbon monoxide nyc” on my phone and get back a list of regulations and symptoms. “Headache” is the top bullet point. Fuck, do I have a headache? I do have a headache. Probably just the lack of caffeine though. Definitely not the carbon monoxide, I bet. It was definitely four beeps, not three, I’m almost sure of it.
I work up the courage to call 911. Four beeps. Four beeps, four beeps. The operator picks up and I shout into the phone over the noise of the street, trying to explain the nuance of the situation. She’s professional and terse in a way that’s comforting, and when she hears the words “carbon monoxide”, sirens start up in the distance. The siren’s pitch and volume rise continuously until two bright red engines turn the corner and settle on the street in front of me.
A handful of firemen climb out and barely look at me as they make their way towards the building. I put the key in the front door and I’m hoping, perversely, that the whole building is so fucking chock full of CO that it’s at like unprecedented levels, and that history will record me as a hero and not as the proverbial boy who cried wolf.
One fireman is holding a yellow meter out in front of him. As soon as he steps inside, the device lights up with an array of beeps and big numbers dance across its digital screen. “There’s definitely a lot of CO in here”, he says. I try to process my relief stoically.
I tag along as the men hike up to the fifth floor, feeling bad for them because I’m out of breath and I’m not the one carrying what could easily be thirty pounds worth of gear. When we reach the summit, it’s official: the building is full of CO and they need to evacuate the building now.
Doors are knocked on; some neighbors appear sleepy-eyed in various states of undress. The ones that don’t answer get their doors pried open with a large wedge and hammer; a two man operation. No one is paying much attention to me and I float up and down the staircase snapping pictures on my phone. I’m half curious and half hoping for a “thank you” that never comes.
I wait a long time on the sidewalk (Pickles has mercifully controlled his bowels, despite all the excitement). I finally ask the chief what’s up. “Crazy guys were running a gas generator in the basement. No ventilation.” he says incredulously. I shake my head, to mirror his disbelief.
One year passes.
I wake up to the repeated twang of a carbon monoxide alarm.
It can’t be happening again. But I listen closely, and this time I know exactly what to do — I’m on autopilot. I get dressed and open the windows and pack up our (now) two cats, each into their own fabric carrier and leash the chocolate Labrador we’re dogsitting and climb down the stairs and call 911. The sirens are far, then all-of-a-sudden close. I recognize the old chief and he lets a little smile escape his lips. We climb the five flights, the guys stepping heavy under their full gear. I open the door to the apartment and we go inside. The yellow handheld meter displays straight zeros across its LCD display, and I turn fire-engine red.
“Probably just a low battery,” one of the firemen shouts out as he dutifully stomps back towards the staircase.