In 1979, when I first moved to Somerville, I lived next door to the Barnes brothers, two old misers who actually owned the ramshackle, six-unit apartment they lived in. They also owned another six-unit building, just as forlorn, a block up the street. In all kinds of weather those two geezers, in ancient, moth-eaten suits, slowly shuttled between their properties, pushing a battered shopping cart which served both as their walker and to schlep the few tools needed for the small repairs they were still able to do.
After the Barnes brothers died, their properties remained empty for an uncomfortably long time. Raccoons moved in next door. So did squirrels. I’d stare at that looming, decrepit, three story building just feet away from my home—a looming, wood-frame building, of course—and wonder: When does a desperate human break in? Someone who’s drunk or stoned. And lights a fire to keep warm.
So I called the Somerville Fire Department. “Don’t worry,” a young male voice assured me. “ We won’t let anything bad happen to your house.”
“But it’s such a big building,” I argued. Once a fire gets started—”
“Hey, lady, “ the voice interrupted. “We know our job.”
A few years later, a young and energetic developer bought that looming, hulking nightmare next door, expelled the wildlife and, doing much of the work, herself, she made that building sparkle. I know this because one day, just as she and her workers had almost completed their work, she’d invited me inside to see what she’d done to the place.
“Guess what we found in the basement,” she asked after I’d sufficiently oohed and aahhed. I could only imagine. “A bunch of Ball jars on the floor. And guess what they were filled with?” I shrugged. “Kerosene!”
Friday, gawking at the charred remains of a triple-decker on Somerville’s Calvin Street—and the buckling, blackened buildings surrounding it—I remembered that insouciant firefighter. (And those fraught Ball jars in the basement.) Less than twenty-four hours after a horrific train accident in Spain which killed at least eighty people, the extensive damage wrought by a seven-alarm fire before me, I tried to imagine how many blocks of my beloved, cheek by jowl ‘ville would be ravaged should a train carrying ethanol derail on the Fitchburg and Lowell Commuter Rail line. Could all the fire departments of greater Boston contain such a conflagration? It’s unimaginable.
Twice a week you want to move a “bomb train” through Somerville? I don’t think so.