Harley and the Firemen

It’s hard not to like firemen. Really: the job of firemen has been romanticized for probably as long as they’ve been driving around in those big, giant, shiny red trucks. They have all the gadgets and muscles of a policeman, without the billy-clubs and pepper-spray: what’s not to love? But if you look past the rubber-suited, fire-hose-totin’ glamour, firemen really have kind of crappy jobs. Think about it, they’re either hanging around the firehouse for endless hours, playing cards, listening to music, maybe lifting weights … shirtless … perhaps taking long, hot saunas with other muscular firemen, roughly rubbing scented oil into each other’s rippling pectorals … *ahem* … sorry, got off track. Where was I?

Oh yes, talking about how lame the job of being a fireman must really be. Either they’re waiting around for a really terrible fire to happen, or they’re putting out a really terrible fire, which boils down to: really boring, or really depressing. I imagine the greatest perk for a fireman must be saving things. Sometimes they get to save a home, sometimes they save people, and sometimes they even save people’s pets.

Like many people, I’d been raised on books in which naughty puppies got lost and found, and foolish kittens had gotten stuck in trees. More often than not, a cheerful, smiling fireman was on hand to save the day. I mention this because I have my own personal Golden Book memory, wherein my dear cat Harley was stuck–not in a tree, but in an apartment–and I called upon some wonderful firemen to save him.

Our story unfolds in Seattle. I was watching a friend’s house while he was out of town, not actually staying there, just watering the plants, and bringing in the mail; he was going to be out of town for a while. It was winter, and in the Pacific Northwest, that means temperatures in the 40s and 50s, and rain: lots and lots of rain. This particular winter, however, Seattle experienced one of its rare snow storms.

Now, in Alaska, when 6 or so inches of snow falls, people might talk about it, and say: “Boy, it’s sure snowing!!” Then they’ll go outside, sweep off their car, and drive to work, or to church, or the grocery store. Shoot Alaskans get a FOOT of snow, and people will STILL say, “Boy, it’s sure snowing!!” And they’ll go out, brush off their car, and drive to work, church, etc. … we ain’t phased by snow.

Not so, Seattle. If an inch of snow falls, the city slams to a stop. Cars are in ditches. It’s national news. People are stocking up on canned goods, writing their wills, and surreptitiously eyeing the family dog, wondering how he might taste.

So, it was snowing in Seattle. I was at work, and they decided to send us all home because it was so dangerous out there. “Ha ha!” I chuckled to myself, and cheerfully walked the 2 miles home in a bare 2 inches of snow. The busses were all snarled up in traffic, Volvos and Lexuses (Lexi?) skidded recklessly, and it made me feel self-righteously smug about my finely honed winter-survival skills; having been raised in Alaska, I wasn’t going to let this piddling excuse for precipitation stop me. I laughed at the snow, “Ha HAH!” I went happily to my apartment, then, faced with the potential of a long gray afternoon inside with nothing to do but housework, I decided to go see a movie instead. About two hours later I came home, and realized that since I had even more afternoon to kill that I might as well take advantage of the time and do some much-needed organizing. I had a tiny studio apartment on the side of Queen Anne Hill, overlooking the Space Needle and Mt. Rainer. It was miniscule, but it was mine; I and my fat cat were quite content there. I grabbed my keys and headed downstairs to my storage unit.

The apartment building where I lived at the time had been built during the World’s Fair in the 1960s. Each apartment had a nice, efficient layout that included a pint-sized kitchen, a full bathroom. In spite of its miniscule size, however, and its official title of studio, the floor-plan was quite clever, so there was some actual privacy between the living room and the bedroom. The bedroom overlooked an interior courtyard/parking-lot for the apartments; the front door and window were connected to an outside hallway/balcony of sorts. The building’ original purpose was to be a high-end extended-stay Motel for happy and wealthy World’s Fair attendees.

Did I mention the front door locked automatically?

So, in a frenzy of organizational-good-intent, I shuffled, I organized, I rearranged, I grabbed keys, and I hauled myself downstairs to my storage unit to store some extra bulky stuff that didn’t really need to be in my place. When I got downstairs, however, I discovered I had grabbed my friend’s keys and not my own. Fuck. So there I was, locked out of my apartment, wearing only jeans and a sweater in the middle of a Seattle snowstorm, outside an apartment located halfway up one of the steepest hills in Seattle. This wouldn’t have mattered to me so much except for one thing: Harley. Harley was a diabetic kitty.

I had only recently discovered the diabetes, having taken him to the vet in a panic when I realized he’d been eating just as much yet still losing weight. He was also drinking and peeing an awful lot. I was going through cat litter like crazy. After going through the guilt and remorse over having let him get so fat in the first place–which played a pivotal role in his acquiring the diabetes, just as it does for humans–I steeled myself and decided I had to continue taking care of him. The vet told me that maintenance and management of diabetes in cats isn’t quite as difficult as one might imagine, and that diabetic cats can live quite comfortably for a long time; plus, cats are the only animals who can actually recover from diabetes, so there was still hope for the future. I was still, however, learning the intricacies of denying him all the food he wanted–the bad habits of an over-indulgent Mommy were hard to break for both of us–and giving him insulin shots twice a day. So as I stood outside my front door, looking bleakly at the impostor-keys clutched in my fist, I realized that it was time for Harley’s shot, and time for his food, and he was stuck all alone inside!! Oh shit. This was a life-or-death situation!! Visions of diabetic comas danced in my head; me watching helplessly through the window as my dear little boy slumped to the floor, eyes locked with mine. Visions of busting out the huge picture window next to the front door also scurried around in my brain for a moment too, but I knew replacing that big old window would cost me more than I paid for rent each month. I could see Harley through the window, wide eyed, staring at me expectantly. I could see his little mouth open and close with each meow although I couldn’t hear him over the whoosh of the wind and the sound of my own heart pounding. What to do??? What to do???

I went knocking on neighbors’ doors, one after the other, trying to find someone who was home and who would let me use their phone. I finally found someone, a nice young gay man who owned a flower shop down the street–really! I apologize if this is starting to sound like a Meg Ryan movie, but I swear this is all true. So anyway, this nice fellow lets me in to use his phone. I try calling the building manager to see if he or she has a key: no answer, no answering machine. I try calling the building management company number. Again: no answer, no answering machine. Apparently, snow in Seattle affects not only the roads and traffic, but the phone lines. I heaved a sigh, and decided to call a locksmith and blow the $80 to get my door unlocked. Amazingly, I reached someone on the first try! I told him my situation and he said “No problem.” Then I told him where I lived, and he laughed, and said, “No way can I get up there, that street’s crazy.”


Each new locksmith I called gave me the same answer. I was getting more and more frustrated, and was also cognizant of the fact that I was tying up this guy’s phone line and still Harley was inside my apartment, hungry, thumbless, and ignorant about what he could do with thumbs to a doorknob if he did have the thumbs and the brains … and the height. Poor Harley.

I was out of ideas and out of options … almost. I decided to do what any reasonable person who had a cat needing rescuing would do: I called the fire department. No, I didn’t call 911, I wasn’t that freakish. I looked in the book and found their non-emergency number; I called up the closest house and explained the situation to them in low, embarrassed tones, ending with: “So, if you’re not busy and there aren’t any real emergencies or anything … do you think you could … maybe … help me out?”

They said they could help me out, those generous, kind people at Seattle’s Queen Anne Fire Department, whose headquarters were mere blocks away from my apartment, and who were known for … well … doing firemen-y things, which presumably included cat-rescuing, and not making fun of the girl who called them to do so: at least, not to her face.

I stepped outside to await my (and Harley’s) rescuers, the snow still falling, falling, “My soul swooned slowly as I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” (Ahem … apologies to James Joyce, also dead, for that last bit that I stole from his short story, ‘The Dead,’ but nothing I came up with myself quite invoked the poignancy of the situation … really … *cough*… anywaaay).

I was expecting the firemen to just show up in one of their smaller vehicles, all unobtrusive and such, I mean, they were rescuing a cat. But no, this was apparently an emergency worthy of the full hook-and-ladder truck. I raised my hands to my face as they pulled up, they had the lights flashing and everything. The truck was as red as my face. No less than four firemen got out, dressed in full regalia of yellow rubber slickers, boots, hats, the works. We all stood in front of my building, in front of my door on the third floor exterior walkway, the lights flashing wildly from the street below, my neighbors peering curiously of out their front doors; meanwhile, I’m trying to will myself back in time a few hours to before I had locked myself out of my fucking apartment.

The Captain took a look at my front door; he tried all the same things I had tried, including inspecting the front window to see if we could somehow manage to break in. It was with mixed feelings I discovered that he couldn’t successfully break in either, which meant I had a relatively safe apartment–nice to know–but still, there was Harley inside, anxiously, curiously peering through the window, his little mouth opening and closing in silent meows.

We decided to go around to the back of the building to take a look at my bedroom window as a potential access point. There were no walkways in back and no easy access since I was on the third floor. No access, that is, unless you are a fireman, with one of those cool retractable ladders. We looked at the windows, and saw the hinges were on the outside, so one of those firemen grabbed a couple tools and scurried up, loosened the hinges and managed to get them undone. He slithered through the window into my bedroom, resplendent in his yellow slicker, and planted a big sooty footprint in the middle of my pillow, which I secretly thought was kind of hot.     He went through to the front door, unlocked it, and reunited me and my beloved Harley. The rest of the fellows during this time had been chatting pleasantly with me, asking about my cat, me, talking about the snow, asking about Alaska, they were just really cool about the whole situation. I think they found it rather amusing, and probably a nice change from pulling scared people out of burning buildings.

I was so grateful and so relieved, I wondered if there was some way I could express my thanks; the stupid locksmith would have cost me at least $80, but the only thing I was paying these guys with were my taxes. It actually kind of blew me away that they had been so gracious and so willing to help a dingbat in distress and her obese, insulin-dependent cat. Rescuing people and pets is their job. It’s a hard job, and I really wanted to do something to show them how much I had appreciated their help.

So after they had left, I gave Harley his food and his shot, and we sat down to have a little chat. Yes, I talk with my cats, or rather; I anthropomorphize my cats for comedic effect. Got a problem with that?? So I asked my wise and satiated kitty what he thought I should do for the nice firemen who had rescued him.

“Who?” he asked sleepily.

“You know, the guys in the yellow coats,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he replied, “those nice boys! They were so helpful! You should feed them.””

“Feed them?” I asked, picturing IAMS for Firemen in a big teal bag.

“Feed them,” he said, “guys like to be fed.” And finished doling out wisdom, Harley curled up and went to sleep on the couch. After I thought about if for a second, though, he had a point: food is always a welcome gift, whether you’re a cat or a fireman.

I walked down to the grocery store a few blocks away, enjoying the still-falling snow and the unusual quiet of the Seattle streets. I bought some apples, disposable pie tins, extra flour, and other necessities, and I baked those nice firemen a couple of apple-pies. I know, it sounds corny, but the whole situation was just so bizarre, and, since it was over, pretty funny too; it was the whole firemen-rescuing-the-cat scenario, combined with the stranded-woman-in-a-snowstorm thing: you’re my only hope, you big hunk of muscle in a yellow slicker, help me big fella … I thought I might as well add my own cliche to the mix and bake ’em some apple pies. The pies came out of the oven golden-brown and oozing with sweet, sticky juice. I packed them carefully, covering them in foil, then in a box, then in a towel to keep them warm, and then I walked the two blocks to the fire station and knocked on the front door.

The captain himself received my pies with graciousness and more than a hint of laughter in his eyes. He did seem rather touched, though, and I was glad I had done it, though mortified at my own involvement in this embarrassingly wholesome “Andy Griffith Show” scenario. Oh well, it was for a good cause. We shook hands, and I turned and walked back into the snowy night, my hands stuffed securely in my pockets, home to my sweetly sleeping Harley.

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