Three Strapping Men at 3am. And Not For a Good Reason.


I’d gone to bed at 1:30am and was roused from my sleep at 2:58 to the sound of the modern death knoll. Throwing off my covers, I shuffled blindly into the hallway to confront the smoke/carbon monoxide detector for the second time in three months. There is no smoke, you stupid alarm. I pushed the Just Stop It, Stop It Right Now button, dampened a washcloth and hung it over the detector.


Wait. That’s not the smoke detector. That’s the carbon monoxide alarm.

Aw, hell.

Those of you who were with me in September know that I contended with the smoke alarm at 6am on 9/11. Fortunately, that was when I found the owner’s guide and learned that three beeps means smoke, and four beeps means noxious invisible death cloud you are powerless to detect or combat save for opening a window and praying to the good Lord.

I did remember that nail bed color can be a sign of medical emergencies. I checked mine. They were currently Revlon’s “Vixen.” I don’t know what that means.

I struggled a bit to understand the 911 dispatcher when she told me to go outside, but pooh-poohed my plan to wait for the fire department on the balcony. “Will you have to go back in?” she asked. I didn’t get it. “Will you have to go back through your home?”

“Oh! Yes, to let them in, I will.”

“Don’t go out on the balcony.”

Listen, lady. It’s 3:15 in the morning. I’m confused and there’s a really irritating beeping noise in my home and oh, I might be slowly dying. So could you be more clear?

“You can’t be going back and forth in and out. You have to get out and not open and close doors, turn on lights or anything like that.”

Ohhh. She doesn’t want sparks or static electricity. Wait, is CO explosive? Is she confused, too?

I waited outside the front door to the building, hoping the fire department wouldn’t come all blazing lights and sirens and humiliation while I stood in my too-big, blue striped flannel pajama pants, red sweater socks, long-sleeve pink and white Race For the Cure t-shirt and black leather coat. The truck arrived – lights, no sirens – and three men hopped out. They could hear the alarm going off (yet none of my neighbors had stirred to express concern – a fact I was grateful for, as I hated to wake anyone at this hour). I let them into the building and they went upstairs to my place. A couple of minutes later, one of them stepped into the hallway and flickered his flashlight at me through the glass door.

“We aren’t reading anything on our gauge,” they told me in my apartment as I crossed my arms over my unsupported chest. “It’s at zero.” They turned my thermostat up to 90 to really get my furnace going and still nothing. They puttered into my galley kitchen to check the gas stove (nothing) and the gas dryer (nothing).

Having three firefighters in your home at 3:30am makes you realize a few things. The sink is full of dirty dishes and a not-insignificant pile of empty cat food cans. The litter box definitely needs to be changed. Air-dried laundry items, including underthings, are cast about the spare bedroom. There’s an empty wine glass on the stereo from tonight and an empty martini glass on the coffee table from three nights ago. And my teddy bear is in plain sight on my rumpled bed.

Yes, this all looks fantastic.

One suddenly becomes aware that, in a potentially life-or-death situation, the fire department is more likely to rescue you and not talk bad about you in the rig if you don’t appear to be sad, sloppy and alone.

I’ve known firefighters. It’s true.

After 30 minutes of detecting, the apparent head firefighter in the group pulled the still-beeping alarm off the wall and disconnected it. Another guy took it out on the balcony to give it some fresh air. It continued beeping, like an animal who lived on despite its head being chopped off. That’s when we realized there was a battery in it. No, I did not have a spare 9-volt lying around. Who does? So the head firefighter ripped the battery out of the detector.

“Crack a window,” he said dismissively. “Set your alarm clock to go off every two hours. If you don’t wake up, call us.”

I’m not 100% sure he wasn’t serious, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Back in bed at 4:00, freezing thanks to the cracked window, I tried not to breathe too deeply and wondered if burrowing up to my eyebrows under the covers would protect me from carbon monoxide or increase my chances of death. It was 6am before I finally fell back to sleep. I kept resetting my alarm for two hours ahead of what it was each time I looked at the clock. Which is completely dumb. I tried not to picture the scene from one of the last episodes of “Rescue Me” on FX Network, when Denis Leary and crew find a father and his two little girls sitting upright on the couch, dead and purple in front of the still-cartooned television.

And I vowed never to go to bed in a messy home again.

9 thoughts on “Three Strapping Men at 3am. And Not For a Good Reason.

  1. The older I get, the more my fears of death revolve around what people will say about my messy house.

    I hope it’s just the battery, but if it keeps up, you should buy a new detector just to be on the safe side.

  2. Yeah. Kind of like the advice your mom used to give you to wear nice underwear in case you got in an accident. Then you realize: if medical professionals are going to need to see your underwear, you got a big problem. Ditto on the hizzy.

    • So exactly right. I had my mother’s voice in my head. She’s never quite said “make sure your house is clean in case the fire department has to come over,” but she DID once tell me, “Your house will never be as clean as mine.” (For the record: clean undies: check.)

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