Sometimes it’s impossible to feel the thing you want to feel.
It’s 1901, maybe, and, as it was told to me, Karl Bernau, who was my great-grandfather, stood outside the burning building that would kill him, a soiled blue bandana pulled up over his mouth, his nose. He had already begun the ledger in his head.
The building was greystone — a residence, not a factory, not a warehouse, not machines and stock, furs, textiles, which were his usual beat, the warehouse and stockhouses filled with objects, product, (another list here) that, as he came to understand it, were, for the owners something to be destroyed. The items unwanted, or at least no longer, the furs, textiles, it was not their season, his boss, Aronson, told him, and everything, my great-grandfather came to understand, has a season — how desire ebbs and flows, how there is demand, production and then liquidation, how when furs were no longer wanted the back stock of furs would suddenly catch fire. The crooked fire, Aronson told him, the fire that was wanted, in this city, he said, they will always bloom.
It was my great-grandfather’s job, as part of the fire insurance patrol, to run into the building afire — the factory, the warehouses, or, in this case, the residence, the apartment block — run in, assess the damage, tarp anything that could be covered, and run out. Simple, Aronson said (he must have said, the light in the office dim), as that. Simple: to sprint into the buildings afire, the warehouses and storehouses, his head filled with figures; to count the stock, the furs, and then out, coughing, retching; to report back to Aronson who would take the report, calculate the loss, and deliver the news, the salvation, he called it, to his clients — this was the job. Because it was not mere calculation, Aronson had told my great-grandfather (he must have told him), no, no, no, not simply numbers, figures, a payment to be made — but something more delicate repair. A fire consumes, Aronson said. It is insatiable.
A fire is loss, terrible loss. But what is terrible is not irreparable. (He licked his fingers, he laughed.)
It was they who were the bulwark, Aronson told him, they who were against loss, against liquidation. (Everything can be replaced. This is what bosses know.) Don’t you agree, Aronson had asked my great-grandfather, Mr. Bernau?