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When Your House Explodes

When Your House Explodes

By Matthew J. Webster



With houses exploding in Boston, a writer remembers his own near escape — and sifting through rubble and suspects. 

By Matthew J. Webster

Barefoot and shivering, I watched from the sidewalk as flames pushed out the basement windows of the three-story wooden tenement, then up along the siding and toward the roof with speed.

It was the middle of the night. There were neighbors out watching the fire. A frat boy who lived next door saw my bare feet and brought out a pair of boat shoes. I thanked him and put them on my feet. Fire trucks arrived and doused the flames, by then consuming the whole building. The firefighters put up ladders, climbed to the roof and ripped open a hole with pickaxes.

Your home burns down very quickly. I came home late from work that night and fell asleep. I woke up after noticing a strange smell and decided maybe someone was burning incense and went back to sleep. Then our downstairs neighbors were banging on our door screaming “FIRE!”           

We all got out fast.

Forty minutes later the TV crews were gone, the building was wet and smoldering, and the jakes got back in their trucks and split. There were cops who calmed us and, we would discover later, who probably stole our marijuana. In the seamy student slums of Boston, no one was surprised.

“It’s the kerosone vapah. The furnace gets really hot, then the air has no place to go. Then it EXPLODES! All because of the KEROSENE VAPAH!”

I do remember being slightly disappointed to realize no help from the Red Cross was forthcoming. Some kind local observers let me and some housemates stay the night. We had the groggy, twisted meta-thrill of watching ourselves watch our own house burn down on the TV news, and slept on couches.

I was 25 and had recently returned to the area after finishing college and spending some unglamorous months as an undocumented alien in Canada. I’d only lived in the shared apartment for a couple of months, and I’d only known the people I lived with for that long. I had five housemates: a couple, two young men and a woman.


One of the guys was called Joe. He was a gardener. I remember he drank a lot and had a frequent guest who was openly working as a call girl. To give you an idea of our milieu, not long before the fire, Joe’s boss had made him the gift of two healthy shrubberies, which Joe planted in front of our building. A couple weeks later, Joe was shocked to wake up and find his plantings gone. Creeps had scooped up the valuable trees in darkness, thence absconding.

The morning after the fire, I called my older brother on a pay phone and told him my house had burned down. He said I could come by his job and get the key to his house nearby.

Then I walked home. The building hadn’t burned to the ground; it was just very charred, destroyed and soggy. The floors and stairs were fine, although the interior walls had been ripped up with axes to choke the flames. Our possessions were pretty much unharmed except for the smell of smoke, which clung to clothes and furniture. Whichever cop or jake had thieved my weed also left the $80 in cash that was sitting next to it on the dresser, wages for working the door at a club that night. I was grateful.


Where you stay when you have no place to stay.

Source Photo courtesy of Matthew J. Webster

I went out to leave the frat boy’s shoes on his porch and found a person who can only be described as a pyromaniac loitering in front. A white guy about 60, he wore coveralls flecked with ash and smelled like he had spent the morning rooting around the smoldering, wet wreckage of my home.

“That yoah house?” he asked strangely. I said yeah.

The creep drew closer, his gaze intense.

“It’s the kerosone vapah. The furnace gets really hot, then the air has no place to go. Then it EXPLODES! All because of the KEROSENE VAPAH!”

It was awful. The pyro creep torched my house, for all I knew. I got the hell out of there.

Somehow in the next few days, the landlord communicated to my housemates and I the cause of the fire — the furnace had exploded — and said he had a vacancy nearby where some of us could move. That was a relief.

I met the landlord and housemates at the new place. It was all right, it was cheap. We’d have five people sharing one bathroom. The landlord was cagey, but I had no interest in lawsuits and was grateful to have a place to live. He gave us the keys and left.

When he was gone, Joe the gardener turned to me smiling.

“You see the landscaping out front?”

I didn’t know what he meant. He took me out to the front of our new building, where two healthy shrubberies stood, freshly transplanted by the cunning slumlord.

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