Biographical Non-Fiction posted January 8, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
Seconds for fame. Seconds to live.


by Sis Cat

Last December at an Oakland program for adults with disabilities, I asked my client, Mona, this question, “Would you like to visit the Ghost Ship today?”
Her chocolate, ring-pierced face smiled, as if the Buddhist had received a Christmas gift. She shimmied in her wheelchair and cooed in a Betty Boop voice she uses whenever she receives a prize. “Shoo-key, shoo-key.”
I gave Mona a second chance to visit the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale District where thirty-six people died in a fire while attending a techno music show on December 2, 2016.
In the days after the fire, as firefighters combed through the debris for bodies and the death toll mounted, Mona told me, “I almost visited the Ghost Ship once.”
My judge-like eyebrows rose in surprise. “You? How did you get around Oakland’s underground warehouse scene in that wheelchair?"

I’m an able-bodied storyteller who performs in Oakland and yet never once had I heard of the Ghost Ship before the fire.
Partly due to her spasticity, jewelry on Mona’s wrists jingled as she explained her missed opportunity. “Years ago, my friend Marilyn went to a concert at the Ghost Ship. She found stuff all over the place and decorations like you see in the pictures of the place before the fire, you know. She told me the place was real pretty inside, but crowded. They used mattresses to climb to the second floor because they didn’t have a staircase.”
“Mattresses?” I said, recalling a detail from the news. “Are you sure they didn’t use wooden pallets?”

But I let my correction go—given that Marilyn had visited the Ghost Ship years earlier when the slapdash construction may have been different.
Mona continued, “She got scared and said, ‘This place is dangerous. I got to get out of here.’ She left the party and told me about it. I said, ‘Could you take me? I want to see it.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I will never take you to the Ghost Ship.’ You know how Marilyn is. She's not afraid of anything, but the Ghost Ship scared her.” Mona shook her braided head.
Silence followed her story. I imagined Mona at the Ghost Ship warehouse when the fire broke out downstairs. I envisioned her struggle to navigate her wheelchair down the narrow aisles as panicked partygoers piled up behind her. They screamed and scrambled to climb over or squeeze around her as smoke and fire descended upon them all.
I blot the image from my mind. I’m glad Marilyn never took you to the Ghost Ship, but now, days after the fire, I’ll give you a second chance to see what’s left.
After Mona accepted my invitation, she turned her wheelchair towards the day program’s door. “Come on, let’s go.”
We drove down Fruitvale Avenue and parked the van across from the warehouse. You know how you watch the news and don’t quite believe it’s real? When I stood across from the burnt warehouse, saw the charred roof beams, and smelled the ashes of the building and the dead, I thought, Oh my God, this really happened. People died here.
Barely released from the van’s lift gate, Mona sped past a woman reporter and joined the mourners peering over the fence surrounding the ruins. Along with the usual candles, flowers, and teddy bears that mourners leave at sidewalk memorials, they also left a growing exhibit of works of art, because many of the Ghost Ship victims were artists. A child left in the street a crayon drawing of a pirate ship flying in the clouds toward Heaven and escorted by a flock of thirty-six doves. One sculptor planted a tree constructed from steel and concrete, each heart-shaped leaf bore a victim’s name. Another person had no art to give. He removed his sneakers, tied the shoestrings together, and hung the shoes on a fence in front of the ruins. The place had become a shrine to pilgrims.

Mona, a graphic artist, wanted to make a digital collage tribute to the victims. I followed her, taking pictures of the Ghost Ship and the memorial. We had turned away from the ruins when the reporter we had passed approached me. Microphone in hand, she stalked me as if she had smelled a story.  “Would you mind making a few comments on camera?” she asked.
I turned to Mona and gave her a “Should I?” look. She nodded at the reporter. I returned to the reporter. “No. I don't mind.”
The reporter motioned to her cameraman and put the mic below my mouth. “What brought you here today?”
I spoke to her and not to the camera. “To pay my respects. I’m a storyteller who sometimes performs at warehouses. On a different night at a different event, I could have died in the fire just like this one. Thirty-six people died here. Fire is a horrible way to die. This place is a crematorium. It’s like being in a graveyard, ’cause it is a graveyard, you know.”
The reporter nodded sympathetically. “Chilling. What do you think of all this?” She waved her hand at the mounds of memorials.

I scanned the artwork strewn on the fence and in the street in front of the warehouse. My eyes teared. “It’s beautiful. As artists we grieve through our art.” My words trailed off.  

The reporter asked my name and nodded gravely like a greeter at a mortuary. “Thank you."

Excitement replaced grief as I turned toward Mona. “I might be on the news tonight.”

Mona huffed. “She should have interviewed me.”

I shrugged. “Oh, well. Shoo-key, shoo-key.”

I missed the news broadcast that night, but in the morning at work, I searched KNBC online and found the warehouse video. I clicked the link and recognized the grave-looking reporter speaking in front of the Ghost Ship ruins. “Tonight, the Oakland fire chief acknowledged the building here simply fell through the cracks. The now burned out building was never inspected.”

I pointed at the screen and yelled to my coworkers and clients, “Hey, guys, come over here. I’m on TV. That’s the reporter who interviewed me at the Ghost Ship yesterday.”

Everyone fled their computers, including Mona. We huddled around my computer as a video montage flashed onscreen—the fire chief, burning candles, hugging mourners. We heard my voice before my image appeared. “It’s like being in a graveyard, ’cause it is a graveyard, you know.”

Everyone jumped and pointed at the screen. “There he is!”

The camera cut away from me to the reporter. “Reporting live from Oakland tonight.”

The clip ended. I had appeared on camera for a mere three seconds. Everyone groaned. “Is that it?”

I shrugged. “There’s more to my interview. They cut the best part.”

They had reduced me to a three second sound bite, but I’m a storyteller. I get a second chance to tell my story every time I get onstage. But then I thought, I wish the people who died in that warehouse got second chances. I wish the warehouse had sprinklers. I wish everyone had left for beer before the fire started. I wish. I wish. I wish.

Sometimes you don’t get second chances. In the seconds you have left when you know you’re going to die, the best you can do is to embrace the person beside you so you’ll not face death alone. If you're fast before smoke kills you, you text a final message, “I love you. I’m going to die, Mom.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I stopped at Mona’s desk and looked over her shoulder. Unable to use her hands, she wears a pointer—a stick strapped to her forehead like a unicorn horn. With this device, she tapped at her keyboard to Photoshop the pictures I took at the Ghost Ship. Digitized colors swirled around the screen, like shards of translucent glass seen in a kaleidoscope. The names of the thirty-six dead floated in this concoction like Scrabble tiles submerged in Jell-O.

Without turning to look at me, she said, “I finished two images so far and I’m working on a third. Could you take me back to the Ghost Ship when I’m finished?”
“Sure,” I said, acknowledging that she will add her art to the growing memorial.
As for me, I contribute the only art I have—I tell stories as if this night might be my last. I will never get a second chance to tell my story exactly the same way, to look at your upturned faces, and say, “Thank you. Thank you for coming out tonight.”


Personal Memoir contest entry


"Seconds" is my script which I performed from memory at Fireside Storytelling in San Francisco on January 11, 2017. This is why I directed my language to an audience and not to readers. "Second Chances" is the storytelling event's theme.

I thank Spiritual Echo for her edits.

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