Hey, Remember That Time I Almost Burned Down the Building?

I moved into the building on 16th Street after my first Philadelphia landlady died. When that sweet old lady passed away, her family sold the building to a new owner who wanted to go condo. And since I didn’t have condo money, I had 90 days to find a new place to live.

With about fifteen days left before I would be out on the street, I found a place in my price range (leaving things to the last minute is my jam). I called the number in Craigslist ad and made an appointment to meet with the building’s owner. The owner was an eccentric little old lady who lived on the first floor of the building. She had on a full face of makeup, a silk scarf tied around her neck, and some kind Dr. Seuss-inspired hat on her tiny head.

This fashionista was also a stickler for paperwork and formalities. Unlike the first old lady who rented me an apartment because I “looked like a nice girl,” this woman wanted everything short of a DNA test to prove that I was who I said I was and that I made as much money as I said I made.

She was equally interested in whether or not I was a smoker. She was staunchly anti-smoking and wasn’t in the business of renting to filthy cigarette smokers. And while I don’t normally advocate lying, I really need to find a new place to live, so I told her I was a nonsmoker and signed the lease (and half a pack a day barely counts, anyway).

At first I played by her rules and didn’t smoke in the apartment. But, as you probably guessed, that didn’t last long. As the weather got colder and I got lazier, I started smoking in my apartment. But I would only smoke in the kitchen while holding my arm out the window, making sure to blow all of the smoke out the window. And when I was finished, I’d flick the cigarette out the window into the parking lot below (hey, I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, I’m just telling you what I did).


Here’s What Happened

One Saturday about six months into living there, I had plans to go to dinner with my new boyfriend and his parents. It was my first time meeting them, and I was nervous. Meeting new people always makes me nervous, but the timing of this meeting had me extra anxious. It wasn’t long after I got the axe at work, and I was dreading the part of the evening when they’d inevitably ask about what I do for a living. Which, at that moment, was nothing.

I decided to smoke a cigarette in an attempt to calm my nerves. I hung out the kitchen window as per usual and when I was done, I flicked the butt out the window. But I didn’t flick it quite hard enough. It fell short of my intended target, landing instead on the wooden fence that separated our building from the parking lot behind it.

I stood there for a full minute, debating whether or not I should go downstairs and do something about that cigarette butt. But I was also running behind schedule, and I still needed to shower and do all of the things that come doing with my hair. Short on time, I convinced myself that the butt would (probably?) burn itself out and then hopped into the shower. I was blow drying my hair when my boyfriend got to my place.

“Hey, something’s going on in that side street behind your building. There’s a bunch of firetrucks,” he said.

Oh shit.

I scurried over to the kitchen window to see what was going on. Sure enough, some asshole had set fire to the fence behind our building. And I was pretty sure that asshole was me.


I don’t know why, but my knee jerk reaction was to duck. I sat crouched under the window, quietly freaking out. If my landlady finds out that I am a dirty, dirty smoker who almost set her building on fire, I’ll be out on my ass. So, I did what anyone would in my situation would do: I covered my tracks.

Every episode of Forensic Files was racing through my mind. Forget the fact that I just showered and was supposed to be leaving to go meet the boyfriend’s parents, I was on my hands and knees with Lysol wipes, trying to remove any finger prints, DNA, or trace of cigarette ash from the scene of my crime. You’d think the Philadelphia Fire Chief himself was coming to investigate a smoldering fence.

I was in the middle of hosing the place down with Febreze when there was a knock on the door. “There was a fire out back, did you see it?” my landlady asked with a quivering voice.

“No, I didn’t,” I said. Which wasn’t not true. I may have started the fire, but I didn’t see it.

“Did you throw anything outside? There are so many cigarette butts out there,” she continued.

“What? Uh no, I don’t smoke,” I said, lying right to her little old lady face.

She took my word for it and went back to dealing with the situation. And I went back to getting my shit together. I had a dinner to get to. I was a nervous nelly the whole ride to the restaurant. And not because I was concerned about whether his mother would approve of me. But because I was a lying arsonist who no doubt would go down for her crimes. That, and I felt terrible for the stress I’d put that little old lady through. And then lying about it.

Ugh. Not my best look.

Over the next week, the old fence was taken down and a new fence took its place. Her insurance covered the damage and my little old landlady didn’t mention it again. But my guilty conscious followed me around for weeks. Naturally, I stopped throwing cigarettes out the window but I still felt terrible about what had happened. I didn’t want to tell her the truth because I didn’t want to have to find another apartment. But I had to do something to make it up to her.

So, I started helping her however I could. I’d help her run errands and do small home jobs around the building. I’d get her prescriptions from the drug store when she was sick. And I’d look things up for her “on the computer” when she couldn’t make it to the public library.

As time went on and years went by, we developed a weird little friendship. I’d help her with chores, she’d give me fast food coupons and perfume samples. She was like a little grandma who, not unlike my actual grandma, could be a pain in my ass but in a way I found endearing. And when I moved out ten years later, she told me that I was one of her all-time favorite tenants.

The Moral of This Story

My adventure in arson taught me three important lessons:

Lesson 1: Don’t throw burning trash out of your window.

Lesson 2: When in doubt, go with your gut. I had a feeling that a burning cigarette butt on a wooden fence was going to be bad news. But I was in a hurry and in the interest of saving myself time, I talked myself out of that feeling.

Lesson 3: Mistakes are going to happen and you can’t always avoid hurting people. But you sure as shit can to right your wrong.


Let’s talk about it

Have you ever ruined someone’s day with a stupid mistake? And how did you make it up to them?



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