Back in graduate school in 2004, I moved around the greater Hanover, New Hampshire area three times in eight months. I started off in a house a little too far away from campus and then migrated into free housing for the summer while a friend was away. But eventually it became time for me to find a home I could appreciate, even if it was a bit out of my price range.
I found a laid-back roommate from Florida who was also in my program, and together we signed a one-lease for a two-bedroom condo in a complex filled with working professionals and full-grown adults. We still felt like kids. Brook Hollow was within walking distance of everything we needed even if we were each shelling out $700/month plus utilities.
The front door of each block of units opened to a shared hallway where we could collect mail and access our condo. So while we didn’t have lengthy interactions with the neighbors, we had a good sense of the characters to avoid (like ‘Crazy Jim’ who used to gratuitously curse aloud at the bills he retrieved from his mailbox or ‘Boris’ the Russian Studies Professor who lived above us and enjoyed practicing his tuba at odd hours). But before my roommate Kristin and I discovered that everyone around us was unusually quirky, we spent most of our time trying to fit into this professional adult world.
So the first weekend we moved in, while I was still unpacking my things in the kitchen, I decided to make homemade chicken fingers. Not the frozen kind–rather my own–from fresh cutlet tenders and a mixture of crushed Special K cereal and a handful of spices.
I turned on the old electric range, flipped on the fan for ventilation, put some oil in the pan, and prepared for a deep-frying frenzy. But things quickly got out of control when the vent couldn’t keep up with the smoke from the pan. I opened the kitchen window, and as I did, the smoke alarm in our unit began to sound. But this was no standard smoke alarm. This was a smoke alarm warning of Soviet invasion. And it didn’t just go off in our kitchen; it was blaring through the entire condo unit. I noticed our neighbors begin to file outside with some sense of concern. I wondered if maybe my frying smoke and the alarm were somehow unrelated. Kristin and I joined everyone in front of the building as the Hanover Fire Department arrived on the scene in a full ladder truck.
My worst fears were confirmed when one of the firefighters announced that my condo had caused the alarm. He asked if there was a fire. I responded, “No, there was just a little smoke from frying chicken.” My neighbors looked on with scorn. The firefighter asked, “How long have you lived here?” I replied, “Less than a day. We just moved in.” Our condo units had a reputation for highly sensitive smoke alarms that had a direct link to the local department, but nobody had bothered to tell us. Anytime they went off, firefighters would have to respond. Apparently this happened with relative frequency.
“Is there anything I can do to prevent the Fire Department from showing up at my door every time I cook?” I asked the firefighter.
“Not really,” he responded. “But if you happen to be making pancakes, be sure to make extra, because firemen LOVE pancakes.”