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First Meal of the Rest of Your Life: Disaster Gives Way to New Hunger 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014
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Three years ago, a five-alarm fire tore apart the back half of a pink Victorian in NOPA. Neighbors saw flames licking out of the back window — my window — and called 911. No one was home.

A stranger gave me a high-speed ride home from work in his car when I got the call, and as we crested the top of Alamo Square, I smelled the smoke. I saw cherry-pickers stretched high over my house, like the bones of fingers frozen in the air.

I had moved to San Francisco the year after college, after a travel spree that left me broke. I moved into the spacious "mudhall" in the back of my friends' apartment, a drafty, doorless quarter between the bathroom and backyard that was often filled with steam or mud. I worked in a café and published bad writing to unread, cobwebbed corners of the internet for very little money.

For months, I survived on necessities: beans, rice, Bean Bag Café happy hours, leftover café pastries, cigarettes shared with my similarly idealistic friends out of the bay window of our apartment. I journaled every night, as I had for years — my way of navigating the void that opened when I chose to sit still in one city. It was how I kept myself company.

That day, the fire consumed everything I owned but what I was wearing. Six years of writing and photos, backed up on hard drives under my bed, melted. My great-grandmother's turquoise ring reduced to ash in the blackened frame that now replaced my room.

And then, my journals. A stack of thick, yellowed, leather books filled with the angst and revelations of every significant turn of my life in the last decade: relationships, breakups, panic attacks, existential wanderings, negotiations with a dysfunctional family, affirmations I didn't quite believe. All of them, gone. My sense of identity was so embedded in what I'd written that when my journals disappeared, it felt like I had too.

Friends came by as we stood on the curb that night, clothes and hugs, but we still had nowhere to sleep. When the crowd left, a man wearing an apron and a baseball cap approached us.

"You guys want dinner?"

I didn't know whether I did or didn't, but we had nowhere else to go. He was a cook at Jay's Cheesesteak, a greasy-looking joint across the street that I had never bothered to set foot in. The shop was warm and bright, and as we took the window table, I realized then how cold I had been all night. Then, slowly, the table began filling with baskets and baskets of burgers and sandwiches and meats and melted cheese. I didn't feel hungry, but someone brought me an eggplant sandwich, dripping with cheese and tomato sauce. Warm, rich, so oily and satisfying that I wanted to crawl inside of it and sleep forever.

My mood snapped away from despair — suddenly, I became aware how surreal and bizarre it was to be homeless in a moment. I had, in a way, lost everything. But when it comes to things, isn't loss just another word for liberty? I felt lost but nimble, loosed from my past and my moorings, cradled by the universe and ready to heal. As long as I had something to eat.

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About The Author

Molly Gore

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