Oakland, 1996. The house next door from me was empty for a long time. The previous owners defaulted on their loan and were evicted by the bank which just ignored it for months. So, naturally, a homeless speed freak began squatting there.

The guy seemed harmless at first, but the sounds of him muttering incoherently while rolling a shopping cart up our shared driveway at 3:00am was kind of creepy and annoying. Then he started hurling bricks over the fence when we were making too much noise. My housemate called the police about this, and was met with unsurprising indifference.

This went on for a month or two (it’s amazing what we’re willing to tolerate in our 20’s). Then driving home from work one night I approached my neighborhood as an increasing number of firetrucks passed me, and eventually I saw smoke coming from what looked like my block. I hit a police barricade and could go no further. “I live there!” I yelled at the officer to no avail. I parked and ran to my house.

Sure enough that squat next door was engulfed in flames. Luckily my abode was okay and the fire getting under control, though I had to stomp out of few burning cinders that landed in my backyard. The culprit was nowhere to be found, but I told the police on the scene what’s up and they said they have been “tracking him for a while,” whatever that meant.

When everybody left the half-burned house was once again left unchecked. My curiosity took over, and the next day I went to see for myself what was going on inside the unburnt sections. Singed paper and scrap lumber (i.e. potential firewood), half eaten wonderbread-and-barbecue-sauce sandwiches, rancid human shit puddles on the floor.

A few days later I heard that shopping cart going up the driveway at 3am again. I guess this wasn’t the last of that guy. We figured he was just coming back to collect his stuff and move on.

Soon after that I heard some odd sounds outside and walked out to my front porch to see the squat once again consumed by fire. Flames shot 20 feet up into the sky, and were already spreading to the roof of another nearby house. Before I could even consider calling 911 fire engines were arriving on the scene and spraying everything.

The cops also came by and assured us this wouldn’t be a problem anymore. They were right – it wasn’t – but I don’t think because of any action of the police department as much as the squat was now completely uninhabitable, and the guy probably just relocated elsewhere.

About Matt Lebofsky

Musician wearing many hats. Played in a bunch of bands, toured in hundreds of cities around the planet. Also a general geek who works on several of the world's biggest scientific projects searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Grew up in suburban NYC. Now lives in Oakland, CA.
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