Before and after

Fire consumes a historic building in Nevada City, igniting memories and reverie in one longtime local

Photo by Bob Lickter

Often we assume things will continue as before, losing ourselves in the deceit of the mundane, until something happens that marks a turning point after which things will never again be the same. Misty-eyed, we glorify the seemingly idyllic past and regret that we did not fully enjoy what we had before it was lost. The after, sneaking in when we least expect it, stands in painful contrast to the before.

Last Wednesday morning, engrossed in routine, I switched on KXJZ and half-listened to the account of the Knoller dog mauling trial as I drove to the gym. When the announcer said the roof had collapsed at Friar Tuck’s Restaurant in downtown Nevada City, burned by an early morning fire, I awoke to an after.

I felt a tightness in my chest and pictured the restaurant’s dim wine cellar-like interior. How often I sat at a window seat and gazed through the large plate glass windows at a parade of pedestrians ambling by, bundled up against winter’s chill or dressed in beach attire on a hot summer evening. Frequently I had lingered out front at the corner, prolonging conversation with dining partners before we said our goodnights.

The 30-year-old eatery was the central hub of the historical district, the venue to hear first-rate music while dining or for the price of a drink or an appetizer from the bar menu. At Tuck’s, I always saw someone I knew. If you regularly anted up at the musicians’ tip jar, they remembered you too.

I passed the off-ramp to the gym and continued to Nevada City, drawn by memory, a perverse curiosity and the desire to see the demise of a landmark. Holding my slim reporter’s notebook, I would appear as if I had a real purpose, scribbling notes and asking questions.

Random disconnected thoughts battled for pre-eminence—the associations I had with that building. It was 1987 and my husband, whom I didn’t realize would soon be my ex-husband, and I sat drinking a smooth port in front of one of the restaurant’s large windows, as we listened to a Celtic folk duo playing a few feet away. We had just signed escrow papers for our 10 acres. I looked out at the gaslights on the street casting a warm glow in the July dusk. A white carriage drawn by a dappled gray Percheron pulled up to the curb. Certainly, this was Main Street, U.S.A. I felt transported back in time, to a place where people greeted you on the street with a smile and you didn’t have to lock your doors.

Then I remembered this February, at the Joe Cain Parade, our Mardi Gras celebration honoring the Civil War veteran who, after his death, was discovered to have had nine wives. I stood in the street, in that very spot, contemplating a 30-foot-long winged dragon sculpture. Welded horseshoes formed its scales, its body random bits of pipe and scraps of sheet metal. A four-foot flame periodically erupted from its mouth. A group of drunken revelers jostled each other on Friar Tuck’s sidewalk as a girl flashed her bare breasts in exchange for hanks of Mardi Gras beads.

Four years ago, my new love made an offer to purchase the building from the Elks’ Club, which had used upstairs as a meeting hall. I recollected his bitter disappointment when his offer did not even garner a response and the building was sold months later. The top floor was subsequently rented out to the Nevada County Probation Department and remodeled to accommodate offices.

In front of the building one Victorian Christmas evening was a living crèche—Mary, Joseph, a sheep and the baby Jesus, a plasticky rubber-eraser-red doll. Behind the restaurant’s steamy windows, holiday shoppers thawed out and toasted the season. Dressed in a drab serge Victorian dress that swept the ground, a girl looking no older than 15 played intricate, angelically inspired melodies on a harp taller than she was. A large group of parka-clad spectators clapped uproariously.

That was all before.

After was the thick cloud of acrid smoke welling up from the center of town. After was Broad Street lined bumper-to-bumper with parked fire engines, each from a different fire district, as far away as Newcastle, Marysville, Colfax.

After was firefighters perched high above the ground upon aerial ladder trucks, aiming thick jets of water at the blaze from four directions, six thousand gallons a minute from yellow and white hoses thicker than my arm, snaking spaghetti-like through the streets.

Photo by Bob Lickter

After was the sheet of water running down the ivory-plastered building’s front, forming a black river that carried wood cinders big as my fist down the breadth of Commercial Street, emptying into storm drains, an ebony flood swelling Deer Creek.

After was the semi-circle of exhausted firefighters, self-contained breathing apparatus at their feet, slumping on folding chairs. After was the elderly woman holding the giant pink pastry box of chocolate chip cookies, who wove through the throng of bystanders too stunned to eat.

After was the yellow tape restraining the crowd of silent onlookers. Local merchants held coffee cups, bewildered eyes transfixed upon the coordinated activity of firefighters. Residents aimed camcorders and digital cameras at the scene.

After was the emptiness and utter uselessness I felt as I stared at the devastation of a hangout I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed.

I ducked under the yellow tape, talked to Charlie Jakobs, the CDF’s information officer, and piggybacked on other interviews conducted by reporters from the networks and metropolitan dailies. Locals milled around behind the barrier, hungry for information. I felt somewhat fraudulent since I didn’t yet have an assignment, but this was my town.

At three alarms, this is the worst downtown fire in Nevada County in 10 years. In a massive attack utilizing more than 20 engines from neighboring counties, firefighters contained the inferno to the 21,000-square-foot building. With historic buildings side by side, the conflagration could easily have engulfed much of the town.

By 10 a.m., the fire was mostly controlled. A flare-up sent a small wave of flames licking under the metal roof fascia. The building was now a smoke-darkened husk with cavernous holes on the ground floor where doors and windows had been. Upstairs, glass hung in jagged shards.

Unconfirmed rumors abounded. Residents had heard explosions. A city councilman attributed that to a recent shipment of pepper spray canisters. Ammunition was said to have detonated as the fire engulfed the Probation Department.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents wandered aimlessly, waiting for the blaze to be suppressed. The masonry building now sported a decided bow between first and second floors and firefighters were prohibited from entering. It was feared that the quickly combusting antique timbered structure would collapse.

After a while there wasn’t much to see. Firefighters would stay onsite the next 24 hours. Soon, investigations by ATF, CDF and the State Fire Marshall would begin. I walked back to my car. My lungs felt constricted, asthmatic, from particulate matter I had inhaled. My clothing and hair reeked of smoke.

The fire appeared to have started upstairs in the Probation Department, whose interior was said to have been rewired during the remodel. Maybe someone left a coffee maker on, but that wouldn’t explain such a vigorous conflagration. Could an arsonist have gained access from a neighboring building, then jimmied open the trap door on the roof? Whatever the cause, the effect is the same.

After an after it’s all too easy to think of what’s gone, never to return. I thought about the burned-out Herb Shop next door, a store birthed in the ’70s that still sold herbs and pricey ethnic clothing. In the back was a record shop, dealing in old vinyl, new and used CDs. It marketed the home-spawned efforts of local musicians. At the small burrito joint you could get an espresso. Now all was a yawning void, an ugly eyesore. Greg Cook, Friar Tuck’s owner, vows to rebuild, but how long will that take? Can it ever be the same?

In the meantime, the June bicycle race through town will pass a vacant hulk. Perhaps construction will be underway when the Summer Nights festival rolls around or when the Constitution Day Parade takes place in September.

Fire is not a novel occurrence in Nevada City. The entire town burned to the ground on several occasions until rebuilt with brick and iron shutters. In fact, this very building burned in the ’60s, perhaps consuming the memories of someone just like me.

When you live in Main Street, U.S.A., it’s easy to forget that bad things do happen. But it could have been worse, considering there were no injuries or loss of life. We lost a structure and symbol, but they’ll be replaced. And what now is our after will be someone else’s before.