Growing Up in Alameda: What’s “Psycho” doing in Alameda?

Growing Up in Alameda: What’s “Psycho” doing in Alameda?

Dave LeMoine

Photo courtesy of Dave LeMoine.

House fire, 1984

We find another three-story Victorian with smoke coming from the eaves. The house is a little like the one in the movie Psycho.

Looking up from the tailboard of our rig, I can see the third floor widows. The curtains and shades are in tatters. They don’t match the outside, which is clean and orderly.

“Let’s go up the front stairs while Engine 3’s crew goes to the basement,” Captain Steckler says.

We don our breathing apparatus and enter the main floor, heading into the parlor, which is full of smoke but no fire. The three of us make a quick search; finding no people or fire, we see a large staircase with a banister (envision Gone with the Wind) leading to the third floor. At the top of the stairs, we are find ourselves in a narrow hallway that extends from front to rear.

In the dark, narrow, smoke-filled hall, as our eyes adjust, I realize the right wall is lined with furniture. We must be on the right side of the house, I think. Moving down the hall, we see doors to the left: a bathroom, bedroom, and utility room. Having cleared those rooms, we join up in the center hallway again.

I see light under one of the chests of drawers. Dropping down for a look in the smoke, there is a door visible behind the chest. We must be in the center of the building, and there are rooms on the right side as well. Why the doors are blocked is beyond me.

At this point in the almost total darkness, with breathing masks on and our flashlights the only source of illumination, we miss the door at the far end of the hall leading to this side of the building and a separate apartment. Pulling the furniture out, we try to push the door open. It moves about two inches, but something is stopping it from opening. Could it be a body?

The captain says to get in there, so Bob and I shove with our shoulders. It moves another 10 inches. I drop down on my knees again to see, and slide through the door.

At first my mind is playing tricks as I feel something soft, maybe a body, but my flashlight helps me to see bags full of clothing. With an adrenaline-filled push, the bags are moved away into a larger room and I stand up to find myself in a closet full of mothball-smelling, dusty, 1930s-type dresses, face to face with a fox coat, head still attached. I let out a gasp and then have a realization: it’s dead.

Standing now, pushing aside the dresses, I use my light to look around the room and I’m feeling like I want to back out, but George is pushing Bob, who is pushing me. I see before me the bags of clothing, a double bed with dirty yellow sheets, a shade-covered window with the tattered curtains, and newspapers scattered all over the floor.

My light focuses on the far end of the room, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Moving the light up the wall, it comes to rest on two large, glowing yellow eyes, and I swear I hear the sound of the shower scene from Psycho.

Bob has pushed into the room, so there’s no turning back. George enters and I relax a bit as nothing is attacking me. I move my light back to those eyes and realize that it’s a stuffed owl. The head has rotted off and fallen down on the shelf upside down next to the body. There is an audible, “Woooh,” as the three of us start to move through the apartment.

Leaving the bedroom, we enter a narrow kitchen, shades drawn, newspapers neatly covering the floor, sink full of dishes and appliances encrusted with grease. With every step, it feels more eerie, like something I don’t want to encounter could be around the next corner. Entering the front room, still in darkness, are those tattered shades I saw from the street. The walls are lined with shelves full of hardbound books and two old, dusty, overstuffed chairs.

Bob yells, “No one’s in the bathroom, no sign of fire. Let’s get out of here!”

We try the front door and realize that it’s padlocked from the outside. We go back through the apartment, into the closet, say goodbye to the owl, and out into the main hallway with a sigh of relief. Engine 3 reports that the fire was in the basement and it’s under control.

Now, with the smoke dissipating, we look at the apartment door and see the padlock. Sure would have been easier to enter there.

Captain George is approached by a tenant, who says: “I have lived here for five years and have never seen the upstairs man. Apparently he works nights, pays the rent by mail, and is heard but never seen.”

I didn’t think when I signed up for the fire department that I would be bit player in scary movies, but even stranger things have happened since.