Operation Stash Recovery

Residents wait in the brutal heat for the fire department's okay to retrieve belongings from their apartment.

Madison, WI – Yesterday morning I received a text from my friend Nick Mortensen telling me that his apartment complex was on fire. After waking to a knocking on the door, he saw the the fire trucks outside, but didn’t hear any smoke alarms. No one even yelled ‘Fire!’ Nonetheless, he grabbed some things and went to the club for a workout. By the time he returned, flames had engulfed the roof of the building.

One of the things I like most about Nick is that he doesn’t sweat the small shit. By the end of the day, after he’d lost everything, Nick was already plotting and scheming ways to parlay his loss into opportunity. And frankly, I’m kind of glad he lost everything. Some of the most liberating moments of my life came after I got rid of my belongings, unchaining myself from the burdens of being weighed down by things. Even things that seem irreplaceable really, at the end of the day, are just dead weight. But not everyone sees it this way. People get awfully attached to their stuff. There were a lot of long faces when firemen told residents the building was too damaged to allow them in to salvage what they could. But situations like these rarely are the tragedy they initially seem.

They have their lives and an opportunity to start from scratch.

Yesterday, as firefighters battled the blaze, I met Nick at Genna’s Lounge and we joked about the situation. He’s a comedian who has managed to piss off every other comedian in town. In fact, he once was surrounded by an angry mob of funny people outside of Genna’s after one of the comedians performing that night roused the crowd into a frenzy against him. More recently, a guy threatened to stab Nick when he refused to leave a comedy open mic. All he had done was arrive to see the show. A lot of this started when I quoted Nick in a newspaper article trashing the local comedy club. He was promptly blacklisted and other local comedians have warred with him since.

We joked about gathering the comedians here in town to roast him as a benefit to raise money for the other residents. Get it? Roast? Ha. Ha.

People here in Madison are woefully sensitive. It’s annoying. Once, one of the local papers brought in a music critic who had some real shit to say about the local music scene. It seemed like every musician in town was in tears over what an asshole this guy was rather than believe he might have an opinion worth considering. Nick is like that. He calls it how he sees it and is dutifully punished for it. That’s how this town is. Everyone wants to be patted on the back, even when they suck at what they do. And more often than not, people are more than willing to pander to those sentiments. I’m not. Neither is Nick.

Because Nick wasn’t feeling bad about losing everything and being homeless, I didn’t have to feel too bad about it, either.  Today, he invited me to come with him while he retrieved some things from his apartment, namely his stash. I was going to take some pictures of the damage inside. By late afternoon, the heat index was well over 100 degrees. Nervous residents paced around the block as city engineers assessed the damage. Finally, word came that the damage was too extensive for people to safely enter the building. Some began crying. Others leaned pensively against the buildings. Nick seemed a little bummed about his stash.

But then the firemen offered to retrieve some items for residents, who wrote down what they wanted and where it could be found. They did the first floor first. One woman was able to retrieve a crate full of soggy personal papers and a couple of purses. A hair stylist got his cash box. And yes, Nick got his big black stash box back, hand delivered to him by a Madison firefighter. It was one of the slickest moves I’d ever seen.

The contents inside the box weren’t wet at all. Among them was a very expensive Volcano vaporizer. He used to have two, but some chick with lupus stole one from him. He’d let her borrow it, and after six months he asked for it back. He wanted to loan it to a friend of his who had cancer, but the chick refused to hand it over. So Nick sued her to get it back. The court ruled in his favor, but the chick disappeared and Nick had to write it off. He’s probably the only person in U.S. history to file a lawsuit for the return of paraphernalia. I admire his gumption.

I’m sure Nick will make the most of his new freedom. With a robust renter’s insurance policy, and a sizable bank account of his own, he’s going to be all right. As will everyone else. I’m excited to see what direction his life now takes. He’s made sure to get some good media coverage. One of the local papers linked to his Twitter feed as he live-Tweeted the blaze, and he won a bunch of new followers. Today he was interviewed by one of the broadcast news stations. He’s talking about returning to comedy. After the stabbing threat, maybe that’s not such a hot idea. But then again, I can see Nick making the most of being impaled, too.

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