Sunday, May 28, 2023

Down The Road: How The Tragedy at Loafers Lodge Is Being Felt By Those Who Live Nearby

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Sarah Lang lives not far from the site of the tragic fire at Loafers Lodge. This is what she saw on the day

When I read about the Loafers Lodge fire yesterday morning, I felt like I was going to throw up. I live four or five minutes’ walk away from the lodge in the suburb of Mt Cook. For the record, most news stories have said the lodge is in Newtown – when, actually, it’s in Mt Cook (though right by the Newtown boundary). Either way, it happened in my neighbourhood. I’ve often seen residents coming in and out of Loafers Lodge, across the road from my local supermarket.

The lodge is on the major thoroughfare of Adelaide Road, a chunk of which remains closed. Wallace Street – the most accessible road that runs parallel to Adelaide Road to feed vehicles into town – is where many buses and cars were diverted to yesterday. It was quicker to walk down than drive down that road.

I live just off Wallace Street. Mid-afternoon, I walked down to the supermarket. Did I really need bread – or did I feel that I needed to bear witness to what had happened?

Standing beside the supermarket, I saw the building with its charred upper floor. It still has a big sign on it, promoting ‘Silent Night’: a fundraiser in which people bought tickets to a ‘concert’ that purposefully didn’t happen, with the proceeds going to charity. “A round of silent applause,” the sign read. I decided to interpret that as a round of silent applause for the first responders and other essential workers on site.

While I stood there, a woman carrying a plastic container full of muffins and a man carrying a chilly bin walked up to a traffic-management officer. He smiled at them and said something I couldn’t hear. The couple came back with the muffin container and chilly bin untouched. I assume he and others working there were too busy to eat, weren’t allowed to eat while on duty, or just didn’t have an appetite – and no wonder. But I understood the couple’s urge to bring muffins and drinks because, at times like this, you want to do something substantive – even though you know the right people are on the job.

The cordoned-off area on Adelaide Road and part of John Street meant that the rest of John Street and its surrounding roads were clogged with cars and buses, and were difficult to navigate. So one traffic-management officer wearing a hi-vis orange vest stood in the middle of an intersection, waving through buses, then signalling to cars that they could turn. A man in a red Holden rolled down the window and said ‘hey man, can I get to X [unintelligible to me] road this way?’, and the traffic-management officer said ‘yep, that way, thanks mate’ and the driver said ‘thank YOU’.

The Traffic Management Plan team has preserved a single lane at the three-pronged intersection between John St, Riddiford St and Adelaide Rd. Buses came through. You could still walk on the footpath on that side of the road. Many pedestrians stopped and looked tentatively over to the site. Some people were wearing masks because the lodge roofing had asbestos in it. Mt Cook School, which my son attends, was business as usual, but emailed a notice saying that children with respiratory issues could be kept home. I decided that the school – at the other end of Mt Cook – was far enough away, given the number of asbestos fibres in the outdoor air returns to low levels within a few metres of a contamination source.

Walking back home along Wallace St, I saw a fire truck slowly make its way down the clogged road. There were no sirens. There were three, maybe more, firemen in it. Was it taking them home? The man closest to the window looked grey. I raised my arm in the air in a sort of wave, almost without thinking, as a kind of thankyou. Some other people saw me and also raised their arms. The man, though he still looked grey, waved back. What had he seen that morning?

Much has been said about many of the lodge’s residents being people who were transient, who were previously homeless, who were unemployed, who were elderly. To me, that means an added duty of care.  Wellington mayor Tory Whanau says she has been overwhelmed by offers of help from the public, and that donations to the Wellington Mayoral Relief Fund is a straightforward way to do this, via the Wellington City Mission. The $22 I donated pays for a meal and hot drink in Wellington City Mission’s community lounge. Some of my neighbours also made donations, while like me also feeling pretty helpless. Community organisation Mt Cook Mobilised is talking about whether there’s anything we might do as a community other than direct people to the relief fund.

Empathy fatigue? Compassion fatigue? Not here. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow, and hopefully no time soon.

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