Born in Norway, Svein Newman was kicked out of that country as a child for being bad at skiing. He has roamed around Montana ever since. He grew up on family farmland in south-central Montana, went to college here at UofM, and after a six and a half year stint in Billings (which he loves), is excited to be back in Missoula. When he’s not busy being afraid of speaking on a stage, Svein works for a conservation and family agriculture nonprofit called Northern Plains Resource Council, volunteers toward refugee resettlement with Soft Landing Missoula, and enjoys divey cowboy bars, day hikes, and Settlers of Catan.
Svein Newman awakens to his house burning to the ground.
This episode of Tell Us Something was recorded in front of a live audience on March 29th, 2016, at The Wilma in Missoula, MT. 9 storytellers shared their story based on the theme “Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me?”.
Today’s podcast comes to us from Svein Newman and is titled “Renter’s Insurance”. Thank you for listening.
Transcript : Renter's Insurance
So I woke up at 5:08 AM on June 2, 2014, and I remember that time very distinctly. And I woke up to what sounded like some belligerent jerk shouting in the hallway and banging on the wall or banging on doors, and my first thought was, “God, it’s early to be that drunk.” And I presumed, and I think this is fair, I presumed that it was just some guy who had been been locked out of his apartment, his roommate had let him back in, and that it’d be over in 30 seconds, and so I proceeded to try and go back to sleep. But after a couple minutes, it was still going on, and I thought, “Fine, I guess I’ll go deal with it.” So I, I get up and I put on pants, because I’ve knocked on enough doors for political candidates that I know that it’s awkward when the person behind the door isn’t wearing any pants! [laughter]
And I, I go to the door and I throw it open to give this guy a piece of my mind. And I start, “Hey….” And I then I stopped, because it’s not one guy, it’s two guys. They’re police officers. And the hallway’s filled with smoke.
And they shout, “The building’s on fire! Get out! Get out! Get out!”
And, at that point I can’t be like, “I *really* would’ve picked a different outfit! Just a second. I’ll be right back.” And so I rushed out of the building wearing these pants actually.
Thank you. And [more laughter]….
I spend the next three hours sitting on the stoop across the street watching my home burn down. And it’s hard to say exactly how I responded in that situation because it doesn’t feel this way, but when I tell the story it sounds like I was maybe in shock, or wasn’t quite processing because I was just cracking jokes, and saying things like, “Well that’s what I get for keeping my fireworks next to my oily rag collection!”
Which, incidentally, is a terrible thing to say next to a police officer when they haven’t figured out what started the fire yet. And just in case my landlords are in the audience, it wasn’t me. There was thorough investigation [laughter], and it wasn’t me.
But a buddy and I make the tracklist for the relief dance party with songs like: “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Burning Down the House”, you know, we get through like 20 or 30 tracks, because, we, we’ve got a while. And I text my boss, and I didn’t say, “Probably not coming into work today. My apartment building is burning down. Hashtag, ‘thanks Obama’.
And she responds, “Well, feel free to take tomorrow off too, but what does the president have to do with this?” And that was when I learned that, that there’s kind of a generation gap with that joke. So if you don’t get it, then ask your kids.
But I learned a few other things in the fire experience too. And and one of those things is that some people are just jerks. They just are. So the fire had been burning for about an hour, and they brought in the third fire truck to spray millions of gallons of water on this building. I’m in my car was parked in front of the building it was kind of blocking the way, but, fortunately in this instance, I’m a little bit but lazy? And so I had my credit card in my car keys yesterday’s pants that I pulled on and so I go to remove my car I get in I turned it on and I find out that all of the street exits are blocked. You know, they’d been closed off by the police and by the fire department. And so I pull into this guy’s driveway, and he comes out, and he’s apparently an attorney and he lets me know that he has trial in two hours and so I need move my car. And I point across the street and I tried to explain to him that, while appreciate his concern, my home is on fire! And he won’t hear it. And, you know, he says he’s gonna call the police, and I say, “They’re standing over there. Let’s go talk to them together.”
But he doesn’t hear it. So he starts yelling at his wife to yell at me to move my car and so I get into my car and I drive across people’s lawns to get it out.
But I also learned, and I mostly learned that people are really wonderful. Because while my friend and I were joking about the playlist for the dance party, it turns out that other friends were actually planning one. Ta, to raise money to replace things. And some different friends had started this online Kickstarter account. And people started getting a hold of me right away, saying, “Hey do you need anything? You know, my my husband and I were thinking about getting a new couch. And here’s a photo of our old one. I don’t know if it’s good enough for you.”
And that the nice thing about being in your 20s is you don’t have great stuff?
And so I had to try and find a diplomatic way to say that’s way nicer than the free couch I pulled out of the rainy alley before!
So, in a sense I made out like a bandit.
One, another important important lesson that I learned is that emotions are contagious? Or infectious? And so that first night of the fire, my friend Vic took me out to dinner, and God bless Vic because, you know, we’re talking about the story and at some point he just stops me, mid sentence and says, Wait a minute Svein. Do you think that they’re gonna have to demolish the building, like, tear down the walls, gut everything out?”
And I’m like, “Well, I don’t see what that has to do with what I was saying, but, yeah, sure.”
And then he says, “Well, then, Svein, this is a tragedy? Allright? But, this is also an opportunity? That you and I? Have never had before and may never have again. Because I’m just sayin,’ that if a couple’a dudes, showed up with some sledgehammers [laughter] and started knocking things down they probably wouldn’t mind.”
And he volunteers to help me the, gather my, you know, things, or sort of filter to the wreckage to try and find things the, the next day with clearly ulterior motives.
And I show up, and the property management gal meets me on site. And she hands me my security deposit check and she’s crying so I start crying.
But then Vic shows up.
Um, and, and, and, an important point of backstory with Vic — Vic used to work in the oilfields. And not like the North Dakota, Eastern Montana oilfields. We’re talking the backcountry Alaska, they have to helicopter you in oilfields. And so he comes with this big truck and his, like, industrial coveralls,and his boots up to his knees and he has this big breathing mask on. Like, I don’t really understand, he looks like an alien. I don’t even get it. And I’m wearing one pair of jeans and T-shirt that I own at this juncture.
And I tell him, “Vic, I, I really don’t think we’re gonna need all of that.”
And he says to me, “Shhh.”
“Don’t spoil the moment”
“I couldn’t find my baseball bat. We’re gonna have to use our fists.”
And he’s brought his like, portable speaker system, in some like, waterproof bag and so we spent the day rocking out to 90s dance beats. And we go to the grocery store and we get multiple brands of paper towels to figure out which is actually really the most absorbent.
And people, a few people you know, have asked me, “Well, did you save anything?”
And the answer is, “Yes.”
Which was really great at the time because that first day the fire chief in Billings says, you know, “Kid I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. You definitely lost everything.”
Which is not a great thing to say to a person in, in that situation.
But we were able to, to salvage some things. You know, I had some clothes that had, you know, there was a lot of smoke damage. They poured probably a couple million gallons of water poured over them. But I took them to the laundromat, that day. I, actually there’s a full day at the laundromat with Vic, you know, bless him again. And I had a lot of hope and then after the first wash I lost all hope.
But by the end of the day just smelled like I really liked camping.
Which is ok in Montana, right? You can pull that off.
But the important thing ah, the most important lesson that I learned is that stuff is just stuff.
I don’t know how many of you read Tom Sawyer when you were in school, [woos from the crowd] that’s great I didn’t. [laughter] But I did read the CliffsNotes and watch the movie. [laughter]
And I remember there’s a season or there’s a, season, see, I am talking like TV and movies. You know how I operate. I’m giving away all of my secrets. But….
There is this scene early on, where they’re trying to establish that Tom is such a scamp and so his raft washes into town and he’s lost…it only has a shirt on it, there’s no boy. And so everybody assumes that he must be dead so the plan this funeral for him and he comes back and finds out that they’re planning a funeral and instead of saying, “Wait! Oh my God! I’m still alive! You have it all wrong!”, he thinks, “Oh, I have to see this”.
Right? And ever since that moment I’ve had the same you know, like a lingering question, and obviously I would never do it. But I go to people’s funerals and I think, “Oh my gosh what I would give to live life that is deserving of this kind of recognition or this kind funeral.” And God willing and the creek don’t rise, this is the closest I’ll ever get to that.
Because, you know, people you know, the people who called, the people who wrote, the people came forward….
You know, this is a story about me losing nearly everything that I own, but to me it’s not a story of loss it’s a story about realizing how much I have.