The roundest person in the entire gym was the firefighter who came to save our lives this morning. He was 350 pounds if he was an ounce. The sweaty struggle it must have been to get inside the heavy coat, pants, and boots made me wonder if the guy had a future in fetish pornography starring in a movie on or some similar site. In front of me, a lithe young woman in spandex shorts was running an easy five and half miles per hour. She misted from her forehead. Her feet barely touched the treadmill as she jogged. The cognitive dissonance of having both bodies in my line of sight made me lightheaded.

I was experimenting with fartleks (don’t ask), and I’d run about a mile when the fire alarm went off. I heard the panic siren scrunching out through unseen speakers while Ira Glass lazily spoke in my ear. Lithe Girl didn’t look up, nor did my old boss from his spot on the stationary bike five rows ahead of me (we’d entered into a tacit pact to not acknowledge each other and it was working out really well). In fact, as I ran and looked around the room, I realized that barely any of the 80 or so people in the big building were paying the alarm any attention at all. Only a gym salesman named Brad looked at all concerned. He sprinted into a back hallway and only returned when the alarm stopped blaring. Inexplicably, Brad was carrying an eight-foot step ladder on his shoulder and ran from room to room with it. Brad told me when I joined the gym that he’d moved from Ohio as quickly as he could. He’d packed only what he could fit in his little car and put everything else in storage. Only a woman or the law could make a man move that fast or with such little care for what he was leaving behind. Brad still pays the monthly fees for the storage facility so he doesn’t have to go back to Ohio.

It took another mile and half from me before the firefighters showed up. The amount of urgency they showed was inversely proportional to how the lead fireman probably attacks a rack of ribs. I’m not a particularly slim man, but as I pushed forward on the treadmill (and as we all know, forward means going exactly nowhere on a treadmill), I wondered how the big man could pass whatever physicals the fire department required of him. If my house was burning and my family was trapped on the second floor, I failed to see how the guy was going to save them even if he had Salesmen Brad’s ladder. Before I’d finished the next mile to nowhere, the fire alarm was going off again. No one, not even Fat-Faced Firefighter, paid it a lick of attention.

I’ve seen the phenomenon happen many times. Since 2005, the World Series of Poker has been held at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Rio’s convention center and its gigantic Amazon and Pavilion Rooms are notorious for false alarms. Imagine a room with 3,000 people in it. All of them have paid thousands of dollars for an opportunity to sit at a table with other card players and compete for life-changing money. The tension from the flops, turns, and rivers is enough to give even healthy men a respectable heart attack. Every week or so during the seven weeks of the WSOP, a fire alarm screeches across the cavernous rooms. Instead of adding to the probability of the card players falling apoplectic to the floor, the fire alarm almost always breaks the tension. The players laugh, look around for smoke, and joke about the fact that no one is going to leave his poker chips unattended just because of some alarm. In the event the place was ablaze, the tragedy would be international news because no one is going to miss his button unless the fire is literally smoking him out of his seat.

Alarms are so commonplace these days that we’ve learned to ignore them. Put your average Joe in a movie theater and see how he reacts if an alarm interrupts the new J.J. Abrams send-up. Whether it’s illegal to scream “fire” in a crowded theater is, these days, of less importance than whether someone will actually listen. I can’t remember if the threat level is still at Orange or if it’s now sponsored by Tropicana. Nobody else can either. Every one of us is so conditioned to be afraid of everything that we’ve stopped being afraid of almost anything. Hell, even Osama Bin Laden is dead. Unless Vladimir Putin somehow shows up on the White House lawn in red boxers carrying a hammer and a sickle, I can’t see anyone bothering to turn on the news. Put celebrity news together with hyper-panic and I’m not entirely sure we’re much different than the Smurfs.

I was still running to nowhere a couple of miles later when the firefighter waddled back to his truck. It would’ve have taken actual smoke to make me slow down.

I wonder how many times the big firefighter has ignored the alarm of his racing heart or how many times he’s blamed the pain in his chest on a bad burrito. When he breaks into flop sweat after climbing a set of stairs, I wonder if he bitches about the humidity. He is, like so many people I’ve met, the very definition of the unalarmed society. We are a people who ignore warnings until there is tangible evidence that something bad has happened. It’s the man with the drinking problem who doesn’t address it until he’s gotten a DUI. It’s the woman with the gambling addiction who leaves the casino only after realizing her family has changed the locks. It’s the smoker who quits when the radiologist shakes his head in sympathy. It’s the wife who doesn’t ask where her husband has been until he comes home with a pair of panties in his briefcase. It’s the gym salesmen that doesn’t realize his girl doesn’t love him until he’s a hundred miles out of Ohio. It’s the CEO who starts cutting costs after the company defaults on its obligations. I don’t know anyone–myself, sadly, included–who isn’t guilty of it in some way.

The rub is a tough one. If not a person like me who fails to get alarmed by alarms, you’re probably one of those people who is worried by everything. You won’t eat pizza that’s been in the fridge for more than a day, split eights against a face card, or let your kids play contact sports. You look at every expiration date as a binding legal document. You lie awake at night wondering if you said “I love you” to your children an equal number of times. Thunderstorm warnings have you hiding in the bathtubs. There is no escape from the worry, and that in itself is the only blaring alarm you don’t heed. Your worry will kill you, but if you ignore that fact, you’ll think you’ll be able to save everything else.

The middle ground, the place where we worry about what’s important and heed the right alarms, the place where we find some balance and focus in our lives, it’s a hard spot to find. Amidst all the noise, it’s easy to ignore anything that isn’t actively assaulting our bodies or ways of life. Otherwise, we find ourselves worrying about too much.

I pushed the speed up on the treadmill until the belt was almost pulling my face underneath its wheels. I felt the pain in my knees, the tightness in my chest, and the sweat on my back. There would be a point I had to stop. That’s what every alarm in my body screamed. Until I hit that point, I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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4 Responses

  1. Dr. Chako says:

    Your post reminded me of one of the early Dark Tower books by Stephen King. I believe he made a reference to fat policemen and how shameful they were. We were better in the Army because they used humilation to shame the fat kids into losing weight. When the lives of your brothers and sisters in arms requires you to be in shape, you tend to stay that way. Not sure why that doesn’t apply to firefighters.

    As for worry, I’m certain it’s a survival instinct developed over the ages for some useful purpose. It’s mostly a nuisance. Dealing with serious medical issues every day keeps things in perspective for me. I’m curious, did you worry more or less when you were chasing real-life horror stories?


  2. Uncle Ted says:

    What’s most alarming to me is that people aren’t curious/motivated enough to even find the cause.

    Both of my smoke detectors were laying on the ground when I returned home from a recent trip. Upon questioning, my roommate said ‘about 4 days ago, they both just started going off at once.’

    ‘Did you try to figure out why?’

    *Puzzled look*.

    He hadn’t even put them back in, 4 days later.


  3. pokerpeaker says:

    Good boy! Keep it up and we’ll talk soon!
    (The writing as well as the running, btw).

  4. Mrs. Otis says:

    This is good writing. And, yes, I will worry until it kills me. Loveyoumeanit.