In a case of timing that pretty much defines words like convenient, provocative and suspicious, 624 9th Street, downtown Modesto’s condemned and boarded-up monument to civic neglect, went up in flames tonight. The fire must have started around 8:30 last night, because by the time I got there around 9:30, firefighters had knocked down the worst of the blaze.
None of the police or firefighters would say a word to me, of course, even the ones who knew me. But I spoke with quite a few homeless folks, who lined the street watching the spectacle. They told me that squatters had been inside the building, and I’ve heard that before in the last week.
If I was homeless, freezing, starving, and totally wretched in every way, I would not go into that building. I know what’s in there, and with the tenants gone and the place boarded up, the pestilences in there have only gotten nastier.
I spent ten minutes talking with a rather beautiful homeless woman named Nichole. She asked me for a cigarette and I gave her two, and then she asked if I lived downtown and if I knew where she could find some crank— I haven’t heard anyone call it crank in years! She told me she once lived at the 624, and her whole body sort of shuddered. She also told me there were squatters in the building just a few days ago.
I felt bad for her. I could tell she has a sweet disposition and is intelligent. If she’s using, she hasn’t been ruined by it—yet. And only God knows what she has had to do to get by on the streets. She told me she has been staying behind some buildings on 6th.
The fire was persistent. There is still a lot of fuel inside the building in the form of piles of trash, clothing, etc. But the way two areas in particular kept flaring up, you had to at least think about arson. There have apparently been squatters there – someone could have been cooking meth, a process that is notoriously flammable. But they’d have to have been using propane, since there are no utilities there.
The stink of corruption has hovered over this story from Day One, and nothing has happened to freshen the air.