Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Neighborly Arc

When the first storm hit
, we were gathered in the central hallway of a school building, away from the windows, students lounging against the lockers, already engaged in their phones and computers and speculations and chatter, while the male teachers tried to sneak looks at the maelstrom outside and the secretaries turned into moms, barking at students who dared to try to go outside. The teacher who walked outside and back to his office received their scorn: "Go ahead, but look at the example you're setting for them." No, it was not time for going solo. There was strength, at least emotional strength, in numbers, though none of us took it all quite that seriously until the skies cleared and we saw the trees on campus, on cars, across roadways, effective barriers. Our eyes took it in; our mouths began offering perceptions and stories as our shared experience leaped quickly into legend.

As the second storm hit, I was alone. My wife had run to the basement of a house with no electricity. I did the dumbest of things, standing by the window watching the storm. It was a hollow feeling, facing the torrent alone, but then she had grown up around tornadoes and knew to get to safety; I harbored that irrational desire, having never seen a tornado, to see one.

Then the sky cleared and we went to the mall because I needed a suit. It was normal out there, until I went into Best Buy, looking for a car charger for my phone. There, people huddled at the entrance, staring at a television, looking at a timeline of the exact minute the next storm would hit, and where. The trip home was a race against time. We arrived at the exact moment the weather guy said it would hit, but only a medium rain fell, so we rushed inside.

After the third storm, everyone came outside into the early evening sun. We walked next door to talk to our neighbors about their beautiful trees that had fallen that morning. From both directions, people walked the streets to inspect the damage, carrying glasses of wine and stories--what trees had come down, whose chainsaws we could hear, which way you could get out of the neighborhood, the gas main leaking a couple of streets over. The little girl next door picked her grandmother's flowers that had been beaten down and handed them out. People met each other for the first time. Teenaged children roved in innocent, barefooted gangs like it was summer and they were headed to the community pool. Cars stopped to chat. Everyone had stories about the size the hail that had landed in their yards. It felt like an impromptu block party. Then the wind began to sway the trees again and we went into our dark homes.

On the first full day we had no power, I went to school, seething with rage that school was being held. I thought it an insensitive, uninformed decision made by people who had not had a break in power the whole time and who had no idea what was out there in the city and beyond. But it turned, and it turned largely because my blogmate Billy pushed the idea that we, as a school, needed to be out helping those in need. And everyone embraced the idea, turning the day into a pleasant frenzy of phone calls and contacts and logistics and false starts and red tape that left us at the end with a loose plan to take 600 students to places all over the city the next day, armed with work gloves and trash bags and faculty with chainsaws and woodchippers. And it felt good to be a part of that.

On the first evening we had no power, we had a party. It started at my house, where I had bought ice that morning, knowing it would become scarce, and started grilling onions and mushrooms and hot dogs from a warm refrigerator. But the call came from across the street where they had lettuce going bad that would make a salad and a grill they could start up and wine and a fire in the pit, and we gathered in their backyard around a table. Friends came from other places, dropping in on their way to their own powerless houses, or just joining in because it was Thursday night, when we always got together, and though our regular establishment was closed, we would gather here instead. There were more stories from a day of aftermath and stories of what tomorrow would bring.

On the second day all of the schools were closed but ours (and one other), I saw the tornado I had thought I wanted to see. Well, not exactly. I saw where it had been. I saw where the ceiling insulation and roof tiles that scattered throughout our neighborhood had come from. I saw where the crumpled metal from an interstate barrier that sits up where I park my car had come from. I saw Tiftonia, where a tornado had torn through, ripping roofs off buildings and tearing up convenience store. And I saw it with a group of boys and other teachers as we spread out on the grounds of a recreation center to pick up debris. Boys serious, but having fun, boys trying out the playground they had come to clean up, boys taking on the challenge of flipping a section of bleachers back on its right side, and, most of all, a group of boys walking with certainty back to a bus, knowing that, together, they had left a place looking far better than when they arrived.

At 6:19AM the next morning, what sounded like a gunshot fired through my dreams, and suddenly the lights were on over my head. The moment I had waited for every minute for 48 hours came to fruition, and I eased back into sleep. At 8:30, I was walking my dog across the street when I saw two of my neighbors walking to their car.

What time did you get it? I yelled, as we walked towards each other.
Get what? they yelled back.
Your power.
Are you kidding? they yelled.
No. Mine came on about two hours ago.

You could see their shoulders sink. You could see the neighborliness slip away, a sudden rift between the have and the have-nots. It was back to who's got a new car or whose lawn looks better or who is having a party that whom wasn't invited to. I found myself fumbling, trying to explain how it didn't really do me much good, how I was sure theirs would come on soon, how I would hook up my modem so they could steal my wifi from across the street (an empty promise, as it turned out, since cable service is still out).

By the afternoon, another neighbor drove by as I was cutting my grass. "I am SOOOOO JEALOUSSS!" she yelled as she kept going down the street.

And today, things are normal. On my side of the street. Still no power across the way. Everyone talks of getting back to normal, but I wonder--normal is often closed doors and separate lives and waves from a car instead of conversation and isn't that too bad instead of let's go do something about it. They say there is a silver lining in every cloud. This time, in these clouds, it was just people. People together, people helping. It was good.


Billy said...

The last few days have certainly been a roller coaster of emotion. A big, kick-ass roller coaster.

I've never had such a compelling need to feel "useful" on some primal and simple level than these last few days, and to see hundreds, maybe thousands, of others spurred by that same feeling has left me in tears several times. The severity of the tragedy was certainly a factor.

Still, for the record, my email was not some magic firestarter to us doing something. At best maybe it spurred things to happen a little quicker than they might have otherwise, but that's at best. Many people were involved in this one (Bob playing a large and crucial part, par usual), and to just have been a cog in that work is heartwarming enough.

Anonymous said...

All those stories about checks and phone books flying across states sound like some urban myth except there's pictures to prove it.

Have they announced when they expect most people to have their power restored?

Bob said...

Dear Anon, power coming back sporadically based on which lines are down because of which trees. Some people expect it to be another week before everyone's power is restored.