Two days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power and filled the cellar of our rental house with
water, my middle school aged son John and I were wildly bored and cold. The rain had stopped,
the skies were gray, and the wind was mild. Against the car radio’s warning to stay home, we
walked through town, down to the waterline of the bay, which had risen at least 50 feet from the
usual shoreline to the railroad tracks. Looking west the tracks were blocked by enormous fallen
trees. Though it was a diesel line, there would be no trains for some time. Against all advice, we
had to witness the small apocalypse of this Superstorm ourselves.
Before we knew that both of our schools would be closed for weeks, before there would be lines
to buy gasoline miles long, to rival the 1970’s energy crisis, John and I got in the car and I drove,
as I so often did when he was small, to lull him off to sleep in his car seat. We would end up in
some beach parking lot, and I would take out my perpetual stack of blue books to grade. We left
this time as if we could escape, but again, also to bear witness. There were few other cars, no
sirens, no police, no work crews, a shockingly silent nothing.
We cruised south without much of a problem. The Mall appeared to have electricity, so I parked
amid puddles and we went inside. People were plugging their cell phones into round brass outlets
in the floor, and a security guard on a Segway shooed them away, only for them to return after he
sped off. Most of the stores and food court restaurants were closed. Not a lot of people walked
around slowly. Perhaps they were there because they had nowhere else to go, or perhaps, like us,
felt sensorially deprived and were dazzled by the light.
The movie theatre was open so we walked right up to the window and I bought tickets for the
next movie showing. I had perfected the art of film roulette while living near Film Forum in my
20’s: buy tickets to whatever is playing next, escape without deliberation, a decision to trust fate.
A decision made in such haste it is no decision at all.
The next movie that afternoon was Argo, set in the 1970’s and based on the true story of the
scheme which eventually freed the American hostages in Iran. I was about my son’s age when
this historical event was taking place, and the costumes, the washed-out cinematography, was an
escape, as clever people attempted to solve someone else’s enormous problem. It was also an
escape into a familiar past for me, and a glimpse into a fictionalized version of the times of my
girlhood for my son. “Yes, people really did dress like that then,” I told him.
Argo a few months later won the Oscar for best picture, but at the time, it was hard to tell if we
thought the movie was extraordinarily good because of the circumstances during which we
viewed it, like feeding a starving person, or if the movie was satisfying by its own merits, if it
was better than it had to be.
Afterward I was able to buy an As Seen on TV Olde Brooklyn Lantern at a kiosk in the mall, a
tin tabletop flashlight that was made to look like an old-fashioned railroad lantern. I would
normally disparage such cheap and imitation stuff, but I was thrilled to make this $20 purchase,
because it came with batteries, and batteries had been sold out since well before the storm.
Late fall and it was approaching dusk when we headed home, but heading north was nothing like
our trip south earlier. The roads were impassable. This was the side of the road where the trees
had fallen, due to the direction of the winds I supposed, or perhaps it was the side of the road
where the power lines were strung. On our way there I had failed to notice these obstacles in the
empty streets. Still no authorities had arrived to begin the task of cleanup or steer people away. It
was just a few miles from our home, but there was far more damage from wind, like the random
damage of a tornado. I had to turn off the main road. A labyrinth of shattered trees blocked the
dark side streets. Detours, through water of unknown depth, over downed lines, in the increasing
dark of night without street lights, but we finally made it home unharmed.
Appropriately frightened, we stayed there for a couple of days, then started to get tired of eating
the same dwindling supply of groceries, of living by the glowing blue light of the open door of
the gas oven (against all advice), of even our new Olde Brooklyn Lantern.
Our neighbors informed us that the local supermarket had, surprisingly, opened. When we
arrived only half of the lights were on. Whatever we waited on a long line to purchase, I do not
recall, but we were disappointed that the refrigerated section had been cleaned out: no eggs or
cheese or milk or butter, those simple comforting foods a growing boy craves. On the way out, in
a shopping cart by the door, were all the perfect but warm bars of Cabot, Helluvagood and store
brand New York sharp cheddar, pepper jack and mild orange cheddar cheese. When I asked, we
were informed by an employee that no we could not buy this cheese, that after after 48 hours
without refrigeration it had to be thrown away.
"Argo fuck yerself" my son muttered, quoting Alan Arkin’s memorable line from Argoas we
shouldered the heavy and non-operative automatic exit doors. I snickered to myself and let it go
rather than remand him on F bombs. I realized that asking nicely was not going to rescue the
hostage cheese. Our plan once back in the car was to return on the pretense that we needed to
buy just one more thing and take the cheese when the store clerk was not looking.
We prepared for the mission. We pushed our way back in and wandered up a ravaged grocery
aisle, past glum and frantic shoppers, and made our way back toward the exit as if we had not
found what we were looking for. Four hands at the ready for a game of cheese roulette, not a
time to be picky. We considered the heavy door, took our chances in the half dark and chaos and
liberated 5 bars from the doomed cart, into the safety of our raincoat pockets, the sky still gray
above us, our gas stove and Olde Brooklyn Lantern a welcome sight as we arrived home for
lunch. Within minutes of our arrival, everything hummed and purred alive, the sump pump, the
lamps here and there, the refrigerator and hot water heater. The power didn’t stay on for very
long, but if electricity is an emotion, we felt it right then and there.
Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent writings have been published inTupelo Quarterly,Tofu Ink
Arts Press,Viewless Wings Podcast,LITPUB,and other publications. She earned an MFA from
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa and taught freshman composition as
an adjunct instructor for 20 years. Visit www.karinfalconekrieger.com