[insert timpani sound]

Friday, September 19, 2003

Sturm und Drang

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."
-- Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

I've opened the bedroom window a few inches. The wind is whistling through. The air is warmer than I expected; then I remember that she's a tropical storm.

I went out Thursday afternoon. I had no good reason, really, except for not having any flashlight batteries.

It was raining -- not too hard, really. Streets were pretty much empty, which is what happens here when the public mass transit system and the federal and local governments all decide they're going to close. Why they shut down the subway is beyond me. They said they were afraid of people being blown onto the tracks on the above-ground subway stations. It's hard to imagine the typical lard-ass American being lifted up, a la Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz, and dropped in the path of an oncoming subway train, but still, I suppose it could happen. So why not just close the stations that are above ground, and leave the rest of the subway running underground?

Public transit is pretty much the lifeblood of a big city. When it's gone, you can roll back the clock to the 1800s.

Unless, of course, you have a car.

The road was already littered with leaves and bark and branches. Some of the branches were big enough to require steering around. Traffic lights were out everywhere.

I pulled up at a Starbucks. The door had a handwritten sign saying they were closing early due to the hurricane.

Wednesday night, I had done my last-minute hurricane shopping at a local store (amazingly busy for 11 PM) that had shelves that were picked bare. Well, not completely bare. I thought it would be an interesting anthropological study: what do people buy in times of crisis? There was no bottled water at all. Very few batteries -- I assume The Great Northeastern Blackout of '03 is still fresh in everyone's mind. And there were only two pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream left. I overheard some woman complaining to her friend that her basket of "survival" goods was full of junk food.

There was an absolutely brilliant article in Spy magazine years ago about what death row inmates choose for their last meals before going off to the electric chair.

Anyway, I decided to swing past another grocery store Thursday afternoon. This one was also pretty busy. The shelves here weren't bare, but I never found the bottled water.

I drove around some more and saw a tree that had been felled by the wind. It looked as if the trunk had just snapped in half. A jagged, splintery stump was still in the ground, the rest of the poor tree on the ground nearby. It was pathetic in the true sense of the word: I felt sorry for the tree.

A few blocks later, the cops had blocked off a major intersection. I couldn't quite tell why, but it seemed that one of the huge old trees on the corner was listing 30 degrees to starboard.

There was very little traffic and thus very few traffic hazards, except for the people who weren't quite paying attention and who forgot that you're supposed to treat a traffic light outage as if it were a 4-way stop sign and not go sailing through the intersection. More than once I thought I was going to be rear-ended by one of these people.

I went to two different Home Depot stores. The first one was out of every kind of battery except AA batteries (which they had a lot of), and lantern batteries, which they would only sell you in conjunction with a flashlight, for the special price of $11.98. "HURRICANE SUPPLIES CANNOT BE RETURNED" read the makeshift sign posted at the entrance. I could imagine people arguing about whether a particular piece of defective plywood constituted a "hurricane supply."

I decided to pass on the $11.98 lantern battery.

The next Home Depot was closing just as I arrived.

Finally, I tried a CVS drug store on Route 50. Nothing but AA batteries and an improbably large crowd of Korean men all buying umbrellas.

Thus the quest for batteries ended.

The lights have flickered occasionally tonight -- not really confidence-inspiring -- but so far, only flickering.

I'm really not a fan of felled trees, flooded streets, and electrical power outages -- but there's something bracing and cathartic about listening to the wind whip through the buildings here. It's enough to make one hope that the world in Isabel's wake will be better, in some ineffable way.