The Trattoria is expecting a particularly busy Friday night, so of course Jay calls in sick, thinks Kim as she sets the last of the restaurant’s twelve tables. Placemat, plate, folded napkin, fork and fork and knife and knife, cup for water, cup for wine, won’t you be my valentine, she hums to herself as she lays out the elements in perfect order. Jay is not going to ruin this night. Yes, she admits to herself, just she and Anna in the whole front of house will be tough– poor Anna, her first Friday shift and we’re man down– but we’ll make it through, and we’ll take home more tips for it.
Friday the 13th, Kim thinks, what a lucky day… and how lucky of me to know how lucky it is! Most people think it’s unlucky, but I know different– it was Friday the 13th last June I met Jack, and I’ve never been so lucky in my life. As she walks from table to table, squaring corners, lighting candles, Anna calls ten minutes from the hostess stand.
One of the cooks, Luis, walks through the double doors, his apron bloody with au jus, a pack of Camels in his hand. He extracts one with his teeth and asks through open lips if Kim wants to come out back. “We open in ten minutes,” she scolds him, “you don’t have time!”
“Sure I do,” says Luis, “you ain’t gonna take their order for at least ten minutes after that… so maybe you don’t,” and he winks at her before turning and re-entering the kitchen. Kim sighs exasperatedly. She walks towards the front of the room, where Anna is leaning uninterestedly on the podium, as if she is about to address a crowd of high-schoolers.
“Do you think Luis likes me?” she asks Anna.
“I think Luis tries to hit on everything,” Anna answers, looking out the darkening window at the passers-by, “but he knows you have a boyfriend.”
“It’s not even anything he says,” Kim muses, “it’s just that stupid fucking winking.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Anna says. “Hey, so, what do I do if there’s a line?”
“You know, like, we’re full and people keep coming in?”
“Take their name and put them on the list,” Kim says slowly, “just like any other night.”
“Oh,” Anna says, “that makes sense.”
Kim is suddenly less certain of herself. Goddamnit, Jay, she thinks… well, at least it’ll be over by eleven, and Jack is coming home tomorrow. In just one day, can’t you see, you’ll be back at home with me… I just have to get through this, she thinks, “we just have to get through tonight, Anna,” she says.
“Yep,” Anna murmurs. She takes out her phone and starts thumb-typing. Almost simultaneously, Kim’s starts to buzz in her pocket.
“OK,” Kim says, “that’s the alarm. Let’s open ‘em up.”
Anna looks at her phone. “It’s only 4:55. I think we have five minutes.”
Kim reaches into her pocket. “It’s… oh.” She pauses, bewildered. “It’s my mom.” She lifts it to her ear. “Hi, Mom, this is not really a good–”
Anna keeps texting as Kim stands listening. The expression on her face is a combination of mild confusion and annoyance that her mother is choosing this time to call her. “No, of course not, I’m at work, how would I be watching the news? …I can’t right now, we open in like four minutes, can you just tell…”
She is silent for about fifteen seconds. As she listens, her face changes, tightens. The confusion becomes shock. She raises a hand to her slowly opening mouth… “Oh, no,” she says, “that’s…” And then, suddenly– so quickly, in fact, that Anna almost involuntarily spins around to see– the shock gives way to panic, to terror. Her eyes widen, her skin perceptibly whitens. “He’s on assignment,” she whispers voicelessly, “he’s photographing some band… I don’t fucking know, Mom, some fucking band, Mom, don’t fuck with me like this, the– how the– yes. Yes, that was them. Yes, the fucking Queens of the Stone Age spinoff thing… yes, that’s them. Mom, I need to go, I need to make a phone call” and she hangs up, raises the phone to her mouth and orders it to “call Jack” as Anna stares, wide-eyed, at the being Kim has suddenly transformed into.
“What’s happening?” asks Anna.
“It’s ringing,” says Kim, “it’s ringing…” Anna waits. “It’s… it’s ringing…”
Finally, after what seems like too long, Kim hangs up. She turns to Anna. Her hands are shaking. “I’m going to go smoke a cigarette,” she says, “with Luis.”
“What’s happening?” whispers Anna.
“I’m– smoking– a– cigarette,” Kim intones, “just like any other night.” And she turns around and strides into the kitchen. Anna is alone in the dining room.
Before she can point her phone to the news, the alarm rings. She quickly silences it. Now it is Anna’s turn to panic. She has no idea what is going on with Kim, why Kim is freaking out, and she does not think it is fair to leave her alone on her first Friday shift. Ah, well, she thinks, I suppose I can just wait until she gets back to unlock… but even as she is thinking it, a man raps twice on the door. Shit, she panics, what do I do? Unsure of herself, she tries to imagine herself as Kim… confident, experienced Kim, who seems to have disappeared… she takes a deep breath and goes to open the floodgates.
“Are you guys open?” the man asks. He is old, tall, and balding, dressed in a neat black overcoat. Behind him stands an equally old lady, short, with a bright red scarf.
“Y-yes,” Anna says, then more confidently, “Yes, we just opened, you are our first guests!”
“Two,” the man states. Anna looks at him. “Two?” he says again, holding up fingers in case she does not understand. “Where can we…?”
“Of course, of course,” Anna says, shaking her head, “let me show you to your table. Is by the window OK?”
“Hm,” the man hums. He turns slowly to his wife. “Window, Carol?”
“Hmmm,” she hums. “It is sort of cold, isn’t it?”
“But do you want to sit next to the window?”
“It is cold,” says Carol. “But I don’t know, why don’t you decide?”
“The decision,” mutters the man, “is not so very important,” and now another couple is standing behind them, on the street, and though they have been in line for no more than ten seconds they are already getting impatient New York faces. Anna’s heart nearly bursts through her chest. Where are you, Kim, she thinks, I am fucking up so bad already…
“Maybe a table farther from the window would be better?” she hazards.
“Well, of course it would be,” says Carol, “of course it would be, but you offered us the table by the window…”
“Ma’am,” Anna says, doing her best to feign a smile under the circumstances, “being the first guests here, you have the option of sitting wherever you’d like.”
“Well, put us by the window,” says the man.
“Away from the window,” Carol corrects him.
“That’s what I said,” he agrees. Anna leads them to a seat by the bathrooms. The couple that had been behind them is gone. Though she hates to lose customers, Anna is somewhat relieved. She goes to the bar (Jay’s usual spot) to pour two glasses of water. While she is pouring them, Kim returns from the kitchen. She sees Anna behind the bar and immediately walks over to her. Anna wants to berate Kim for leaving her alone on her first night, but she cannot; Kim outranks her, and furthermore, Anna can see that she has been crying. Her makeup is ruined. Anna tries to quash her lingering resentment.
“He’s OK,” Kim says.
“What is going on?” Anna asks.
“Jack is OK,” Kim says, “he just posted on Facebook, he was sick and stayed home, Jesus Christ, Anna, he was sick and stayed home…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Everything’s OK,” she says. She takes a deep breath. Everything’s OK, everything’s all right, the restaurant is closing soon, “Let’s just get through tonight. Let me take those waters. You go to the front door. Looks like you got a line,” she nods in the direction of the street. Anna looks up and, indeed, there are now three or four people standing at the hostess stand. It is going to be a long night, Kim thinks, a long, hard night for everyone, but it helps to have some perspective, doesn’t it? It could be so much longer… “It could be so much worse,” she says aloud.
Anna thinks for a moment. “You need to fix your makeup,” Anna says. “Let me take these waters.”
Kim touches her face. “Fuck,” she says, “I guess I’ll just rinse everything off, it’s better than all this running…” She smiles. What an inconsequential problem. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she assures Anna as she steps towards the bathroom. Anna trays the waters and walks them to the table where Carol and her husband are waiting. They, too, have their New York faces on.
“Finally,” Carol says aggressively.
“I apologize for the wait, ma’am,” Anna returns sweetly. “Your server will be with you in a minute to get you any other drinks.”
“We know what we want to eat,” says the man.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she says, “your server will really be with you in just one minute.”
“This is ridiculous,” says Carol. Turning to her husband, she asks pointedly, “Do you want to stay?”
“I don’t know,” he says, “do you want to stay?”
“I don’t want to stay but if you want to stay, I could.”
Anna looks towards the entranceway, which now has three or four entirely different people standing in it from before. The pace of life here, she thinks. Customers will come and go all night, but all we have to do is get through.
or, Four Reflections On Water
or, An Incomplete List
The forest closes above and around us like a tunnel in a canyonside. Even though this is just a modestly sized patch of trees in a modestly sized park, and the trees are still skeletal and budless on this Easter afternoon, it instantly becomes quieter as we cross their threshold. The sound of children playing in the park, jumping in the damp, rapidly melting April snow, fades first into muffled murmurs and quickly into silence. The three of us are alone, not five minutes from home.
“Look,” one of us (all of us) (none of us) says, pointing off the trail into the civilized wilderness. The trail, though not paved with asphalt or concrete, is better maintained than a true forest road: well graded, absent large potholes, puddles or rocks. It rises several inches above the average level of the forest floor, and in the liquefied winter we realize we are not in a forest at all but a swamp. A layer of icy water, too chaotically dirty for us to sound its depth, covers everything. In places, it looks like snow, but it is perfectly smooth and flat, better paved than the trail, and it ripples when you touch it.
“I wonder,” aloud, “if that’s just from the melt. I mean, is it just excess runoff that’ll all drain into the pond soon enough, or is this just always swampy?” No one knows. Near the bridge, my praise for the trail is misplaced. The mire has overrun its artificial banks and dribbled across our path, like a bibless baby. We cross anyway.
“It happened again,” I confess to Denny. He is unsurprised. He begins, dismissively, his usual speech: “As the rivers rise and fall…”
I was born in the flat country. Syracuse has hills, it is true, but when you have known the mountains you know the difference. I had heard the phrase, as the rivers rise and fall, I knew that this was supposed to be some kind of seasonal rhythm, like the snow, or the humidity, one more aspect of the water cycle. I may even have noticed that Meadowbrook was slightly higher in spring than in the rest of the year, and attributed this to the snowmelt. But I never understood, not until I moved to Avon, why rivers are worshipped.
I arrived home late in the evening, late in May, exhausted from the drive from Fairfield to Twin, to Snowville to Salt Lake, to Provo where I picked up a couple of French hitchers, to the non-town of Tucker where I dropped them off, to Price through the desert and desert to Junction, to Glenwood and finally up valley to home. After fifteen hours on the road and an entire audiobook entitled The Art of Racing in The Rain— it had not rained— I poured myself a martini, and went to smoke a welcome-home cigarette with my friend-sublessee Andrew on the balcony. But venturing outside, I was struck, as with a fist, by the incredible roar of what I could only take to be the impending apocalypse. “Pray for me,” I asked Andrew. “What?” he shouted back. “I can’t hear you over the river.”
The Eagle River, which I had only known in fall and winter, a rocky, bubbling stream, up to a foot deep in places but usually shallower, had evolved, metamorphosed, risen into something the likes of which I had never seen before. What had in April been a frozen ditch had become a crashing, howling juggernaut, a tornado-green monster, a swollen frenzy of whitecaps. It was neither evil nor ominous; it only impressed upon me the sheer unadulterated strength of an inorganic, unemotional nature. I would later learn that the trail through the canyon was closed near the tunnels, washed away by the force of two counties’ accumulated snowmelt.
For a moment I dared to think that it had all the power of the ocean, but I immediately realized that that was ridiculous, almost blasphemous. Nothing on Earth has the power of the ocean.
We watched the storm clouds roll in, against our mothers’ and mayor’s unequivocal orders, from the pier at the end of North 5th Street, just past Kent, right on the water. We drove there. That should give you some perspective on how unusual the situation was. We never drove anywhere.
We stayed maybe ten minutes. While we were there, it stopped raining and began pouring, the wind stopped gusting and began blowing. I had never, I realized, been outdoors in a true storm before; I had never experienced that wind-tunnel effect, that sensation of constancy, above all that sound, like God blowing in your ear. I remarked to Gabe and Brandon that the wind was blowing west here, just like it was blowing west everywhere north of the eye, thousands and thousands of square miles, it was the same wind here as in Syracuse and in Boston and in Washington, we are all under one wind.
We retreated home just as I began to be afraid.
We spent the night indoors, making pizza from scratch, drinking beer and waiting for the power to go out. It never did. We stayed up until two or three in the morning, laughing, joking, just as if the Storm Of The Century weren’t ravaging outside, hoping it would all blow over and in the morning we would all be alive. I read a little of Schrödinger’s book, What Is Life, which I had decided was my project for the days off, while we listened to records and the old tube radio.
We learned Manhattan had lost power, and heard stories of flooding, but where we were nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the wind. Yet when I finally went to bed I remember wishing that I wasn’t alone. It seemed the wind would keep rising all night, rising without limit, tearing the roofs off of houses and blowing up the Con Ed building on 14th Street and knocking over that crane in Midtown and turning us into waterlogged New Orleans, killing everyone. Of course, as I’ve previously written, the storm did devastate low-lying swaths of the city, killing 71 in the state, which is not everyone, but which is 71 people. I don’t wish to revisit that here. But Williamsburg was spared.
Almost a year later, I was driving a four-wheeler on private land in Idaho when a furious storm whipped up out of nowhere, with lightning striking so close to me I could feel my hair stand on end. The two miles down hill to the farm seemed unending, and when we got back I was shaking. The inconsolable terror of thunder that some of us suffer, of being at the mercy of the elements, of the big one, must predate the invention of language. Why else would it be so hard to express?
At 10:11 in the morning on August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana issued what is widely considered to be the most strongly worded weather bulletin ever promulgated by the service. It does not take much imagination to read it as a millenarian prophecy of doom. When the government makes statements that could cause panic, as this one surely could have, there is a responsibility to ensure that the statement is justified, that the benefits of warning outweigh the distributed effects of fear. Robert Ricks, the author of the copy, is said to have reread the text he had written several times, looking for anything that was too strong, anything scary that the public could be spared. He found nothing. I reproduce it here in its entirety.
000 WWUS74 KLIX 281550 NPWLIX URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005 ...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED... HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH... RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969. MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED. THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE. HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT. AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK. POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS. THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED. AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE...ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS. ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTURE OUTSIDE!
The feature of this text I find the most interesting is not the sentence, “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” Of course, many have remarked on the irony of dying of thirst on a boat, and I have little to add to the analysis of that tragedy. Rather, it is the repeated use of the word, “all.” All gabled roofs will fail. All wood framed apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. You cannot win. It doesn’t matter if you think you are safe. You are not. You cannot win. You can only run. Drop everything and run. That is the power of the ocean.
The bulletin, notably, does not mention flooding; it does not mention the possibility of the levees breaking. We did not yet know how incredible the human suffering would in fact turn out to be.
Nine o’clock. Time to go to class. I collect my belongings from the Bistro bar, my usual breakfast spot. I don’t want to be antisocial, but first thing in the morning is not a time, for me, for gathering, for eating together, talking and laughing: it is supposed to be solitary, quiet, I eat and read the paper and slowly, patiently sip my coffee, while the world around me seems to rush by in time-lapse. By lunchtime, I am ready to share a table, to break bread with friends and discuss the interesting topic of the day, or make stupid jokes if the moment calls for it. But not at breakfast.
Before entering the stairwell, I glance, as I always do, at the newspapers arrayed on the table by the entranceway: the Waterloo Record, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail. Interestingly, the Globe and Mail is Canada’s largest (in terms of circulation) national newspaper, but the Star is its largest overall; however, the Star’s readership has been declining steeply in recent years, while the Globe and Mail has held steady. The horse race. Today, all three newspapers bear the same front-page article, big bold letters, the images shouting, demanding. The Record: ‘Shocking’ attack;” the Star: “UNDER SIEGE.” And the Globe, loudest of all: Parliament in pitch-black silhouette, Gothic towers rising underneath a darkening evening sky, a maple flag shining brightly from the center as if lit by a spotlight, wanting, hoping to be called the spirit of the nation or something like that, eighty-point white letters exhorting attention:
Below the flag the subtitles:
I would soon hear banging and screaming, see smoke and smell gunpowder
How a city lost its innocence
An assault on the heart of democracy and the memory of Canada’s fallen
I pick up the paper, holding it broadsheet in front of me, the building (I have been there, I think, I used to go to Ottawa every year, do they still sell beaver tails on the canal?) looming outlined in front of me like the ghost of a terrible deadly emotion, taking up three-quarters of the page, and below it A WELCOME BONUS1 OF UP TO 25,000 MILES.
I remember that afternoon when I was ten. We went to see The Princess Diaries at Shoppingtown. It must have been about two-thirty, which would have been unremarkable except that normally I would have been in school at two-thirty, school didn’t get out until 2:50, and also because we never went to the movies during the week, never on a Tuesday. I thought it odd that my parents had come to school to pick me and my sister up, and to take us to the movies, all because of a plane crash somewhere in New York. Planes crash all the time, and it’s sad, but everyone we know is OK, and so why is everyone so upset? Nobody even really wants to see this movie, it’s not supposed to be particularly good, but Dad seems to think it very important that we go to see a movie and not keep– no one had gone to work– glued to the TV– but I didn’t know–
I remember when I saw the afternoon edition of the then-soon-to-be-defunct Herald-Journal. Newspapers do not usually have afternoon editions. Only then, maybe twenty minutes after I first heard the words, did I understand– even superficially– what had happened. No, I didn’t understand it– that happened, as well as I could say it ever did, only years later– what I mean is only then did I register it, only then were we finally talking about the same sequence of events.
I tried to focus on the movie. I was ten. It wasn’t hard. I laughed at the stupid jokes and I felt embarrassed for the princess when she was in awkward situations and I completely forgot that I would, on any other day, still have been at school. I can’t say for sure, but I do not think my parents had that luxury.
This is not about the T-word: there is too much to say there. I do not know if acts of individuals can be terrorism; I do not know if it counts if there needs to be no planning. Probably the shooting was planned, but clearly not in any detail. It does not take much planning to walk around shooting people; if you think about it, it takes disturbingly little, even none. It does not take much planning to run someone over with a car; if you think about it, it is not something that is really possible to plan. But this is not about terrorism and this is not about “terrorism.”
This is not about comparison. Time after time I come back to the question of how to compare. When the typhoon hit the Philippines I tried to compare it to Rockaway, and was saddened and ashamed at what I thought. We thought we had it bad? But then what do you tell to the people in Belle Harbor, in Far Rockaway, in Breezy Point? Will the rotting flesh in Tacloban rebuild the Harbor Light? Am I going to tell Canadians, it’s not exactly 9/11? This is not about comparison today.
This is about the A-word. This is not even about the word per se as a semantic unit. Because I am me, this is about typography, the word as ink on page, the accompanying image, the red and white flag today, the red and white explosions bigger than the bridge:
This is about the quantity of ink it takes to print a silhouette of Parliament 300,000 times. This is about the afternoon edition of the Herald-Journal, the only afternoon edition since the Kennedy assassination, which is still in the top shelf of the closet in my mother’s room. This is about the days that people remember, without judgment of the reasons.
The coming days will be interesting, but whatever may happen, I will save this paper.