We’ve got a storm coming. I was at the Food Emporium this morning in Manhattan and it was controlled mayhem. Unlike many others, I do not judge mayhem. I kind of appreciate it. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Rhode Island, and mayhem in the face of oncoming storms is our bread and butter. You do not have to have been alive in 1938, you do not have to have had parents who were alive in 1938, to have a collective memory of the Hurricane of 1938 and what a disaster it was for our state. In many ways, it made us. Screw Roger Williams. The Hurricane of 1938 was a natural disaster that helped coalesce us, and helped create the Rhode Island mindset that lasts to this day. In my own lifetime, we had the Blizzard of 1978, which literally shut the state down for weeks. I didn’t have school for two weeks. So it’s not as though we panic for no reason. We have shit that went down in the 20th century that has woven itself into our DNA. So you won’t find us being cavalier in the face of an oncoming storm, the way the poor folks were in 1938 who thought it was safe to come out, only to realize that the calmness in the atmosphere was just the eye of the storm, and that the worst was still coming. Entire families were washed out to sea. So no. We remember that shit. The storm may be hyped beyond all reason, but better to be safe than sorry. 1938, don’t you know. It changed our coastline forever. It wiped it out.
I do not panic about storms. As a matter of fact, I look forward to them. But I also am prepared. I have flashlights and bottled water and canned goods, and am ready to de-camp at any moment.
And unlike others who judge panic, and sneer at it, I actually find it comforting and human. Fine, people in grocery stores are lining up buying 15 jugs of Poland Spring, as though the apocalypse is coming. Fine, this is ridiculous. It is also the human condition and the survivor instinct. We want to survive. But more than that, we want to participate in the event. We want our stories. Our narratives. Certainly better to be safe than sorry.
Jincy Willett’s superb novel, Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather, takes place in Rhode Island, in the teeth of a coming hurricane. (My review of the book here.) It opens with a description of the scene in a grocery store prior to a hurricane in Rhode Island, and Jincy Willett gets it on such a deep level, such an intuitive comedic level (it is absurd, human, ridiculous, understandable, how people act when a storm is coming), that I really wanted to share it here, today, as we East Coasters hunker down, trying to be ready for whatever is coming.
Enjoy every word below. Jincy Willett nails it.
So, everyone, be safe out there.
EXCERPT FROM Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather, by Jincy Willett
Mark Twain was right: New England weather is a literary specialty, not a science. He gave a more reliable forecast in 1876 than those boobs on channel ten.
Probable nor’-east to sou’-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points betewen; high and low barometer, sweeping round from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes and thunder and lightning.
I woke up this morning with a hurricane headache and turned on the stupid TV and there they were, one of each sex, babbling in front of a huge weather map. “We’re going to get it,” the man said, and the woman added that “the only question is how it’s going to hit. Pandora is on the way.” Last night these same people were promising she’d miss us by a hundred miles.
A hurricane headache is no guarantee. The big one is out there somewhere, that’s all, eyeing your neighborhood. You’re on her list, and the atmospheric pressure plummets, skyrockets, some damn thing, and the air is humid, smelly, ominous, and your head feels caught in a padded vise. You want to crawl right out of your skin.
We had a bad one here, in Rhode Island, in 1938, the year of our birth, and another bad one in ’54, which I remember, and that’s it. Rhode Island is not Key West.
Many have noticed this.
Hurricane headaches make you feel antsy and doomed, but they can be gotten around, like the premenstrual whim-whams. You just remind yourself that your emotions are physical in origin, and ignore them. I’m good at that.
“How bad it’s going to be is anybody’s guess.” The man in the red blazer, Ernie, was unable to act convincingly as though this were bad news. “We’re going to get it for sure.”
“The main thing right now,” his partner added, “is not to panic.”
“And remain calm. I repeat. Hurricane Pandora is on the way. I repeat. Pandora is coming.”
“And not just her tail.”
“Nope. Head to toe!”
“Full body slam!”
“She’s got us in her sights!”
“We’re staring right up her gun barrel!”
“She’s made a shambles out of Cape Hatteras!”
“Heading straight for us at thirty-seven per!”
“But don’t panic!”
From my bay window in the living room I could see at least two people dutifully panicking already. Old Mrs. McArch had just about covered all her windows with masking tape, and John and Marie Bucci were squeezing children and beagles into the station wagon.
The Buccis always headed out. They headed out in ’68, when we were supposed to get the race riots. I asked John then where he was going, and John stopped and thought and said, “Burlington?” I pointed out (I was only thirty, I had more energy then) that (a) we weren’t going to get any riots, and (b) if we did they’d be in Providence, where Negroes actually live, and not way out here in Frome. John shrugged. “Yeah, I know,” he said, reddening, staring down at two bulging suitcases, “but hey.” John’s a nice guy. I always wish him luck. John is my bellwether, and John was heading out.
Today was supposed to be my day off. I had scheduled my Saturday crew, T.R. and Gloria, to man the library without me, and particularly to catalogue that three-foot pile of new books standing on the floor beside my desk. Usually I do these myself, the new books. Usually I want to. Of all my duties, opening brand-new books is the most pleasurable. When it comes to books, I am a sensuous woman. Usually. But not today, and so, naturally, today is Panic Day, and the Saturday people have flown away home, and I have had to come in myself and face it. The new book pile.
I knocked on Anna’s door and told her about the forecast, and asked, did she want to come with me. She was already awake, listening to her clock radio, and said she’d stay here by herself. “I’ve always wanted,” she said, “to batten down the hatches.” How a twenty-year-old could have “always wanted” to do anything was a puzzler, but her decision was just as well. Today I didn’t need the company. I poured some scotch in our father’s old silver flask, put on jeans and a white shirt, filled three grocery bags with towels, and drove out to the Star for cold cuts and bread.
I’m not a drunk, by the way. It’s going to be a long day, that’s all.
I waved to John and Marie as I backed out the driveway. John shouted that they were heading up to Portland. “But the storm is moving north,” I said. “I know,” Marie said, and John said, “We know. But hey.” We all had a nice laugh, and I wished them luck.
It was six thirty a.m. and twenty people stood outside the locked glass doors of the Star, watching the manager and a couple of checkers shuffle around inside. When I joined them they greeted me like a family member. I had forgotten about this. Rhode Island gets so few near misses, so little natural drama, that I forget from one time to the next about this phenomenon: what Conrad Lowe called “the disaster factor”.
Rhode Island natives, including those born overseas, are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don’t know as to seem almost deranged. They never look a stranger in the eye, or if they do, they unfocus their own eyes. I don’t mean a stranger you pass in the street, I mean a stranger who’s lived next door to you for twenty-five years, or a stranger you ask directions from or hand his dropped wallet to or knock down with your car.
This probably has something to do with the tradition of overcrowding, of living cheek by jowl for two hundred years. Whatever the cause, we have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don’t even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner.
We literally don’t know how to act. We have no roles to play. We are the nakedest of Americans, and when native strangers, themselves naked and ashamed, make even innocuous demands of us – How much is this? Would you please get off my foot? – we panic and writhe, we shamble and fumble with our buttons, we mutter even as we back away. We make inappropriate noises. I’ve seen man-on-Weybosset-Street interviews on TV, and they’re really too painful to watch. A stout woman with anxious haunted eyes, asked for her New Year’s predictions, blurts, “I think we’re going to have World War III!” and giggles like a toddler. She stands for all of us, an awkward cipher, silly or rude, or silly and rude, and inside, clearly glimpsed in the frightened eyes, some poor trapped soul screaming for help.
Our body language, of course, is wonderfully complex. We know a thousand different shrugs.
We are so lonely here, with only our loved ones for company. We kill, maim, insult our loved ones, or dream of doing so, to keep from going mad. And then disaster strikes. God, how we love disaster.
Let the storm come and flatten us, please, let the poor riot, let our houses burn (we have a terrific arson rate), let our president fall, our spaceships explode. What we wouldn’t give for an LNG holocaust or a freeway sniper. Anything. I used to think we were just a big bunch of cowards, but that isn’t it. We panic early, and we panic hard and long; but we love every minute of it. Rhode Island: The Panic State.
Panic frees us, to look around openly at one another. Disaster makes us friendly, in a demented opportunistic fashion all our own. We stumble toward one another, hilarious with terror, crazy with all the possibilities, like hibernating grizzlies injected with speed and shoved out into the light. We go berserk with candor. We lose it, big time, and oh, what a sweet relief that is.
Except for us Yankees, true and false (us Yankees do have stage presence), everybody waiting outside the Star was burdening the stranger on his right with the intimate details of his private life. The running theme of the conversation was “We’re really going to get it now,” and around us the wind picked up, and green maple leaves, plucked before their time, eddied in the parking lot, batted around in the smelly air as though by a bored child who, though already strong enough to rip down tree branches, had only leaves to play with for the moment.
The stranger to my right, a squat wide-rumped blonde in turquoise bermudas, asked me if I had filled my tub this morning, and I said yes, to take a bath. “You’re not saving water?” I shook my head. “You tape your windows?” No. “You here for candles? Batteries?” “I’m here for my lunch.”
Her face fell, and I felt bad about ruining her good time. She looked back up at me in a bold, speculative way. “I seen you someplace,” she said. This is what passes for polite inquiry around here.
“I’m the head librarian at Squanto,” I said.
“Nah,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s not it.”
She was distracted then when the manager opened the glass doors. We wished each other luck, my new friend and I, and then we all squeezed through the single door in discrete lumps of ten. It took great effort not to panic along with everyone else. Men and women grabbed carts and began cruising down the aisles, like contestants on that old game show where you had five minutes to load up and the one with the biggest total won.
I concentrated so hard on strolling that I got to the deli counter second, behind a ruddy, big-chested yachting type, probably from Little Compton and somehow stuck inland, who had obviously decided that cold cuts were the way to go in the coming apocalypse. Soon there was a small crowd around him, and he gave them a big show, ordering corned beef, proscuittini, smoked turkey, even olive loaf, in thinly sliced two-pound units. No one but me resented the way he was hogging the counter and showing off his money. I ended up buying a jar each of dried beef and mayonnaise, a package of stale burger buns, and an old head of iceberg lettuce.
By the time I got to the checkout the two lines were twenty deep and festivity was at its height. Shoppers sighting bare acquaintances across the way abandoned their lines to embrace one another; and when they returned, their places remained open to receive them. Most people were giddy and riotous but here and there stood someone badly frightened by all the excitement. A tiny old woman cried and was comforted by a family of Portugese; a pregnant teenager with a Cro-Magnon forehead and hair bleached to the color of driftwood bellowed like a steer every time someone bumped into her cart, “Quit hittin’ me, you retard!” Joe Hiltebrand, retired Frome Junior High School principal, turned around in line in front of me and addressed us. “This lady,” he said, pointing to an old woman whose elbow he held, “just has two boxes of candles. Surely we can let her in ahead of us.” We all nodded except for the cave-preggo, who said, “Fuck huh.” The line turned toward her as one. “Fuck all a youse.”
The woman in back of me, who had been talking in my ear, an academic type Not From Around Here, probably a Brown University wife, spoke soothingly to the girl, as though she were a zoo animal. “We’re all scared, dear,” she said, and so forth, carefully using monosyllables, but she didn’t get far. “Fuck you,” said the girl, and the woman Not From Around Here turned away without losing poise and whispered in my ear. “Two eloquent arguments for abortion rights, right there.” Academics always spot me for an educated woman. What is it? How can I avoid it? “I’m a nun,” I told her. She laughed unconvincingly, and turned to the woman in back of her. “Isn’t it fascinating,” she said, “to see what other peopel buy in times of crisis? I see you’re loading up on packaged mixes. An interesting choice.” “Yeah, I guess so,” said the humiliated housewife From Around Here, who obviously wanted to shield the contents of her cart with her body. Even during Panic Time it is inexcusable to comment on someone’s groceries. We all stared rudely into the academic woman’s cart, which brimmed with wheels of cheese and bags of whole wheat flour. Miraculously, the woman sensed hostility. “Brie is the perfect hurricane food!” she said, in her too loud Midwestern voice. “It can’t spoil! It can only get runny and smelly and yummy!” “Fuck huh,” said the preggo. Indiania, Illinois, Ohio. Somewhere out there. Well, we all have to come from someplace.
I come from Rhode Island.