Friday, September 17, 2010

A Tornado Story Featuring Babies, In-Laws, Vampire Weekend and Bud Light

Posted By on Fri, Sep 17, 2010 at 12:54 PM

The Writer, not pictured.
  • The Writer, not pictured.
At around 5:30 yesterday afternoon, I was driving down Northern Boulevard in Queens, listening to sports talk radio on my way to pick up my wife from the train station. Elaborate plans have become an inevitable part of our days now, and yesterday’s was particularly obnoxious: I would pick up my wife from the LIRR station, then quickly pick up our 5-month-old daughter at my mother-in-law’s house, where she spends four days a week while we’re working. From there, we’d head back toward our apartment where I needed to drop off a few things before getting on a train into Manhattan to see Vampire Weekend at Radio City. When I went inside, my wife would take the driver’s seat, and when I came back out, she’d drive me to the LIRR station closest to where we live, in Bayside. We had exactly as much time as we needed to pull it off, I thought, and if I played my cards exactly right, I would even have a minute to stop and pick up a tall-boy or two for the trip. Beer at Radio City is pretty expensive, I figure. Our plan did not work out very well.

Mike Francessa, host of WFAN’s Miked Up program seemed worried. In mid-sentence, he stopped talking about the Jets or the Yankees or whatever, and he warned his listeners that there was a storm coming. It was already raining where he was, and it sounded bad. He mentioned lightning and hail, and then hail again. He really didn’t like the hail. The skies near me were gray, but far from noteworthy. “I learned my lesson with these storms,” Francessa said, before explaining that a huge old tree on his property had been destroyed during a similar storm this summer. He took another call, this one about the Miami Dolphins, but his heart wasn’t in it. “If you’re going to be outside in this, please be careful, everyone.” I saw the first drop of rain on my windshield.

When I got to the train station not five minutes later, the skies were the standard apocalyptic kind of dark we experience a few times a year and don’t really think much of. The rain was coming down in big heavy drops, but we were still a few minutes away from the serious torrential stuff. My wife ran to the car, got in, and said something along the lines of, “If you’d gotten here a second later, I would have been screwed.” During our 45-second drive to my mother-in-law’s house, the sky got even darker and the rain picked up. I pulled into the driveway, and we ran to the front door. As I got out of the car, I heard a beeping sound letting me know I’d left my headlights on. No big deal, I figured. We only had a minute anyway. I had a train to catch.

Once inside, the sky grew darker still, a shade or two past what I’m used to. My mother-in-law was panicking. Their basement had flooded during the last storm like this, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. The bottom third or so of a giant uprooted tree still lies across their neighbor’s front lawn. Mostly, though, she was concerned with us taking the baby out. She insisted that the blanket I was going to use to cover her during our 8-step walk from the front door to our car was not enough. We needed some sort of plastic covering, she said. “Seriously, it’s just rain,” I scoffed.

And it was just rain. Until it was really fucking heavy rain, and a lightning strike what seemed like every few seconds, and then that hail Francessa had warned us about. The windows were being pelted, the lights flickered. My mother-in-law said “Oh shit,” which is not really something my mother-in-law says. She insisted that we wait out the storm before leaving, and even though I instinctively protested—“I don’t have a choice, this is my job” or something similarly dramatic—I knew she was right. Trains run every half hour or so, and the Dum Dum Girls were going on first. I don’t really like the Dum Dum Girls. And so we sat, keeping a safe distance from all the windows. I made funny faces at the baby. I pretended I was going to eat her toes. This couldn’t have gone on for more than ten minutes, and literally before I knew it, everything stopped. The darkness had lifted just enough so that it wasn’t scary anymore, and the rain had completely subsided.

I rolled up the legs of my jeans so as not to get them soaked while traipsing through the giant puddles surrounding our car, and we left. At the LIRR station we were at just a little while earlier, the long, thin gate that comes down to stop traffic had snapped in half. A train was stuck on the tracks. Leaves and small tree branches were scattered all over the street. The further west we traveled (in terms of blocks, not miles), the worse things looked. The scattered leaves turned into small branches, and then big branches, and then really big branches, and then fallen power lines, and then entire trees. The sidewalks were full of people surveying the damage.

Northern Boulevard heading back to our place was basically a parking lot. There wasn’t a lot of visible damage, but traffic was barely moving. At one point I tried turning down a side street to take a shortcut, but a man in a car stopped at the intersection held up his index finger and shook it back and forth, a clear and welcome warning that the streets in that direction were not in good shape.

It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that our neighborhood, when we finally got there, had been hit so hard, but it did. The scene was exactly the same as it was in Little Neck, where my mother-in-law lives, just much worse in every way. Driving down the streets, the concrete was barely visible, covered in pieces of big, old beautiful trees. There were people everywhere. Power lines hung at 45-degree angles from one side of the street to the other. One tree had fallen away from the street and onto a car parked in a driveway. Another had fallen in the same direction onto a garage belonging to the same person who owned the crushed car.

As we approached our apartment, I realized I’d been so pre-occupied with the destruction (and with rushing to make my train) that I hadn’t even considered what kind of shape our block would be in. From a distance, we could see that there was one fairly big part of a tree down in the street, but aside from that, it wasn’t too bad. So as planned, I ran to my apartment to drop off my things and pick up a raincoat just in case things got bad again. It’s from Land’s End, too, so it totally would have been appropriate for a Vampire Weekend show. On my way, I saw my downstairs neighbor, who told me our power was out. Fuck. I figured it’d be back shortly, though, and that even if it wasn’t, my wife could go back to her mom’s house with the baby, and I could still go to the show without feeling too, too guilty about it. There would be guilt, certainly, but it would be manageable, I told myself.

There would be no guilt, though, because during the few minutes I’d spent inside, word came that the LIRR had suspended service on all branches. It made sense, I guess. If the streets were this bad, I imagined the train tracks had to be even worse. I was angry, but I pretty much immediately shifted gears and remembered that small-scale disasters are actually sort of fun—a forced break from the monotony of everyday life is surely not the worst thing in the world, assuming all the people you know are accounted for.

We got word that our power wouldn't be restored until 1am at the earliest, and so we made plans to sleep at my parents' house, a bit further east, on Long Island. On our way there, we got a call saying that the original 1am estimate was inaccurate, and that power wouldn't be back until 6pm tonight at the earliest. We put the baby to sleep. I read about the show on Twitter. We watched The Apprentice with my parents. I drank a few Bud Lights with my father. I read my high school yearbook. And I went to sleep in the same bed I slept in when I was actually in high school. We're still here now. We don't have much of plan for the rest of the day.

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