Hurricane Thoughts For Disaster Fetishists


I remember being quite small, sitting beside the sliding glass window. I was watching what looked like an apocalypse outside, the sky an ill-luminous soup, lightning making a stark silhouette of my swingset. I’ll never forget that sight, trees bent to breaking, the grass blue-black, wind-whipped. It was a hurricane called Gloria, my parents told me. It was the first such event I had seen.

I wasn’t afraid, even when the power went out, when candlelights illuminated the sheets of rain that drove against our windows, reinforced by unsettling X-es of duct tape. Just awed, really, that’s what I remembered, whispering Gloria, the name of a dark lady that blanketed my home in a strange and guarded silence, left a stranger’s tree uprooted, branches strewn in the dense aftermath.

I have a postcard that my best friend’s mother sent me several years after Gloria, from the family’s summer house in Maine when we were in fifth grade or so. I had just spent a week of my summer at the house with that family, and in my wake came a hurricane – “Hurricane Bob is about to strike,” she had written in her tidy hand, a neater version of the handwriting I’d recognize anywhere as her daughter’s. “All the boats have been pulled out of the water.”

I thought of the sun-drenched lakes and the little “boat house” in which my friend and I had slept in bunk beds with the grasshoppers we’d captured, harmless little things that were like tiny paper airplanes or sharp little leaves with beady eyes. Looking at the postcard I pictured how that idyll must look draped in pea-green; I felt empathy for the anxiety of the place, as if Castine, ME were a living thing, drawing its boats in like a child tucking its hands into the pockets of a raincoat, holding still, holding fast. I thought of my dear friend and her family inside in the dark, playing the wooden ball-bearing labyrinth game that I’d always remember, waiting for the storm to pass.

“I remember the darkness doubled,” sings Television on the song ‘Marquee Moon’. “I recall lightning struck itself.”

I’m not really sure how, when and why Marquee Moon became my favorite song for storms, for when summer in New York turns abruptly black, soaks the steaming asphalt, turns the sidewalks gravel-scented and dark-darker with cloud-wet, makes the feeble, ancient little urban infrastructures into which we’ve dug our homes seem at once bastions of comfort even as we become hyper-conscious of how fragile they really are.

But those electric-wire jangly chords in that song, the ones that march in pairs with pattering drumrolls like the approach of heavy rain are the sound of a hurricane to me. Here comes a new lady, Irene, and electric sky pregnant and threatening. It’ll threaten for days. We’re waiting to hear who has to be evacuated.

Although like anyone I’ve always entertained fantasies of the apocalypse, I saw live news feed of Katrina. I understand that storm warnings aren’t something to take lightly, even if the earthquake we experienced earlier this week was something for Twitter to laugh at, for our California friends to tease us about – revenge, finally, for years of our mocking their fear of a snow-dusting. And yet just like when I was a child watching dark Gloria advance upon my childhood yard to change my beautiful, green and safe playplaces into a Biblical warning parable right before my eyes, I’m not afraid. Awed, maybe.

Some people are definitely disaster fetishists. I’m one of those people. I half-hoped for The Rapture to be a real thing. You can say it’s because nothing especially awful has ever happened to us (to me). We all laughed when Ryan said we should cancel our OKCupid dates for the weekend. It figures that’s what we Brooklynites are worried about, our internet dates, whether we’ll be able to tweet. You could make a joke at our expense that ‘we’ are concerned most about our liquor reserves and less about … batteries, generators… how if I need to evacuate (I’m one block away from a ‘yellow zone’) one of my cats will need to go into a pillowcase since I only have one pet carrier and I have two cats.

Incidentally, I am worried for the alley cats. The white one is pregnant. They all have FLV, so I can’t take them inside. I could save maybe four or five of the feral cats that would let me catch them, but at the expense of the permanent health of my two dear pets. It’s a life or death calculation, it’s thoughts about how many lives are worth what, and maybe that’s why people become disaster fetishists, because it matters to think about these things.

Maybe we’re laughing about how are we going to get necessities like Bloody Mary drinks this weekend to veil, a little bit, our anxiety about what would we do if anything really bad happened. And do we know how to make those life or death calculations, and would we mean something a little bit more than we do if we had to? Make those calculations? To think about what life means and who we are when the sky turns black and the trees of our childhood gardens arch their backs, reach their boughs — bow in submission, supplicating for the wet, black earth?

Would we play an incredible song like ‘Marquee Moon?’ Could I save my neighbors, could I keep my footing ankle-deep in a flood, holding my cat in a pillowcase?

Would you save me?

It’s funny. Everyone I can see through social media, dear ones and not, was so hesitant to express fear about the hurricane. They did it by joking, and by sudden, unusually-regressive displays about ‘hurricane party’ and ‘let’s all have a sleepover at [person’s house not in the storm path]’, but the throughline was charmingly childlike, it reminded me of myself curled with my legs under me whispering Gloria under my breath – we aren’t afraid, really.

When I was a child I wasn’t afraid of Gloria because my parents were with me. Now, we have each other. We are part of the population. We want to be together. We’re just awed by the power of nature, which renders us completely unsure what will happen. So we want to be together. It’s the only time we can get close to admitting that we need others. That we want to be able to be needed.

Is there any other kind of helplessness, anything so much greater than ourselves, than a disaster to make us envision ourselves crouched together in a massive uncertain pile of friends and acquaintances, passing our candles, sharing our rations, telling our stories? Are disaster fetishists just terribly lonely people, or is it that we lack faith in humanity, we don’t believe that anything other than a bough-bending disaster will render us innocent enough to love each other?

When that blackout happened in the northeast in 2003, I lived on Roosevelt Island, a tiny shred of remove that lies in the water between Brooklyn and Manhattan. To get home from the city with the power out, I had to walk all day, to cross the Queensboro Bridge and then another bridge, and then to climb 24 flights of stairs to my apartment, where the only goods in the fridge were warm milk and Smirnoff Ice.

It was the dead of summer. I ached. And I was never so happy. I loved every stranger in Queens that let us, a ragtag group of randomly-selected stragglers off the bridge, use their bathrooms, opened their doors along the sidewalk, offered us fruit. I was so proud of my body for making the long, long trip; of myself, for walking up and down the stairs of my apartment building with a flashlight, helping old ladies climb when they became exhausted.

I matter, I thought. I am loved, I’m useful to others.

When I read underneath all of the jocular humor, all the resilient attitude, that my fellow locals are just a little bit nervous about the weather, are longing, quietly, to be alone in a dark bunker together, sharing, higher emergency surpassing common little fears of intimacy and of social propriety – to be keeping each other from being alone – I almost, almost want the rain to come. And the wind.

“I was listening to the rain,” goes my favorite storm-song, Marquee Moon. “I was hearing something else.”

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image – tornatore