Winter Storm Wonderings

As I continue to board one bus after another, I can’t tell if they’re running free of charge to let people back into the city, or allow them get the hell out.

Another peculiarity on my way through town is the pristine condition of the power company’s building, particularly its large, sheet glass windows. Each one perfectly intact. No caution tape or not a single beam of wood blocking the door. Even the slightest knick, I surely would have thought.

But, no? Nothing? 

Let it pass. There are bigger fish to fry.

For one, the fifteen board members who have stake in this ‘reliability council’. Yet, those same members are not even required to live in the state of Texas in order to make executive decisions on it. One lives in Canada. 

Let that one marinate. Lest they resign, which seems only necessary, we will sit in front of now-working televisions, waiting for someone to step up to the podium; until then, pour me another.

Day Two?

Time continues to slip away; the sun, too. It’s nearing dusk, and the shifting temperatures can be felt emanating off the swaying trees as the wind starts to pick up. Somewhere in between it fully setting, and our initial arrival to Josh’s car, which has been parked along the curb, halfway up the hill where our apartment is, we are approached by a young man. He cautiously advises that we step out of the vehicle while he and his friends unhinge their own car from another one just like it. Together, the two make a T; they appear to have collided on the hill, some time earlier.

Rendered effectively numb to the sight of crushed cars by now, we have been casually watching this group work, commenting occasionally on their precarious approach, which begins and ends with them unknowingly digging themselves deeper into the trenches by slamming on the gas, time and time again, effectively turning those sheets of snow into slabs of ice in a matter of seconds. At last, one simple question can’t be avoided any longer: do you need help?

Well, sure. But how? asks the girl who has been directing the boys. A quick reach in his backseat, and Josh plucks a broken cricket bat out, waving it in the air.

We will use this, he says.

There’s an addled look exchanged by the couple; they shrug and then let Josh take charge. Chipping away with the cricket bat, my friend is now down on his knees, beside the wheel bearings as they continue to spin; alas, there appears to be progress. We see the first vehicle begin to swing, finding its footing on the freshly packed snow, before it frees itself from the other and flings itself down the hill, as if it were a rock shot from a sling shot. The other vehicle is still stationary, stuck horizontally on the slope; finally, the force of four grown humans heaving it in one direction overtakes the insidious elements, freeing it, too, from its idle position, sending it soaring downhill on a prayer.

Well, the girl says, once the charade is through. I think I might need an IV filled with tequila after that one.

I nod, laughing as I echo the sentiment. She apologizes for the hostility that riddled our initial introduction, and thanks us for our time. I did not take it personally, but found it peculiar that she at first brushed off my offering of help with a simple, cold, ‘no’.

As Josh and I begin to break off from these strangers, though, we see a lone Range Rover stuck, wedged against a stone mailbox from one of the massive homes across the street. It seems to have occurred in the short time we were watching the vehicles tumble uncontrollably down the hill. A bearded man wearing a puffy designer jacket is behind the wheel of the Rover, a giant bulldog panting beside him. He dons an expression that teeters between distraught and being detached entirely from the outside world; he’s still scrolling his phone when one of us walks up, knocking on the glass.

Do you need help?

He’s startled. Well, yes. But I didn’t want to ask, because I didn’t want any of you to get hurt.

One moment, Josh says. He returns, waving his cricket bat.

Wait, is that a cricket bat? the man bellows out, beaming now.

Yes sir, Josh calls back.

Ha! I was stationed over in England for four years, the man chortles. Never could make sense of the game…

Well, now it’s helping you out, Josh cracks, sharing a laugh with the man.

One, two, three, all four of us, down on our knees, doing everything in our power to muster the strength to shove this massive SUV just far enough to become unstuck from its slanted position.

You guys have to be careful, the man insists, as he revs the engine. One of us could easily become trapped in between his fender and the mailbox, if the momentum suddenly surges, sending his vehicle into a state of free-will. The adrenaline, however, raging through one’s body, is too great to overcome, effectively rendering any possibility of danger to be real. After a few vehement efforts, we are finally able to free the vehicle; but, much to this man’s foresight, the sudden suspension of control sends it swinging uncontrollably. There is a sudden crash. Glass shatters, the four of us gasp.

What was that? the fellow chokes out, as he suddenly finds himself free, floating on the patch of ice before finding a footing on the slab of ice.

’Your rear window…’  the girl replies anxiously.

That’s it? the driver asks. We nod silently. Is everyone OK?

We nod again, watching as this man and his vehicle quickly nose dive down the hill, gradually gaining and then losing control as it swings over the solid ice. Not total control, though. There are more shared gasps as we glimpse the near grazings of other cars as this massive SUV barrels downhill, barely holding traction. I feel myself biting my hand, hardly able to watch. But, eventually he is free. Because of us, four strangers with seemingly nothing else to do.

At the bottom of the hill, the man inexplicably slams on the breaks, right before another near collision with an abandoned car nearby. One of the guys calls out, Don’t stop now! 

But mere seconds later, the driver is standing outside of his Range Rover, swinging in the air a glass bottle.

Here! the man shouts. Take this! It’s some random bottle of vodka I bought. It’s yours! Thank you!

A shared laugh amongst the group, before we exchange apprehensive glances.

I’m not taking that, the girl says. Do you guys want it?

Josh and I look at one another. I shake my head, and so does he.

After biding a vague farewell, our group disbands. Josh and I return to the car, where we blast the heat and bask in the sequence of events that just happened. Not ten minutes pass, however, before my friend looks up, and casually says he wants to go check on the man, just to make sure that his SUV did not get stuck on the next hill, which stands between us and the interstate. Peculiar, his idea appears, but I agree to wait while Josh goes on his way. Another five minutes pass before Josh returns, clutching under his arm the bottle of liquor. Its frosted over and fully sealed; we smirk at the sudden turn of fortune.

It would be rude not to drink this, right? says Josh, grinning as he snaps the seal and takes a sip.

The Rest of Day One

The sun has fully set over campus. It is dark now, aside from a few sporadic street lights. The air has grown colder, though the absence of wind renders us light on our feet as we continue to make progress on the beer supply. If not for Josh’s absolute – and otherwise inexplicable – disregard for one of his back molars, our consumption would be reduced to only cans; alas, the cold bottles are a fun alternative, even if their contents are a few months out of date. He continues cracking them, one by one, laughing as he hands me a fresh, cold beer. A certain street is reached, and then everything goes dark. An echo of laughter, jubilant teens in their towers as they turn the occasion into a party, putting on hold any notion of an ongoing global pandemic. It’s hard to blame them, these adolescents with ample endowments and not a care in the world, as they look past us, and our earnest attempts at simple conversation.

Hey, how’s it goin’? we ask one or two, on occasion.

Eh, fine. And you?

Oh, just fine. Thank you.

My parents, too, always told me not to talk to strangers. But since reality had suddenly been flipped upside down, that sentiment could understandably be shed, no? For, who knew what any of this all meant, anyway? Or, better yet, who knew what was coming?

It is quite the social experiment, in a strange, oblong sort of way, as we keep our hearts out on our sleeves. What if someone would have lent a hand, or even the simple suggestion of such, even without the intent of following through? Surely we would have replied with, hey man, have a beer. But, to that, we only had our own supply to consume in a timely manner. After all, the beer is only growing warmer with every block amassed.

As our navigation is nullified by a dying phone – as it turns out, new batteries have a hard time keeping up in frigid temperatures – we are left to rely on the remembrance of certain streets, and which ones cut off without any notice. I have been to Steve’s a thousand times before, but not under these conditions. There’s a point we reach, right at the top of the hill, where MLK Blvd dips down into Lamar Avenue, and all that we see are the impressions of light from an oncoming line of traffic. Nearly a dozen headlights beam brightly, their horns heaving after having been stalled by one single car, midway up the hill, which is now stuck. The driver has gotten out and is dressing the area around her tires with kitty litter. It is only imminent that the rest will follow, unless they are able to unstick themselves from the sudden slabs of ice that have formed under their tires in the time that they were stationary, waiting for her to get unstuck.

Absolutely absurd – this is insanity, I say to Josh. We have to turn around, even if it means trying a few more dead-ends until we find the right street that will take us straight through to Steve’s.

After some time – at least, an hour after our quoted arrival time – we show up at Steve’s place: a quaint duplex at the end of a dead-end street. There’s something eery, yet quite pacifying, about how the skyline sits, streaming itself through shreds of barren trees on the edge of the street. When Steve answers the phone, I ask where we could park the wheels.

What wheels? Did y’all ride scooters? he naively quips. 

Not exactly, I retort. So he tells us to find the back door, where we are to unload all the groceries in one swift effort, saving as much internal heat of the house as we can.

Hurry up and get in, he urges, as we stumble inside. Inside the building it is significantly warmer, much more than our own apartment that we left during the daylight hours. Certain items are to be stored in certain places, others are busted out and broken down for immediate consumption. 

What about the cart?

We can return that later for you, Steve says, brushing off the notion of any inconvenience it might pose, when the world is turned right back up, and the sun is shining endlessly upon the hilly streets of his quiet suburban neighborhood.

Steam is rising from the many pots, placed precariously throughout the apartment, giving off the faint glimmer of hope as we hear the gas stove click and ignite what will be a surprisingly voluptuous spread for dinner. Simply relieved, Josh and I are, to receive respite amidst this sidewinding experiment of sudden survival mode. The two of them – Steve and his partner – at least appear partially equipped for the conditions, and proceed with offering all sorts of coping mechanisms.

More wine?

Absolutely. 

How about some chocolate?

Sure. Why not? I’m not driving.

Soon, it all melts away. However, sleeping with all of your belongings huddled by your side, as your breath can be seen beating back against the air, is a rather unenviable way to be ushered back into the sober hours of the day, when the song of birds accompanies the strong sunlight that comes in through the slotted blinds. Everything suddenly comes rushing back.

Where the hell are we? And who is that, sleeping in a ball on the love-seat above me?

All of the air in the mattress I have been sleeping on has been usurped by a small, unidentifiable hole, forcing me to roll around on the floor, searching for but a few spots of support as I grapple with what is to come. Josh and I still need to get home, and in a timely manner, at that.

As I wait for Josh to stir, I decide to pull from one of Steve’s shelves an old book of mine, one that I had long forgotten about, and bid farewell to without actually saying goodbye to anything else around it; but, that is for another day. Peeling back its pages, moreover, is quite pacifying, as I sit in the throws of his lush, suede arm chair, overlooking the odd arrangement of the living room, while Josh soundly snores. In no time, he, too, is abrupt to wake; shaken by the sensation of frigid temperatures in an enclosed building. His eyes flicker, and he’s soon to realize how the set of circumstances bestowed upon us are so far flung from a dream. If given the blessing to keep sleeping, surely he would. But his boss beckons, and he is summoned home, to at least give the obligation a solid, earnest attempt, despite the conditions. 

All the while, the rest of the house sleeps. We know we can be quiet enough, so as not to disturb Steve and his girlfriend from their sleep schedule. A swift effort is made to relocate and repack all of our perishable belongings – plus a few bottled beers, just in case the stores remain closed for the day – before hitting the road. But, one similarly aloof effort is given on the door, only to discover how the stark, unnatural contrast in conditions – internal moisture and frigid external temperatures – have sealed the sliding glass door shut. 

Are we stuck here? Josh and I laugh, looking at one another with large eyes and addled expressions. Surely, if I am to attempt, and fail to open the door, instead cracking it down its center, that my five-years of friendship with Steve might come to a sudden halt. When he swoops into the room, some fifteen minutes later, Steve snickers at the thought, but fails to disagree.

Trekking downhill, as the sun seeps its way out of the clouds, and splits over the town, things don’t seem so bad. Our feet feel lighter and, despite the constant struggle to find solid ground, the roads are nearly entirely void of traffic – foot, or the like. We see remnants from the night before: stacks of cars, spun in odd directions across the road, and snuggled up to snowbanks that have now become ice blocks, as well as empty beer cans and tattered rolls of yellow caution tape.

Is this a vacated crime scene, or a simple call for help that went unanswered?

Many looks are sent our way – even a few earnest inquires – especially over our heavy, brown grocery bags, as we descend from the direction of the nearest store. One grizzled fellow even appears ready to fight, and his truculence lingers long after he staggers off in the opposite direction, visibly disappointed to learn that our goods only came from the night before. Apocalyptic, almost, in ways, how the world around us feels empty, stripped down, and sundered by the elements. Elements which, no less, bare no resemblance to what is to be expected on any given day of the year, in the sunny city of Austin, TX.

We fail, moreover, to consider what this what will do to the foliage: each of those palm trees which sway with the wind now seem stale as they stand, slathered in snow, showing especially stark against the sky blue aperture overtaking the town. Josh elects that we take the long way home, for it is assumed that the foot traffic will be sparse, and scenery lush. Along the river banks, steam flows fluidly, gradually rising to uncover the small tropes of turtles taking a breath before dipping themselves back into the icy ballad, which would otherwise be brimming with canoes and kayaks. Birds swoop and skim the surface, and for a few fleeting moments it feels as if humans were not meant for this terroir, after all.

Returning to the apartment, Josh and I graze over our groceries: it is enough, for now. Yet, gradually reinforced is the chilling notion that acquiring said goods was a mere stroke of dumb, intoxicated luck. Luck which, no less, feels to be waning with each hour that passes, the people on the news predicting more precipitation for the days to come.

The Storm: Part 1

Day One:

2 a.m. Sunday night. Valentines Day. Noise in the apartment. Roommate is home, well on his way to being thoroughly hammered. There’s a murmur which follows; it sounds like a girl. I’ve heard the voice before, but never actually seen the outline of her figure, nor been introduced. It’s not the one who comes once a week and helps clean up after the two of us, keeping some degree of domesticity to the home. The two of them bicker, getting louder as the liquor flows. Wriggling around in bed, I start to feel cold. Looking at my phone, which has been charging overnight, I see that it sits idle at 86%. Odd, the light switch in my room doesn’t worth, either.

I scavenge the internet for answers, only to see that our local electric company has issued a notice about rolling blackouts. 10-40 minutes, they posted some 25 minutes ago. Curious. I make a valiant effort to go back to sleep, but the voices outside only grow louder, and more ambitious. Another crack, the hiss of carbonation escaping before being slurped into a state of silence. One by one, the cans fall, clinking as they clutter the glass table top in our common area. Three down, not even an hour gone by. It has been at least forty-minutes, I determine; still, not a trace of electricity to be had. This means digging into my phone for the catalogue of podcasts I accidentally subscribed to over the summer. Some renditions of sleep occur, albeit sporadically, sometimes teetering on the brink of somnambulism. As the voices outside continue to grow louder, with less interruption, I wrestle with my pillow and let the recordings roll on, the latter marking some permanence to the hours that somehow slip away. Eventually the clock strikes 4 a.m., and I find a surge of optimism from the fatigue that fades in their voices as they retire to his bedroom. Seeing that there is still no light in the apartment, I decide to move the small bit of perishable food from the fridge, out to the balcony.

There’s an inch of snow on our large lacquer table, and it is there that I wedge a half-dozen eggs and leftover strips of sirloin steak, just in case I need a substantial lunch and am left without power.

As the sun slips through the clouds sporadically, the clock teases six a.m., a stroke later than my normal wake-up time. I see the snow has stopped, but the accumulation is jarring. It appears more like three inches, as opposed to the estimated dusting. From the fridge I pluck a full batch of overnight oats, and a large serving of cold brew; normalcy to curb the conditions that are now utterly nonsensical. The fridge feels a steady forty degrees, the temperature slowly rising with each ensuing search for something to eat; it is adverse to the temperature inside, which lowers accordingly as the afternoon wades on. 

Just a few more hours, the energy company keeps promising, in a string of Tweets. Stomaching this notion slowly becomes more difficult, however, as the suggestion of hunger creeps in, and the sense of novelty from reading childhood classics under the intermittent bursts of sunlight through the balcony dissipates. I read and refresh for updates; nothing even remote to encouragement or optimism to be had.

Some eight hours later, Josh comes waltzing out; having not gone to work due to the conditions, he’s armed with a story of how he had to bear said conditions around five a.m. to take his overnight acquaintance home. A stranger saved him halfway through, having realized that there was no sensible alternative to having the girl arrive home safely; all the while, Josh is oddly enthralled by the predicament of still having no electricity. He’s also hungry, and suggests the food we have in the fridge and pantry is putrid, if these conditions are to maintain.

Accordingly, I scour the internet for somewhere that is open; nearly every single grocery store has posted that they are, or will be closed, within the next two hours. I see that the one up north is open; it’s six miles away, but a stomach-able fare of $20. 

What about the way back? Josh wisely asks. 

We’ll worry about that later, I affirm, realizing that the window of opportunity is waning with every minute wasted.

Some fifteen minutes later, our hired car almost collides with another on the hill, as he stops midway up, on a patch of ice, to let us in. The driver is from Afghanistan, this much is divulged as he and Josh use a shared, but at times broken dialect as we deviate along side streets, avoiding certain intersections due to their respective inclines; near the end of the ride, Josh professes his own birth origins to the man, which invokes a strange, but palpable loathe in the air for the remainder of the ride. I am informed later that evening how the two regions share a contested history, and that this man’s people don’t take kindly to Josh’s. As we get exit, the driver casually claims that it will be his last ride of the day; the sun is now entrenched in the hills, setting further by the second, meaning the conditions will only worsen from the imminent freeze to follow. Whatever that means for later, we decide to be unimportant; food, first and foremost.

What we encounter inside the store, however, is sheer pandemonium, the type of energy that is reminiscent to what overtook the entire country during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. Elbows are thrown, angst is palpable, courtesy is no longer considered, and there is not enough staff on site to police the constant stream of folks filing in and out of the store. Lines wrap around the ends of aisles, and the essentials are effectively barren. A few vegetables, some canned goods, a large cut of steak for the night, and plenty of bottles of wine and six-packs of beer. Our steel cart is soon filled to the brim, and we bounce between being overambitious and impractical. As it stands, the shared speculation – in the form of overheard chatter amongst us – infers there will be power by this time tomorrow, so the urge to overstock is seemingly squashed as we stand in line with the others. 

The staff starts shutting the lights off as we make our way out of line, having purchased almost $150 in goods between the two of us, and our credit card information scribbled onto sheets of paper for a future date when the internet is back up and operational. Before we realize it, Josh and I are the last two standing. The rest of the folks are staff, drawing straws over how to split up the remaining goods in the store. I sympathize, as our collective shortsightedness has suddenly rendered them – the essential workers servicing us our essentials – at the bottom of the totem pole. Still standing near the main entrance, our search for a car home commences, but to no avail. It’s decided, then, that we must walk the two miles to Steve’s place, where he and his partner are also without power. At least from there, I determine, we can hunker down and wait for drivers to resume service. Just as swiftly as the storm, our dilemma evolves into a logistical obstacle as to how we are to transport all of our goods, given we left the house without so much as an extra sack. Bottles clank, and beer cans feel heavy as he fumble the ensemble of goods around, before ultimately deciding it to be imperative to simply use our resources, and omit the notion of theft, being that it is only a shopping cart, and many others in our same straits either have, or would, act similarly.

So Josh and I take turns pushing, and at times pulling, the rickety cart across the two inches of thick ice which has slowly formed over the streets. As it screeches down the quiet, suburban side roads in an affluent area – one with ample power and their shades pulled tightly down – our shopping cart becomes not only an eyesore, but also a nuisance to the ears. On the other hand, there’s no sign of reprieve, especially as we witness a couple 4×4 trucks pulling up to a few pretty, stranded girls and asking if they need a ride. What about us? The two grown men, sucking down warm beer after warm beer, while slowly trudging over the sheets of ice, up a few hills and down a couple dead-ends, decidedly in better straights.