FRESH YARN presents:
I am standing at my office desk one day, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wearing a telephone headset like an operator plugged into my cordless phone, about to make the call that's going to make me a man of letters. A producer at a big radio show in LA wants me to tell her a story about my marriage. If she likes it, I get to tell it to 8 million other people. It's my audio close-up, the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice and marriage counselors, and I'm ready.
For the last two days, no coffee, no alcohol, no cheese, and no arguing with my wife, Susan -- nothing that could dry my vocal chords or rattle my confidence. And since I woke up this morning, no unnecessary movements, so I don't sound winded. I ordered lunch in from the deli.
And at exactly 4:13 PM -- three minutes after our scheduled appointment, so the producer thinks I've got things to do, too -- I start dialing: 1-213 and the phone dies.
Then I see the fan blade slowing, and my desk lamp's dark, and my computer's on battery power.
"Fuck!! Fuck!!! Fuck!!!!"
So I rip off the headset and run down the stairs from my second floor office to the sidewalk, and around the corner to the lobby where very quietly -- so the doorman who's behind his desk won't hear me -- I creep inside, and take the house phone down off the wall. It doesn't need electricity.
But it sticks, to the little cord that wall phones have, and the doorman jumps out to catch the thief. We lock eyes, and I say, "I need this phone."
The doorman holds up his arms like I'm robbing him and says, "Take it."
"Okay. I will. And by the way -- in case you were wondering -- my office blew a fuse."
"That was no fuse," he says. There's a portable radio on his desk, tuned to the news. "There's been a blackout. The entire northeast is without power."
"Oh my god," I say, and our eyes lock again, this time in that post-9/11 way. "Terrorists?"
And I run back out and around the corner and up the stairs and into my office, and I plug the phone in the jack and start calling the producer in LA -- Osama bin Laden is not going to ruin my career.
"The circuits are busy. Please try your call again."
So I call again, and again and again.
Until the producer answers and I apologize for being late in my mellifluous, dairy-free voice.
"How'd you get through?" she says.
"There's been a huge blackout."
"I know. I'm here. People are pretty freaked out. We think it might be terrorists."
There are sirens outside my window that we both can hear. So we're in this together, having a nice chat; building our relationship during a terrorist emergency, which seems to me a very auspicious beginning. Then the producer says, "That's kind of the story of the day, James. Maybe we can do this tomorrow?"
"Oh," I say. "Tomorrow. Sure," and I hang up.
When it occurs to me, I have a wife and kids! Upstairs, on the seventh floor, in a building without electricity, in a city that's just been attacked by terrorists. With no way for me to call in -- Susan turns the ringer off during the day, because ringers interrupt playtime -- and no way for her to find out -- because we don't have a radio; radios have radio waves, which Susan thinks fry your brain. Which is why she's been telling me to get rid of my cordless phone.
So I run up the back stairs in total darkness -- my office is on the stairwell and the superintendent forgot to install the emergency lights -- counting stair landings as I go. Until I count seven and open the fire door and walk into the hall, which is also pitch black, and grope along the wall for our door handle and open our apartment -- where everything's light and normal:
Our two little boys are in their play dresses in the living room, playing with their little macrobiotic friend from the commune in Brooklyn, who's wearing his play dress, visiting for the day with his macrobiotic single mom, Barbara. While Susan is in the kitchen transferring line-caught wild smoked salmon and organic rennetless Gouda from the refrigerator to the freezer. "The fuse blew," she says.
"That was no fuse," I say, morbidly delighted at my dark little secret. "There's been a huge blackout. The entire northeast."
"Oh my god!" says Susan, and our eyes lock eyes in that post-9/11 way. "Was it T-E-R-R?"
We live off the cultural grid, as well as the gender-specific clothing grid, and the diet grid and the radio-wave technology grid and now the power grid. So we spell controversial things around the kids.
I say, "What else could it be?"
Barbara asks, "What is T-E-R-R?" Her personal motto being, "What would a raccoon do?" Barbara lives off the human behavior grid, in harmony with nature. Evidently raccoons don't know about terrorists.
Susan says, "Terr " helping her.
Barbara says, "Ohhh no. The subways." Which are electric, and won't be running to Brooklyn.
Susan says, "You'll have to stay here tonight."
Barbara says, "Do you have plenty of food and water? If it is terr?"
Susan says, "I didn't think of that."
Meaning, I didn't think of that.
And now Susan and Barbara and the three little boys all stand there in their dresses and look at me, in my pants, wondering what I've done to deserve to wear them.
So I go through
one bottle of water;
"You better get some food," says Susan.
"And water," says Barbara.
"I know," I say. "But I don't have any money."
"You don't have any money???" says Susan, echoed by the three little boys, who are going through the imitative stage of verbal development. Which I used to think was cute.
"I was going to go to the ATM."
"It's electric," says my older little boy.
Barbara digs into her unbleached hemp bag from the Brooklyn Food Coop, while Susan goes into the bedroom to her emergency cash stash, and together they give me $160 to buy our Survival Kit.
"You better hurry," says Susan. Followed by three "You better hurrys" from the little boys.
"Don't worry," I say, calmly, like a protector. "We'll be fine." I walk out the door, slowly, and close it behind me.
Then I open the fire door in the hall, grab the handrail and jump into the darkness, two and three steps at a time, down seven flights of stairs, hyperventilating.
I hit the ground and swing open the service entrance and squint in the late afternoon light, then run down the street -- which is full of police cars, fire trucks, sirens -- to the grocery stores on the corner.
They're closed! Security guards are out front, workers are nailing boards to the window frames, in case of looters. The only place open is the deli that delivered my sandwich for lunch so I wouldn't have to move from my desk chair and risk sounding winded on the phone with the producer. But the deli's surrounded now by a screaming mob. There's no way in. Until I see a guy walk out, who looks like me -- husbandy, fatherish -- only he got there first, and he's rolling home a hand truck stacked with cases of bottled water.
And a moment of energizing, psychotic terror later, I'm inside the store, on the other side of the mob, bending over to catch my breath while my eyes adjust to the darkness, with a dim memory of irate strangers having just screamed at me, "What are you doing, asshole!?" as I peeled them out of my way.
There's an empty cardboard box on the conveyor belt to the basement -- frozen mid-conveyance at the moment my phone died -- so I sweep it to the floor and start filling it with Evian Sport Spouts, cans of non-organic, ultra-high-sodium Progresso chicken soup, utterly nutritionally barren Sun Chips, headache-inducingly high-fructose Clif Bars: all the stuff we never get to eat! Susan's going to hate this -- Barbara even more. But if they'd rather starve to death than live on over-salted, too-sweet emergency manna, that's their business. And once the box is overflowing, I slide it across the linoleum to the cashier, and hand her the goods one at a time, which she adds up by hand and stacks in another box on the counter. Until she gets to $159.65 and I throw in a chocolate Baci ball to round things off to $160.00 and say, "That's enough," and I buy my Survival Kit.
Which I try to lift, then just stare at, while the cashier stares at me and the mob stares at us.
Until the cashier says, "Too heavy," and she calls over two little guys who are ordinarily outside selling flowers.
I bend over and they slide the box from the counter onto my back, like a pallet on a flatbed, then lead me by the elbows through the mob to the sidewalk.
Where I start walking, then stumbling, and then collapsing onto the hood of a parked car, soaked in sweat, and hyperventilating. I need so badly to rest. But there's no time: I can feel the hyenas out there, with their briefcases, coming home from work, and when they get to the deli and see that it's empty, they're going to come looking for me and my box.
So I slide it down to the sidewalk, and start rotating -- carefully, so I won't break the cardboard -- but quickly, to get home before the hyenas. When in front of me I see a pair of combat boots and two white dog paws, and attached to them army fatigues and a pit bull, and above it all the face of a man, wearing a matching studded dog collar, who says, "You look like you could use some help."
Exactly what I'd say to make someone think I was a Good Samaritan in a terrorist emergency before I looted him.
"It looks harder than it is," I say. "Thanks anyway."
"No," he says. "Let me help you," and his pit bull starts growling.
"Okay," I say. "If that's what you want." And we each lift one end and start walking sideways down the sidewalk, facing each other, while the pit bull sniffs me and I tell the guy about the women and children at home whose lives depend on me, to humanize myself, like the New York Post recommended in the "Are You Prepared to Be Kidnapped?" sidebar they've been publishing periodically since the abductions started in Iraq.
We get to the service entrance of my building, and I say, "This is great, really. I can take it from here."
"We've come this far," says the guy,"let's keep going."
And his dog starts growling.
Then the guy screams at him, "Demo!"
Which simply confirms what I've been feeling for a block: that I should run for my life. But I'll die anyway without my box, as will everyone in my apartment.
So we start walking again, Demo panting behind us, through the service entrance and up a flight of stairs to my office door.
Where we lower the box and Demo starts growling and I back away to the wall and wince in preparation to be maimed.
When the guy says, "I know, Demo," tenderly, "let's get you some water."
Demo is just thirsty? Not bloodthirsty? How could I be so wrong about a dog? About a guy? About what's happening right in front of me?
I look at the Sport Spouts popping up between the Sun Chips and the Clif bars, and at Demo's pink tongue vibrating in the heat, and back at the Sport Spouts and I take one out and hand it over.
"Wow," says the guy. "You sure you wanna do that?" I've been telling him for a block that my bunker is empty. He knows what this means to me.
"Absolutely," I say. Which is a lie. It's 90 degrees outside. Al-Qaeda just attacked again. There are five women and children upstairs in an apartment with no water or electricity. That Sport Spout could mean the difference between one of us living and dying of thirst. But for the first time since my phone died and my career stalled, I'm in control.
* * *
That night, I lead Susan, Barbara and the kids up the stairs to the roof, holding candles, where we have organic rennetless Gouda and wild smoked salmon -- served, as any man worth his gourmet sea salt will tell you they should be, at room temperature -- while looking at Mars, the god of war, in a close orbit making it more visible than it's been in a generation.
The next morning, when I open my eyes, I see the ceiling fan circling above me. Evidently Mars was on our side.
Later that afternoon, I've returned to my office, where I'm gnawing on a Clif bar, trying to concentrate on my work. Down on the sidewalk, I see Barbara leading the kids to the park to play "What would a raccoon do?"
I sit back down and call the producer in LA and finally get to tell her my story about my marriage. After a few minutes of my finest, not-so-dairy-free pitch, the producer tells me I'm going to be on national radio. Which would be great news if I wasn't staring out the window considering that what I care most about was almost taken from me, starting with what I like to call my career. Which, for an awful, terrifying moment, mattered more to me than my own flesh and blood.
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