A Moment for Houston

Let’s pause and give a moment of our day to think about Houston, Texas, a city I’ve never visited, whose plight has visited us.

It does us no good to ask why a storm of this size came ashore in this place, but we ask anyway, because, in an era in which we pretend we’ve banished superstition, we want to have reasons. I’ve heard one: unseasonably high Gulf surface temperatures that put more water vapor in the air. Okay, but couldn’t all that rain go back where it came from?

I also read a report of a college professor who has since lost his job after posting, and then deleting from social media that the storm was “karma” for the state’s politics. Though I admire some of the gratuitously tasteless film comedies of Mel Brooks, such a statement is so crass as to be obscene.

We can depend on prophets and pundits, educated and ignorant, to find blame, and that blame can have consequences. Though we have been told that God speaks to us in “signs and wonders” I don’t hear a voice in this storm telling me why it had to harm so many people.

When I went to New Orleans–which may suffer again from Hurricane Harvey’s landward progress–I found a city that seemed to have fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. But people told me otherwise.

Years before that I wandered through Coconut Grove, and saw an iron fence with a twenty-foot long dent–an “impression” left after Hurricane Floyd slammed it with an uprooted a palm tree. In Philadelphia, close to where I used to live, flood waters from Floyd undermined a street and shattered its pavement. It flooded a tunnel under the railroad tracks of the fabled Main Line. People and animals were swept away, their twisted remains emerging after the water subsided.

I once lived a block from the beach in Margate, a Jersey shore town on the same barrier island as Atlantic City. We were warned a terrible hurricane was coming, powerful enough rip away entire neighborhoods, and told to evacuate immediately. I put what few possessions would fit in my car, drove across the meadows between Absecon Island and the mainland, and spent the night at a friend’s house in Egg Harbor Township, about 15 miles inland.

We spent most of the night watching TV news and Charles Bronson videos. My friend had just about every movie Bronson ever starred in, including the filmed version of Elmore Leonard’s Mr. Majestyk. I remember enjoying Hard Times, a brooding, cynical Great Depression drama in which Bronson plays a pick-up fighter managed by a delightfully sleazy James Coburn. I never forgot that movie, and what I heard on the news: that most of the numerous toll bridges that linked the barrier islands to the mainland–MOST, not a few–charged evacuating residents a toll as they fled for their lives.

What is it about imminent doom that brings out so many human virtues and vices? As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I thought that if I ever wanted to get a Ph.D., it would be in what I called Ground Zero Ethics, a moral, philosophical, historical and anthropological inquiry into how we behave when we believe the end is near. One of my professors warned me that my thesis would be brutalized by the academic ethics establishment regardless of how accurate or astute my findings were, and that would help me find a job. A few months later, to my surprise, I was offered admission to a graduate school where I could begin a Masters in Ethics and work on my Ph.D. thesis. I turned it down because I thought it would be better for my writing if I stayed in the “real” world.

A Ph.D. in Ground Zero Ethics remains one of my life’s roads-not-traveled.

My alternative to academia was a winter on the Chesapeake Bay. My father owned a summer home that backed on to the water in a town named Gratitude. Wintering in a summer home has its exigencies: the pipes would freeze once a week. A plumber would come and, after taking several gulps from a whisky bottle under the sink just for him, he’d crawl under the floorboards and turn his blowtorch on the waterline.

The house lacked a washing machine and I had no car, so I stuffed my dirty laundry in a backpack and bicycled a mile and a quarter past shuttered vacation homes and the shrink-wrapped hulls of sailing yachts, to the rattling, rumbling coin-operated machines in Rock Hall. Sometimes a neighbor would drive me into Chestertown, where we’d get coffee and Spudnuts, donuts made with potato flour.

My purpose in this self-imposed solitude was the opportunity to write the stuff that would move me into the fellowship of science fiction and fantasy writers. I don’t know how many times I rode my bicycle though snow and ice to a real estate office, where I paid to make photocopies of a short story manuscript, then buy two envelopes from the stationery store, and send my creations off to do their best. They all came back, rejected.

One way to raise myself from despair was to watch spectacular sunsets over water that would freeze into a flat, glossy gray plain of ice. You could walk for miles on that ice, but never in fog. The fog could be so thick it would eliminate the horizon. Head in the wrong direction on the ice and, in these days before cellphone GPS apps,  you could be lost forever.

The place was so beautiful that I began to get that solipsistic notion that everything I was seeing, hearing (the cries of waterbirds, the faraway cracks and pops as warm weather shattered the ice) and feeling was a gift just for me.

Until a storm came after the ice had melted. I sat in front of the window that, just a day or go, had showed me a perfect Claudian sunset. Now rain blasted the glass. I saw some water birds flapping around, riding the gusts the way I’d body surf on a strong tide at the beach. But I wasn’t at a beach. I imagined the seawall of rip-rap–a long pile of big gray stones–and a concrete embankment I hoped would keep Mother Nature in her place.

Then the gray water leaped over the seawall and came closer and closer to the house.

This wasn’t an up-on-stilts house that you see where vacation homes are built on a flood plain. I cowered in a two-story, concrete block cottage with wind-rattled windows and bay water licking its foundation. The water, and the roaring storm above, did not–could not care that I had sacrificed a potentially cushy berth in academia to write thrilling tales of spaceships and memory machines. What, in all of human creation, could persuade it to go…somewhere else?

The storm blew away the porch screens, but the water stopped at the back door. Soon the wild pounding against the rattling windows died down. Within hours the water drained from the back lawn. Before the sunset, I walked along seawall and saw huge, tangled piles of driftwood, bleach bottle floats that the watermen used to mark their crab traps, tarnished beer cans, a plastic sandwich container lid, a single pink flip flop sandal, bits of styrofoam coffee cups and, at the very end, the body of a dead deer, that smelled so bad I had to hop on my bike, come back with a gallon can of gasoline and a book of matches that I used to burn the corpse until I could see its bones. As the flames curled over its body, I felt I was inside a William Faulkner story, a shorter, quicker version of The Bear, in which the naive hero does not realize that he is inextricably a part of the wild and dangerous forest that surrounds him, but, rather, sees that natural world can be reduced to a narrative of what must happen before and after death.

The seagulls, and the following morning’s tide, took away the remains.

So I think, now, how so many people along the Gulf and East coasts felt when the storms came and the water did not stop at their door. They must have experienced a few seconds of panic as it swamped their carpet, shoved their furniture aside, invaded, subverted and submerged the facts and fantasies of home-sweet-home. What did they try to take with them as they left? And where could they go, with water rising around them?

And what waited for them when they returned after the storm and saw what the water left them?

I’ve visited Bermuda several times. This pricey northern Caribbean paradise is proud of its distinctive, boxy architecture of pastel painted cottages with white, stepped roofs and louvered windows. The structures cling to the tree and bramble shrouded slopes of the chain of tiny islands that mark the caldera of a dormant volcano.

All the cottages, and the majority of Bermuda’s commercial buildings, are built so solidly that they can withstand and survive the hurricanes that blast the island regularly in the spring and fall.

If only we made our houses like they do in Bermuda…

But we don’t.  And, from what I hear about what has happened in Houston, it wouldn’t make much difference if we did. No matter how strong your walls, no matter how thick the roof over your head, water goes where it will.

So let’s give a moment of our lives to the people of Texas, and whoever else may find themselves at Ground Zero, and hope that it will bring forth their only their best.






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