Archive for September, 2011


September 20th, 2011

I will not be posting here for a few weeks, while I visit friends in Maine and the as yet unexplored-by-me Gaspé Peninsula.   While I’m gone, here’s some reading material you might enjoy.

Irene, Part Four

September 16th, 2011

In Waterbury, After Irene


I saw what flickered in the young mother’s face –
she was not going to cry, at least not right away –
amid a cluster of kids head-droopingly bored but
too anxious to wander and anyway forbidden.
The former volunteer fireman pleaded with her
not to let the work crew back in her basement
until fans had been placed to dispel the fumes.
Like me, he’d just walked by, looking to help.
A teenage crew member said to me, “But oil
don’t burn.”  I said, “You drop a match in a bucket
of oil and it’ll go out.  It’s fumes that burn.
You don’t want to come out of there in flames.”
They’d been hacking up shelving and hauling it out,
having fun with sawzalls.  I took the pieces and
wheelbarrowed them over to the dumpster, dull
green plank chunks dusted with golden sawdust
flecks that had stuck in the flood’s residual slime.


At a house not far from there, I saw a man
attack with vicious blows of a framing hammer the
underlayment in what had been his kitchen.
We’d scraped loose the vinyl tiles, tossed them
into heavy duty plastic bags, and
humped them out to the dumpster, past the mound of
grey, crumbled drywall, pink fluffs of
fiberglass, dismantled cabinets, shards of
wainscoting taking up the whole front yard and
growing sodden there. Whoever had tacked that
plywood down, had not spared the nails.  Our little
prybars and catspaws groaned it up slowly.  It bent,
its stiffness soaked away, without the strength to
overcome the flooring boards’ swollen grip.
Wordlessly, he picked up the claw and went at it,
splintering, splitting, smashing, swift and ferocious.
I stood back.  His father said, “I told the
builder, build it like you were going to live here.”


I saw the house’s innards, the hues of road kill,
grey and pink and brown on the lawn in the rain.
We loaded a plastic tub and the working wheelbarrow
handful by leather-gloved handful, globs of wallboard
decomposing to gypsum and paper, spears of
lath and molding spiked with nails, drawer parts,
shelving paper checkered blue and white,
clots of insulation the color of sunsets.
Trudging back and forth a couple of hours,
having reduced the pile perhaps by half,
we’d paused to catch our breath when someone vaguely
known to the family drove up in his bright blue
bucket loader.  Soon he’d scooped the yard clear.
No one regretted our efforts, though they’d been useless.
A few blades of grass streaked the mud,
all lying in one direction, like a comb-over.
“I think you’re going to have to reseed,” I said.

Irene, Part Three

September 13th, 2011

The call finally came on Tuesday, at a little past noon.  The lawyer who manages my work unit told me that we would be allowed into our offices briefly at 1:00, to retrieve files and other items.  Although my office was on the second floor, thus presumably safe from the water, it was good to have it confirmed that it still contained files and other items which could be retrieved.

Waterbury was an odd place, Tuesday afternoon, but not in any way I had expected.  The water had receded back within the river’s banks, just barely, but cleanup hardly had begun, so there were few obvious signs of yesterday’s inundation.  Buildings’ insides mostly were still inside them.  Entering town from I-89, I looked down the embankment to my left, into a trailer park.  I saw a man without a shirt on, standing in the open among the trailers, and some other people moving slowly about on

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Irene, Part Two

September 10th, 2011

Monday was a beautiful day, bright and clear, moderate temperatures, mildly breezy, just enough humidity to soften the air with none of the oppressive moistness that had led up to the storm.  I woke up, as usual for a workday, at 6:00 a.m. to drive my son to his job in Williston.  Then, instead of continuing on to Waterbury, I returned home, expecting a couple of hours of pleasant leisure before I had to be at the office.  It had been announced the night before that State offices would not open until 10:00 today.  After pulling into my driveway, I braced upright the trellis my beans were growing on, which had blown over Sunday afternoon.  I’d lost one bean vine, its leaves already withering and drooping, but the others looked intact.  I noted that my jalapenos were ripening, beginning to turn a fire engine red.  Then, repairs from Tropical Storm Irene completed at the Steinzor residence, I went in to turn on the computer, to look for the situation update the State had promised would appear on its website at 7:30.

My first inkling that we’d had anything more than a heavy rain storm came when I opened up and discovered that I, together with all other state employees stationed in Waterbury and Montpelier, was instructed to stay home unless specifically called in to work by a supervisor.  I carried my cell phone with me all day, but the call, not particularly expected, didn’t come.

All day long, listening to the radio, checking email and facebook frequently, the dimensions of what was happening trickled into my awareness.  A friend emailed me from Florida to find out if I was alright.  The irony wasn’t lost on him, of someone in Ft. Myers checking whether a friend in Vermont had been spared by a hurricane.  This and enquiries from relatives in other parts of the country alerted me to Vermont’s unusual status as the national media’s disaster du jour.  I haven’t watched a television newscast in decades, having decided long ago that teevee news isn’t a reliable source of information regarding anything I care about.  Learning indirectly that the national media was scaring people unnecessarily did nothing to change that opinion.  It merely heightened the surreality I was beginning to experience.  People were calling to to find out if I was alright.  The sun was shining, the basement was dry.  My biggest dilemma was whether to eat a bowl of soup for lunch, or the leftover chicken curry.

Later in the day, I walked down to Church Street and enjoyed an herbal iced tea at Uncommon Grounds, sitting at an outside table and people-watching.  Church Street was crowded with college students coming back to school, their parents, tourists, and probably not a few off-duty state employees like me.  Everything was bright and clean and unbelievably normal.  We had been told not to venture out on the roads.  I felt isolated, stuck in a strange bubble on another planet impassably distant from the “real” world, and from the world at large.  The airport was the only way out.  Now, for a person living in Chittenden County, a certain sense of disconnectedness from the rest of the state is ordinary.  As the joke goes, the nicest thing about living in Burlington is that you are so close to Vermont.  But now we could not go there.  Despite the tragedy unfolding only fifteen minutes’ drive away, we could not touch it, any more than it could touch us.

Part of the ache was my intimacy with Waterbury.  I have worked there for well over a decade.  That means, for well over a decade the majority of my waking hours have been spent either in Waterbury, or on my way to or from there.  I have grown to love the place, nestled in a bowl in the Green Mountains formed by a wide spot in the Winooski River valley; the homely, serviceable, extensive, architecturally peculiar state office complex, a hundred year old maze which once upon a time housed 1500 mental patients and where much of state government now resided.  Setting aside the obvious jokes based on the complex’s history, it was a humbler, sleeves-rolled-up counterpart to the neck-tied self importance of capitol city Montpelier.  If Montpelier is where the laws are made, Waterbury was where they were brought into contact with people’s lives.  It had a really good Chinese takeout restaurant, and the Park Row Cafe, and Vermont Liberty Tea Company where you could buy high quality teas from all over the world, and Bridgeside Books, my favorite bookstore – off whose shelves To Join the Lost first found its way into the hands of someone I did not know – and a corn field right behind the state office complex and the river right behind that, and a 3.2 mile looping trail you could walk during the lunch hour that took you between the corn field and the river, through a  cemetery, over a bridge, down a dirt road along the river, over another bridge, and back to your office, all in view of the rounded green hills.  Now all this was in jeopardy, and I couldn’t be there, couldn’t witness, couldn’t help.

Irene, Part One

September 4th, 2011

I’ve been through three hurricanes.  Well, technically, except for the first one, they had stopped being hurricanes by the time their paths crossed mine.

I met the first one in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The year was 1967 and I was fifteen, a passenger on the S.S. Constitution en route with my family to a year in Europe.  The ship was one year older than me.  We skirted a late summer storm which perhaps presaged that year’s coming turbulence of assassinations, riots, and war.  Of the hundreds of passengers aboard, my father and I, devoted trenchermen both, were almost the only ones to appear in the dining room that night.  Spaghetti carbonara.  Rain, wind, and ceaseless, extravagant motion.  Sleep soon after dinner, because it was the only thing to do.

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