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 Vermont.gov 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.