Old photos.

We’ve been on a cleaning and drying spree after Hurricane Irene let part of the Atlantic ocean into our basement. Let there be no illusions about this work – the basement clean-up has been a long, long time in coming. Irene and her shenanigans merely forced our collective hand. If you want an idea of how we’ve been using our basement, you need look no further than Arlo Guthrie’s seminal work “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”

If you remember, Alice and her husband Ray lived up in the bell tower with Fasha the dog, and left all their garbage in the church below.

"Havin' all that room, seein' as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time."

You can almost make this simile into a mathematical equation:
If I = Alice, my husband = Ray, Esther = Fasha the dog, then the basement = the church, where the pews used to be, and there must be a LOT of garbage down there.

Going through it all is an interesting process. Often it’s been distressing  (we’re replacing a lot of appliances this week), sometimes depressing (for some reason, I was deeply saddened by the loss of my Christmas wrapping paper), and occasionally, felicitous. (Buh-bye, husband’s ginormous speakers that look like Stonehenge! Au revoir, unwanted furniture that we couldn’t get rid of because sometimes we need extra chairs! Peace out, box of random stuff that we were keeping for unknown reasons!)

Sometimes, this clean up is just interesting. I spent part of this morning, after dragging soggy crap up from the basement and before coming up to my (thankfully) dry office to start work, cleaning old photos. This was a great job, mostly because it was a less nasty alternative to cleaning out the food in the upturned chest freezer downstairs.

They were pictures of my husband’s family, mostly photos from the ’60s, and I had to separate them, dunk them in fresh water and lay them out quickly to dry. This felt like an amazing amount of responsibility because these are old photos that had been floating in saltwater. There are no negatives, at least not on this side of the Mississippi, and many of the people and places in the photographs are long gone. One false move with the tweezers or a thumbnail and someone could lose a face, or a head, or an aunt, sitting at the kitchen table.

We were lucky. We only lost a few. I laid the survivors out on newspaper on our kitchen table. I’ve never understood people who are willing to go into their burning homes to try and save their family photos, but this morning, as I stood, looking at the mosaic made up of all these people I’ve heard about, but have never met, I realized why. These are faces that will never be seen again. Some are deceased, some are just changed. My husband will never be a little boy again. That big turtle will never cross the dirt road in front of that house again. Those people will never again gather to sit on the back of that truck and smile.

And even if the people in the photographs remember sitting there, with those smiles and each other, there will be people like me, who weren’t at the party, but wanted to feel as though they were.

This is just the first batch. There are much older photos in the basement, photos of nameless turn-of-the-century girls with fishing nets and bathing costumes and  vaguely familiar facial features. I know they’re down there, but we haven’t found them in the debris. I’m not sure we’ll be able to save those, but I will try.

Storm Surge

We were going to stay. We might have been fine if we stayed.

But when the City of Bridgeport ordered a mandatory evacuation on Saturday afternoon to people in my neighborhood ahead of what was, at that point, Hurricane Irene, I decided that we weren’t going to take our chances with the storm. We packed our bags and headed to my family’s place.

We were back in less than 24 hours. The storm seemed like it had been over-hyped. We didn’t see any downed trees or accidents on the highways. Everything was great. Then we  turned onto our street. The Long Island Sound, which normally keeps to itself,  had come inland, about half a mile.

Usually, when you stand in this spot, you're looking down at the Long Island Sound, not wading in it.

Our whole neighborhood was under water. We parked the car several blocks away and started wading. I had visions of our living room furniture floating, or worse, of our house tilting in the saturated soil, and falling over, like so many trees shown on the news.  But when we stepped out of the water and onto the porch, we realized those fears were unfounded.

We shone our flashlights into  the basement. It was flooded almost to the top. Paint cans and other debris floated by. We couldn’t see it, but our washer and dryer and the big chest freezer had floated up and tipped over. It all seemed like a little too much right then. I’m not sure what pushed me over the edge. Maybe it was all that water, reflecting the light from my flashlight back up at me. Maybe it was watching a pitcher I’d used for drinking water floating by in the filth, but that’s when I began to panic.

And I realized something. Some people should not have a phone when they’re drunk. Some people should not have a phone when they’re hormonal. I should not have a phone when I’m panicking. Fueled by a rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline, I promptly called my mother and reported to Facebook that the house was under water. Sorry, Facebook friends. Things were not nearly as bad as I felt they were at the moment. You all did not need to read my fear-fueled updates.

Things didn’t end up being so horrendous. Two of our closest friends, whose own power was out, had us over, grilled us some hot dogs, and came back to our house with their pumps and a case of drinking water. Our neighbor let us use her electricity. I hope that someday we can be as much of a help to them as they were to us.

This is what it looked like before the drains were cleared.

This is the best part – it was our neighbors and friends who cleared our street of water. The gentleman who lives across the street from us waded out with a broom and began pushing away the debris on the closest storm drain and then clearing leaves, fallen branches and garbage from the drain with his hands. We heard bubbling from the center of the street. Several of us rushed out with rakes and sticks and poles and our hands and spent the next hour pulling leaves out of drains. You’d clear one and there’d be a sudden strong pull on your hand as the water began to fall from the street into the sewer below. And then, if you’d cleared the drain enough, a small whirlpool would appear. People came along and took cell phone videos of us, standing up to our thighs in floodwater, clearing drains. I’m sure we’re on YouTube somewhere. Within a few hours the street had drained completely. We would still have standing water if it weren’t for our neighbor’s idea.

This morning, I took a walk down to the small, usually nasty beach at the end of our street. I had to walk through some weird Lovecraftian muck to get there, but when I did, I was surprised. The beach was higher than usual. There was about a foot of new, clean sand. The water was still and shining and the sun was out. A beautiful beach after an awful storm is so cliché; the writer in me was sickened. But the Bridgeport resident who’s had enough of clouds and brackish water was happy to see it.

I once read an article which said that people don’t like to read positive, inspirational blog posts.  Well tough noogies. Here are some lessons I learned yesterday:

– There are no winners in an argument about whether or not you should evacuate your home.

– If you can pack for a mandatory evacuation, you can pack for anything.

– Mandatory evacuations are not actually mandatory.

– We are a nation of idiots with cameras in our cell phones.

– Good friends are the best resource ever.

– Knowing and being willing to help your neighbors is the smartest thing anyone can do.

– Teamwork can clear a flooded street a lot faster than Public Works can.