“Frances is gone. And he turned this fucking place upside down. But we’re safe now … I think.” This was my mother checking in from Green Acres, where she had hunkered down in her condo through the hurricane. “And you know me — I don’t flinch. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
At the time of the previous call from my mother, Frances’ eye was approaching the coast of Jupiter, a town a few miles north of where she lives. There was a garbled message on my voice mail, which sounded like an SOS transmission from a colony on Mars, just as it was being overrun by howling cosmic shape shifters. Between the static was an ominous wind and a few intelligible words: … no power … trapped … phones dead … try Germaine’s number… 561 …what’s the rest? …
Germaine is a friend of my younger brother, David, aka Skrap. Skrap is David’s hip hop handle, which, as an aspiring rapper, David must have. When Germaine is not working at the Olive Garden, he is Skrap’s producer/manager/accomplice, and he lives with Skrap and my mother in Green Acres. Before Frances’ full force arrived in Florida, the three of them stocked up on batteries, water, and food, and they retrieved my mother’s long-unused Coleman camping stove from the closet.
“But we had no idea what we were in for,” she recounted after the storm was gone. “This thing was a monster.”
She described the carnage: flipped cars, uprooted trees, yachts tossed ashore, roofs torn from houses. “With my own eyes,” she said with the almost gleeful amazement of a witness to catastrophe, “I saw trees flying out of the goddamn ground, Joshuah. Right out my window. You know I don’t like to swear, but this was absolutely un-fucking-believable.”
Worse than the storm itself, says my mother, was the aftermath. The power was still out when she called, making refuge from the miasmic summer of southern Florida impossible. An underground economy quickly developed with ice as the pinnacular commodity. “People are fighting over ice!” she yelled into the phone. “I mean fist fights — right in the parking lots!”
“What are they doing with the ice?” I asked.
“It’s hot!” she cried.
“But the power’s out, so it will just melt in a few hours — right? Seems like ice would be a luxury item compared to food and just regular old water.”
“You don’t understand: WE NEED THAT ICE!” She cried. “Some of Germaine’s friends brought us ice from Naples in the back of their car” — such a trans-state delivery, I should point out, requires a three hour drive — “and when they got to our parking lot, people were clamoring to buy the ice from them before they got it up the stairs. This morning, David went to the store and there were police guarding the ice. They have to keep the hordes away. They’re scalping it in some places — for twenty bucks a pound!”
It’s always surprising how easy it is to peer through the thin veneer of civilization and encounter humanity’s intrinsic impulse to madness. Glimpses appear here and there in places — the beer line at Coachella; the Barney’s Warehouse Sale; the Dutch tulip craze — but what my mother described was a direct preview of the mechanics of apocalypse.
Forty eight hours after Frances was gone, the whole area was still under curfew. No power meant no television. The radio was broadcasting only emergency information: damage reports, shelter locations, food distribution points, and what few stores were open where you could buy things like … ice.
And fuel. Only a few gas stations were functioning, and the lines there were “absolutely un-fucking-believable.” The same was true, my mother said, at the grocery stores, where it was illegal to sell perishables because of the lack of refrigeration. “But I snuck out of there with some cream cheese,” my mother said. “Because I need to have my cream cheese.”
The FEMA food distribution sites, manned by the national guard, were also taxed. Green Acres is in Palm Beach County, where FEMA brought in 200,000 pounds of ice, 120,000 bottles of water, and 1,000 meals. “But they ran out fast,” my mother said. “And some of the relief trucks were hijacked anyway.”
“Yeah — there was a truck coming down to Palm Beach with those army meals and some water, and it was hijacked. Taken before it got here.” Thus had Frances created modern-day brigandry right in the middle of suburban Florida.
But it turned out my mother didn’t have to depend on the National Guard for food. Her neighbor, Jean, is one of those ladies who has an extra freezer stacked solid with meat, and, as my mother explained, “she had just filled it up before Frances hit with $250 worth of steak and everything. And I mean good stuff, not like your grandmother used to cheap out on. She had this beautiful rack of ribs in there, a nice veal, some pork chops … ”
With no power the meat would go to waste, so they decided to cook it all right then and there. As Frances still raged, my mom fired up the foot-wide, propane-powered Coleman. One neighbor brought over some vodka. Another brought bread. Skrap worked the grill, Jean lit candles, Germaine poured drinks, and the whole wing of her building proceeded to have a fancy apocalyptic barbeque in my mother’s apartment. “It was a little weird,” my mother said. “But, why not? Everyone else was eating canned beans, but we threw a feast. When it seems like the end of the world is coming, you might as well live a little.”