It felt good for Little Brother to be charged with what felt like Big Brother responsibility–rescuing the parents, and Grandpa. OK, fine, so they weren’t in any mortal danger as far as we could tell–but the job had some heft to it. I used the office Internet to locate one of the scant few inter-borough express buses that were said to be running. My brother wished me Godspeed. If all went according to plan (we didn’t really have one), we would rendezvous the next day at his kids’ house (rumors had it that my Sister-in-Law’s condo had full power) for my younger nephew’s 10th birthday party.
On the bus, I marveled at folks from disparate walks of life exchanging stories, joking, even networking. Disasters, even qualified, smaller calamities post 9/11, have always fascinated and enchanted. They break up our routines and engender collisions of worlds that make things more interesting, if only for a brief time. Actors hung out with plumbers, bus drivers with financiers, law students with jewelry designers. It was totally uncurated and certainly not crowdsourced. They were the types of temporary unions that once created civilization.
Lofty thoughts abounding, I decided to spend some of my newly acquired cell phone juice on my mom, who I figured was rationing hers. This would be a treat for her–not only a call from her son, but a personal visit, in dire times, no less! When she picked up she sounded distracted and unimpressed.
“You’re coming now?”
“Yes, like right NOW.”
“Well, it’s not a good time. I’m about to leave.”
“My devices are losing power. I’m going to Yelena and the kids’ house to charge them.”
“Mom, I’ll be there in 15 minutes. Just WAIT.” She had already hung up.
My mom has very strong command of her faculties, but this interaction was absolutely insane. If this had been my dad’s mom, who, god bless her, suffered from late life dementia requiring constant management, I would have understood. But this was my mom, a logical person who was now blowing me off after my hour-long bus ride during a blackout to take lord knows what transport to my nephews’ house in Homecrest so she could charge her phone! Still, I counted on common sense to prevail and fully expected to catch her before she left.
The bus sped down Belt Parkway through Bensonhurst into Gravesend, wrapping around the eerily quiet boundary of southwest Brooklyn. I marveled at the post-apocalyptic stillness. Parked cars were strewn about, abandoned after the storm pounded and drained most of them, rendering these powerful beasts totally useless, my dad’s Toyota Corolla among them.
When the bus dropped me off minutes later, I trudged up nine flights of stairs with my tiny blinged-out LED flashlight to their apartment. Sure enough, when I entered, there was no sign of Mom. What I did find was my dad, sitting in the kitchen and eating borscht. He was surprised to see me and had no idea where my mom was. On any given day, this would be our typical family coordination, but during minor catastrophes it seemed a bit egregious.
“What about Grandpa?” Slurping his soup distractedly, my dad suddenly stirred.
“Ooh, good thing you reminded me. I made a deal with a Turkish guy, over by Coney Island Hospital, who agreed to pick up Grandpa and drive him to a hospital.”
Turkish guy? Hospital? The fewer questions I asked the better.
Dad looked at his watch. “Uh, five in the evening.” It was ten to five.
“Dad, we’ve gotta go!” Clearly, my father had lost track of time. Not that I could blame him under the circumstances, but this, too, was par for the course.
We hurried on foot to Grandpa’s Brighton Beach apartment. Luckily, Dad had the foresight years ago to install his parents on the ground floor of their building, making such evacuations more feasible. Moving an 86-year old man who relied on a walker to their 9th floor apartment was out of the question, so lobbying the hospital to put up Grandpa for a few days was the only thing he could think of.
“What about the fire truck?” I asked, almost forgetting about that whole business of only hours prior.
“Oh, yeah, that didn’t happen.”
“They never showed up? A gas leak is not enough to get their attention?” I demanded.
“Actually, Viktor, the home attendant, says they came. A fire truck pulled up outside but I wasn’t there, and Viktor doesn’t speak English well and didn’t know what to do, so they just left.” Somehow, responses like this one were starting to sound perfectly reasonable.
We got to Grandpa’s building only a few minutes after the time Dad had supposedly arranged with this mysterious “Turkish guy.” A half hour later, no Turkish guy was forthcoming. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe Viktor saw him and did nothing again. Maybe my dad screwed up the meeting time and the Turkish guy lost patience waiting for us, spat out his cigarette, and drove home to his family. Maybe whoever my dad spoke to didn’t understand a word he said and merely humored him, nodding agreement to everything he said. Maybe there never was a Turkish guy. Who could tell?
We were thinking on our feet, planning for contingencies. A cop car was sitting nearby. I would go and see if New York’s Finest could assist us in getting an ambulance. When I pled my case to a stone-faced officer, he shook his head. “Sorry, we’ve got a situation.” He pointed to a manhole halfway down the block that was shooting flames of fire at least 20 feet into the sky. This, too, was completely insane. I thanked him for his time and moved on.
There was little to do but look for a car service. We walked toward Coney Island Avenue, the main artery pumping lifeblood into the heart of Brighton Beach. It’s the street where Russian book stores and Uzbek restaurants sit alongside exuberant hair salons and a fur storage facility. It was more or less our drop point as immigrants a quarter century ago. Sure enough, within minutes we identified a roaming Russian livery driver whose shift was ending but who was willing to drive us to New York Community Hospital, my dad’s go-to medical shelter. As a bonus, he seemed to have a heart and wouldn’t gouge us, given the situation.
Now we were cooking with gas. Minutes later, Grandpa was prepped with Viktor’s assistance, loaded into the car, and off to the hospital. We were all too familiar with the ER admission procedure. Time was flying. I realized that it was getting late. My phone still had a good charge and I suddenly noticed a voicemail from my mom. I hadn’t picked up because it was an unfamiliar number. The message was somewhat disjointed, but the main points were clear: (1) She was on her way to Yelena’s house to charge her phone. (2) She had borrowed some kid’s phone at a bus stop to call me. I called my nephews’ house but no one was home. My father said they’d gone to Staten Island earlier in the day to help Yelena’s brother, whose house and cars had really taken a beating, but were due back any minute now. There was little more I could do here, so I decided to walk to Yelena and the nephews’ place, which was within a 20-minute walk of the hospital. This Shangri La promised hot water, electricity, and a reunion with Mom. With my dad’s blessing, I set out on my journey…