Part 1 - The Blizzard
Mid-February, 19--, dumped almost two feet of snow on New York, more on Washington D.C.
My family and I were living in the house I still live in at the Jersey Shore. Storms are usually a little milder here than other places in the area, but this time we got hit bad. I don't know what caused it, but before it ended, the storm knocked out our heating system, and the radiators all over the house slowly turned cold. I don't recall the power ever going out, so something else in the boiler must have failed on us. Not sure what.
For a day or so, the four of us holed up in the living room, huddled next to the fireplace like a family of pioneers. My parents always kept a cord or two of firewood stacked up along the fence outside the house, so it seemed possible we might outlast the cold. I suppose they'd called a repairman, but no doubt none was available with the blizzard.
To keep the heat in, my father nailed blankets over the two doorways leading out of the living room to other parts of the house. The room was still pretty cold, though. I found it tolerable, though less so getting stuck in close quarters with my family, my mother in particular, without a means of escape.
Some families would probably have grown closer in a similar situation, or at least found a way to make the best of it. Ours, not so much.
Weather aside, it had been a brutal winter. It was my senior year of high school, and I was counting the days until I was out of the house. I'd only applied to one college, Rutgers, and I didn't have a backup plan if that fell through.
Worse yet, I'd failed a bunch of classes in my second marking period. Not math, of course, and not my writing class. I was editor of the literary magazine, and the teacher, Mr. Smith, liked me. As things turned, though, not so well that he wouldn't unceremoniously relieve me of that title when, a month or so later, I just quit going to school for a while. The to-print deadline just fell further and further behind, and I guess at last he had no choice.
But in February, I was still in his good graces. Everything else, though, was an unbroken string of Fs. That's pretty much how my life felt, too.
My guidance counselor was one of those overworked guys who, I believe, took one look at me when I'd first arrived in high school and put me in steerage: You know, those poor souls who paid almost nothing for their passage across the ocean, got almost nothing in return, and were the first to go down if the ship sank. I received a blue slip of paper with my report card, inviting me to talk with him. In the two or three minutes he'd set aside for me, he let me know that I was right on the edge of a not-so-good place.
"Here's the deal," he said, "You failed three out of your five classes last semester."
I have no idea what I said to that, so he went on.
"So you need to take a full schedule of seven courses if you want to graduate in June."
I imagine that I nodded or something.
So he handed me a course catalogue and said something like, "Find two courses to replace your two study halls – now."
That got me some religion, at least for a few weeks. I loaded up my schedule with courses I hoped I could pass, started showing up in class every day, and actually did my homework for a change. It actually wasn't horrible, and it gave me a sense of purpose for a while.
I'm not sure what my parents knew about the details of this situation. If we'd discussed it at all, I'm sure I told them that I had it all under control. And I would have believed this, too, because not graduating wasn't an option. The situation at home had grown increasingly intolerable for all four of us, each in our ways.
If you'd asked me at the time, I'm sure I would have said me most of all. But now I know for a fact that as hard as things felt, I probably had it the easiest of the four of us – though only in retrospect.
As I write this, I find myself here in that same living room under odd circumstances, our self-imposed Coronavirus quarantine. Maybe that's why these thoughts are dredging up after all these years. I've come full circle.
I think we spent the night in that (this) room, having scavenged the house for all the extra bedding we could find. The room felt cold except when I ventured outside the blanketed area. Then, the real cold hit me, maybe a few degrees above the outside temperature and falling fast. Amazing how quickly the illusion of a warm house could just plain unravel like that.
Since I own the house now, I keep wondering why my parents didn't figure out something to keep the rest of the house warm. If the pipes ever froze and then burst, the result could have cost thousands of dollars to fix, not counting whatever else got wrecked by water damage. Maybe in the olden days, though, when all this happened, people didn't own five or six space heaters built by nimble hands in China and then shipped at low cost to nearby outlets, or delivered by Amazon. So Plan-B became building blanket-walls to keep out the cold and burning firewood to raise the temperature.
I guess we watched TV or maybe played records keep ourselves entertained. I'm pretty sure that by the 1970s, we would have had cable TV, though it did arrive late in our town. Even so, there would have been limited channels, maybe a dozen or so, and most of them less interesting than the three networks that everyone had been watching since the 1950s.
Like most kids my age, though, I was still a TV addict, born and bred. I didn't read much as a kid – never the books that were assigned in school. (Please raise your hand if by the age of ten, you also knew how to produce a 3-page handwritten book report with information you'd ripped from the back cover and side jacket.)
But surprisingly, in the last couple of years, I'd started reading a few books on my own. Novels depicting the apocalyptic termination of the human race were a big favorite, and there were a ton of them to be found on bookstore shelves. From science fiction to realistic depictions of what our desolate end might ultimately resemble, I devoured them all. And so, the 70s looked to me like a bleak corridor stretching off into an obscure abyss, no light, no hope.
Or, instead, I would go to college someday soon.
I know now I wasn't the only one growing up in those days who felt somewhat the same. Like we were simultaneously planning for two versions of the future, one a well-lit copy of the past, the other its shadowy sister, a blackened hull offering no future, certainly no salvation, but still somehow comforting and alluring.
No doubt, though, some family drama pulled me out of whatever post-holocaust reverie I was engaged in at the times. I probably won't be able to recall the details. Not much beyond my mother's shrill voice.
Complaining that as usual she was the only one in the family who was doing anything to help get us through the crisis we were in.
And if we couldn't manage to cooperate in a few simple ways to help her out.
Then at least we could be slightly appreciative of her efforts.
And by the way that went for my father as well.
Morning of the second day, we all decided to abandon ship. The storm showed no sign of letting up, and the boiler still wasn't fully functional, but the phone was working. And, apparently, despite the weather, cabs were still running.
The four of us landed for a brief time at my grandparents' apartment in Asbury Park. We ate, of course, this being my dad's Italian side of the family. We sort of settled into her small spare room. My sister and I settle down onto the living room rug in front of the TV and disappeared into whatever sitcom we could find on at that hour.
And then it was decided that the house was too small for six of us. So my mom dragged me over to my other grandmother's house, her own mother. She had an equally small apartment about half a mile from our house, where she'd moved a few years after my grandfather had died. So it was decided that while my dad and sister stayed in Asbury, she and I would move here.
This was bad, very bad.
It wasn't that I didn't love my grandmother, because I did. She was awesome, and in any other situation I would have loved spending a few days with her. Only, my grandmother tended to irk my mom just by her human presence, and then mom irked us both in retaliation, and when I say irked I mean satanically tortured and brutally oppressed.
I'm pretty sure I lasted less than an hour before slipping unseen outside with my suitcase and forging my way in the direction of home. The sidewalk snow was up to my hips and still falling, so I stayed in the street, dodging moving cars and navigating around parked and stranded ones in near zero visibility.
It seemed at the time like a reasonable trade-off. Via con dios.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the cats. They seemed glad to see me and then, as cats do, just as content to continue whatever it was they were up to without consulting me.
They had a rich inner life. You had to admire that.
Of course, there was food in the house. God knows, my mother stocked the pantry, the fridge, and especially the double-oversized freezer with every variety of prepared food that had ever graced a New Jersey supermarket. For example, in 10th grade I'd gone through a 2-week period when for some reason I came home from school every day, opened a can of mushrooms into a small pot, heated it on the stove with butter, and ate the result as my afternoon snack. Then, for some other reason, I stopped doing that.
The upshot was that I definitely had a few 2-year-old cans of mushrooms to fall back on.
[more to come]