Everyone has had a Bizarre Moment in life, a moment when you just step back and ask, "How the hell did I get in this situation?"
Often it'll come when you're attending the wedding, say, of two people you thought you knew well. Then the preacher announces that the loving couple have written their own vows, and that those vows are based on Time in a Bottle and the rest of Jim Croce's works.
Your brain scrambles as it tries to process the information: You're hearing "If words could make wishes come true" and "I would save every day till eternity passes" but -- somehow -- no one seems to be laughing.
You assess the situation -- you're in a suit and tie on a Saturday afternoon, you're stuck in a church surrounded by people thoughtfully nodding their heads at the homespun wisdom that is Jim Croce, and all you can do is go metaphysical on yourself and marvel at the strangeness of it all.
My own Bizarre Moment came sometime in the predawn hours of June 9, courtesy of Tropical Storm Allison.
I was standing in the middle of my living room, taking a leak. While normally pissing in the living room would be considered a social faux pas among the Smart Set -- unless your name is Jackson Pollock -- Miss Manners might have given me a pass this time, seeing as how I was thigh-high in fetid, brackish water that had spread throughout the house. Wading back to stand over a commode that was itself under water seemed somewhat pointless at the time.
I'm standing there whizzing, surrounded by large pieces of heavy furniture floating leisurely about as if on a pleasure cruise. Outside, my wife's car -- the one that just got $300 in repairs -- sits totally submerged, its burglar alarm gargling pitifully underneath the waves.
The rain continues to pound down in vicious sheets, showing no signs of letting up before we all go under. The only place to sit that's above water is a wooden barstool currently occupied by my fitfully dozing wife. My nine-year-old son is back in our bedroom, using our mattress as a raft to keep above the waves.
He's been occasionally nodding off; in the interludes he has been trying to distract himself by singing loudly to the new CD we have been playing incessantly lately.
So there I am, pissing in the living room, watching the incoming water slowly cover up more and more books and doodads and keepsakes, a raging river outside where our street used to be, my wife trying to sleep without slipping off her chair into the gross indoor lake, and I'm suddenly listening to the disembodied voice of a nine-year-old belting out Springtime for Hitler.
Bizarre Moment? Geez, I can only pray that my life never gets more bizarre than that.
Reader's Digest magazine used to have a feature -- hell, it may still have it, just like it may still have the ain't-bureaucracy-funny laffs of Humor in Uniform -- called Drama in Real Life.
The Drama in Real Life usually consisted of a small-plane crash in remote mountains, an overturned sailboat in a squall, or the stirring fight against time to save a child trapped in an collapsing building. There was always a Bible handy for inspiration, it seems, and inevitably a heartfelt moral to take away from the tale.
Being flooded out, at least as far as Allison went, is no Drama in Real Life. Instead, it is a tedious, monotonous nightlong Really, Really Annoying Event in Real Life. There are no rogue waves, no awe-inspiring walls of water looming overhead. You're not George Clooney and crew hanging on to a wildly flailing pole in The Perfect Storm; you're more Vladimir and Estragon, and instead of mouthing absurdist dialogue while you're Waiting for Godot, you're mumbling absurdist dialogue while you're Waiting for the Goddamn Rain to Stop.
Which, all too eventually, it does. At which point you wait endlessly for the water to recede out of your home, leaving you with a muck-filled house teeming with piles of useless furniture and a pack rat's detritus.
Instead of a moral, you're left with one thought: Jesus H. Christ, this is going to be one big pain in the ass to deal with.
The weekend began typically enough; as is our wont on Friday nights, we had gathered in the den to nibble petits fours and discuss Proust.
Or maybe my kid was in the den watching Lizzie McGuire on the Disney Channel while I was in the bedroom watching the NBA playoffs and my wife was in the living room watching something else (or, to give the benefit of the doubt, reading Proust).
I was mindlessly flipping through the channels, which is certainly more my wont than discussing dead French authors, and there seemed to be a whole lot of pictures of cars rolling through high water. On Channels 11 and 13, brow-furrowed anchors talked worriedly of rising waters in east and north Houston.
None of which concerned me in the least, so I continued to flip around, after condescendingly giving a microsecond's worth of thought to those poor folks who had haplessly chosen to live in the flooding areas.
Our house, which sits west of the Heights in the Timbergrove Manor subdivision, is only a long block from White Oak Bayou, but longtime residents said even the worst rains never made it inside any homes on our street. And the TV folks were talking only about flooding problems with Greens Bayou and Cypress Creek and the San Jacinto River, so it seemed Allison would provide nothing more than a weekend's worth of interesting pictures of swamped 18-wheelers.
As the night drew on, though, and the rains continued to pour down, it looked more and more like Allison would become a Major Houston Event -- meaning one that actually directly affected me.
First one weather guy, then another mentioned that White Oak Bayou was rising dangerously high. Then an intense rain cell settled over the western half of inside-the-Loop Houston, and it refused to move. Outside the windows the rain sounded like a waterfall.
"Not good," thought I.
We had two vehicles in our driveway -- our relatively new Honda Accord and our relatively old Ford pickup, one month away from being paid off. The Honda was closest to the street and obviously has less of a ground clearance than the truck, so I wondered whether it'd be worth getting soaked in order to switch their places.
I glanced out the front window and saw it'd be fruitless -- the curbs were already overflowing, meaning we would have had to back out through water high enough to possibly ruin the Honda's engine.
It still didn't seem possible that any water would actually make it into the house: The rain had to stop soon, right?
Somehow it didn't stop. And the water that had overflowed the curbs was now reaching our carport.
Regretfully coming to the conclusion that we might just get at least a little water, I quickly took two steps of action. First, I resolved to move any low-lying Important Stuff up to higher shelves. Second, I realized that there were no higher shelves that weren't already packed with Important Stuff.
My wife and I grabbed some pictures and some papers. Almost simultaneously, the same thought occurred to each of us: "Christ, we sure do have a lot of stuff near the floor." Books, albums and piles and piles of official-looking papers that could contain either a) our flood insurance policy or b) a 1994 receipt from Blockbuster.
Still, at that point we were dry. We jammed some towels under the front door, towels that would prove incredibly important later that night when God decided we needed something floating under the murky surface ready to trip us at a moment's notice.
The TV stations, those sadistic bastards, continued to report grim news. Or at least news that was grimmer to me than previous news. White Oak Bayou was flooding upstream, and anyone living near it inside the Loop was all but guaranteed to get hit too.
Having no sandbags available to protect us -- with our faith and hopes instead firmly resolved with the ability of the towels to hold back the waters -- we waited.
The rain just kept coming. The radar showed a huge blob over our house that simply refused to budge. Outside, the water was several inches high in the carport and there was no street to be seen.
Our next strategic step was Crossing Our Fingers. Alas, this time-tested method failed to deliver on its promise.
The first trickle of water came not through the front door (let's hear it for those fightin' towels!). Instead, as I looked down, water suddenly began to seep in through the base of our front wall.
It didn't look that bad -- nice and clear over the hardwood floors, in fact, and not advancing too fast. I went to get more towels, reinforcements for the proud brigade that was battling valiantly at the door. When I came back, half the living room floor was covered in water.
With the rain continuing to pound, it was obvious things were going to get worse before they got better. So we put a little more effort into moving low-lying things and held our breath. My kid's room is also near the front of the house; the water quickly overwhelmed a rug there. Tremendously annoyed that a massive disaster such as a single spoiled rug was about to ruin our weekend, we quickly rolled up a rug that was under the dining room table.
The water was moving from the front of the house to the back, so one room after another fell victim. When everything was covered by an inch or two, all three of us went into the main bedroom, sat up on the bed and watched the TV, trying to urge the rain to stop.
Within minutes, the water was up to the wall sockets. We unplugged the TV and whatever else we could reach. A few minutes more and the water was up to our knees. And what had been nice, clear water was now a pretty disgusting brown, the provenance of which we didn't much care to think about.
There really was nothing to do now but wait and see how bad things would get. The lights in the house were on -- it didn't seem worth it to wade out to the backyard, stand in deep water and flip the breakers -- thus giving us a great view of the ever-rising water.
So I'm sitting there, cursing the Rain God for the 2,348th time, wondering just what an utter pain it's going to be to clean all this crap up, when my wife gasps and suddenly blurts out news of a new Code Red emergency.
Appliances sending out sparks? The smell of gas in the air? No.
"What about the cats?" she says.
She seems underwhelmed by my initial response: "What about them?"
For whatever deep, twisted psychological reasons -- maybe I was abandoned by a cat at birth -- I am not a "pet person." I don't actually go around kicking cats or dogs, to be sure, but I'm not doing too much petting either.
I have for years made absolutely clear my strong and long-held belief that there's no way we will ever have a pet; this stern putting-down of the patriarch's foot has resulted in a compromise where we have two cats. Two cats that my wife and son adopted as strays, only to find out that they were both ridiculously allergic to the things.
So the cats stay outside. At least in theory. In reality, you cannot open one of our doors -- especially if you're trying to unload the car of a week's worth of grocery shopping -- without one of the damn things running into the house.
We all scream, "Josie, get out!" in the forlorn hope that her English skills have appreciably improved since yesterday's break-in. Even adding "Get out now!" fails to do the trick. And if you get one of the fuckers out the door, the other is sure to sneak in while you're busy.
So asking me "What about the cats" while I'm watching a foot of water pile into my home did not perhaps produce the desired reaction, which I assume was for me to yell, "Good God, you're right! How could I be so selfish? So worried just about my own species? I'm going out there right now to get soaking wet trying to herd up two cats I can't stand!"
Instead I shrugged my shoulders and offered what I thought was pretty damn unassailable logic: "They're cats, for crissake," I said. "They'll figure out a way to survive." (And if they didn't it would make my life easier, I somehow thought better not to add.)
This piercing logic had absolutely no effect on my wife, who sloshed to the back door and opened it to find Josie standing on a nearby table, mewing pitifully, the trademark feline arrogance all but forgotten. The other cat, Tobi -- the real asshole when it comes to ignoring plainly stated orders to stay out of the house -- was nowhere to be found.
She grabbed Josie, put her inside on the kitchen counter with a nice bowl of food (thus leaving her higher, dryer and far more comfortable than the rest of us) and then proceeded to spend far too much time worrying about Tobi.
To do this worrying, she retired with the rest of us to the dark main bedroom, where we could sit on the bed and get only our legs wet. Soon enough, though, the water had lapped over the bed's edge.
When we got up, we saw that our son could use the mattress as a raft, so we left him there, dozing, somewhat dry.
We waded into the living room, where the furniture was beginning to float. We each sat on an arm of the sofa, anchoring it to the ground. There was nothing to do but stare blankly and listen as yet another item somewhere in the house came crashing down when the furniture it was on became waterborne.
This, for lack of a better title, was the Beckett Interlude, our own little version of Wading for Godot. Conversation was, simply, scintillating:
ME: (For perhaps the 132nd time): If it would just stop raining, you know?
MY WIFE: [Doesn't respond.]
[A long pause ensues, the silence broken only by the endless goddamn rain outside the window. Suddenly a huge crash comes from the office, a crash loud enough that a day ago it would have had us madly dialing 911.]
MY WIFE: [Robotically] What do you think that was?
ME: [Robotically] I dunno.
[Another long pause ensues.]
MY WIFE: [Suddenly realizing something] GodDAMMIT!
ME: [No response.]
MY WIFE: God-fucking-dammit!
[A pause, while I slowly build up to the onerous task of fulfilling my husbandly duties by professing to care what could be the matter at this point.]
ME: [A huge sigh, indicative of just how much I am about to sacrifice.] What is it?
MY WIFE: I just realized my goddamn shoes were in the bottom of the closet! They're ALL ruined now!
ME: [A grunt of sympathy so subtle that hearing it would require the finest in sophisticated subaural listening devices.]
And once again we are sitting in silence, while I contemplate just exactly which would be lower on my priority list, my wife's shoes or the cats. The somewhat diverting task is interrupted suddenly by The Revolt of the Machines.
There are a lot of electrical devices in the house, and they have all been sorely tested by this event. Now they can take it no longer. Now they rise in protest.
Or at least one of them does. The electric pencil sharpener, to be precise. As the water rises over the desk on which it sits, the brave little sharpener goes not gently into that good night, but rails, rails against the you know the rest.
It simply starts grinding, as if it doesn't want to die without showing us just how great a pencil sharpener it can be. Or maybe it's harking back to its salad days, when our toddler could take a brand-new six-inch Ticonderoga No. 2 and have it down to a nub in a matter of minutes, providing endless joy both for him and the sharpener.
Whatever the reason, the sharpener is going gangbusters, grinding away. Neither my wife nor I volunteer to go into the office, stick our hands in the mucky brown water to feel around for the outlet and disconnect the thing. So on it grinds, defiantly daring the flood to come and get it.
Which the flood eventually does. Slowly the grinding becomes more and more muffled, more waterlogged. The joyous, orgiastic explosion has gradually dimmed to a pitiful, fitful last few gasps.
Farewell, brave little sharpener. We hardly knew ye.
The arms of the sofa are now under water too, so we abandon our posts. Up floats the couch, a huge piece so expensive I've never gotten a straight answer on just how much it cost, beyond being told it was "on sale."
Like a giant ocean liner, it cruises majestically among the lesser chairs of the sea, surrounded by admiring paperbacks sailing up for a close look. (And me without film for the camera, dammit.)
The only remaining chair that's above sea level is the wooden barstool. My wife takes that, and I decide to take a wade though the house.
That turns out to be a mistake.
You can look around at all your junk that you've accumulated through the years, and all the stuff that's too valued to be called junk, and while it's not a breeze to just write it off as a loss, you can accept it. Nothing much you can do about it now, anyway.
But you walk through your kid's room, and all it takes is the sight of something like a floating, ruined book titled Ask Me Anything About the Presidents! and your heart just sinks.
Stuff is stuff, ultimately, to adults, but to kids it's a lifetime achievement. It's the summing up of all they've done so far, what's made them what they are. And now it's all under filthy water, the signposts of past toddler obsessions: the extensive library of Berenstain Bears books, the first tentative drawings of army men attacking enemy positions, thousands and thousands of Legos.
And, of course, almost all of the evidence of the dominant figure of his first few years: Thomas the Tank Engine and his many friends. The videos, watched so often you could narrate along with Ringo Starr or George Carlin; the books that helped him become an eager reader; and mostly, the die-cast metal models of the various trains that were Prized Possessions for so long.
Before Thomas briefly became a well-marketed movie star, tracking down the models of some of the more obscure characters was a parental hobby. The things cost only a couple of bucks, but to be able to come home and watch his face as he saw that you had tracked down Donald & Douglas, the twin Scottish engines, or Bertie the Bus, or the evil Diesel, made it seem they were priceless.
And now they were beneath the muck. So were several footballs and baseball gloves we had forgotten to find in time, so was a collection of football cards, so were almost all the Titanic books he wolfed down as a five-year-old, somehow becoming fascinated with the doomed ship even before the movie came out.
It was all too depressing. My wife already had made the same psychological discovery, so we each more or less decided to avoid his bedroom as much as possible.
Another room we couldn't face -- just because we knew it was going to be a huge mess -- was the so-called Songs Room, named years ago by our kid because it had the stereo in it. It also had his TV and PlayStation, and he loved to go off into what eventually became a cave formed by all the things we threw in there in lieu of putting them anywhere else.
Both my wife and I had spent time writing for music magazines, so we had accumulated lots and lots of vinyl albums. Hundreds of them, we knew, were now soaking under water. Some were the very definition of Not Even One-Hit Wonders -- in the Songs Room, I'm pretty sure, was not only an album by some band named Chiliwhack, but also the solo album by the former lead guitarist who could not let the other members of Chiliwhack tamper with his artistic vision.
But there was also, of course, some great stuff from the '70s and early '80s, and lots of her Iggy Pops and my Elvis Costellos were now feeding the fish.
Also on the seafloor of that room, we knew, were clips from her days with The Dallas Morning News and just about every column I had written for the late Public News, soon to be congealed into one block of soggy pulp when the waters receded.
Which the waters showed no sign of doing. Outside, as the wee hours turned into the wee, wee hours, the rain continued to come down. The street outside was now pretty much a fast-rolling river. It had overwhelmed our Honda, which now sat beneath the waves, its car alarm forlornly bleating, the lights flashing dimly beneath the surface. We had some hope that the trunk might be watertight and therefore the Palm Pilot inside it might be saved; the Flood God took care of that hope by having the waters force the trunk open, scattering the contents to no one knows where. The truck too was soon a total loss.
Somehow our house, which sits at the end of a block, was getting a double whammy: The water was flowing from the bayou east to west in the street in front, then hooking up with another river of a street on the side of our house, there to flow through our backyard west to east as it sought out a nearby drainage culvert to the bayou.
By now the water inside was thigh-high. In the kitchen, it had begun to lap at the top of the counter, tragically disturbing the nap of Josie the cat.
Josie's cat mind came to the conclusion that she was in great danger in the kitchen while we were somehow in the next room perfectly safe and dry. If only she whined and mewed enough, she reasoned, we backward humans would bring her into the dry room with us, where she could resume her napping. We would bring along her food bowl, too, of course.
This thought process resulted in the second most desultory conversation of the long night. Josie would cry and cry and cry to the point where my wife would burst, "Just shut up, Josie"; Josie interpreted this communication as meaning "We're comin' to get ya, gal, just hold on! Keep crying so we know where you are!"
My wife then asked me if we had some sort of evacuation plan. Sure, of course, I said, I had been working on that evacuation plan for months, it was a helluva plan, a thing of beauty, really. It's around here somewhere.
Maybe it was just faith brought on by exhaustion, but I was convinced that the waters would simply not get high enough to cause us any physical danger. It made no sense, I decided, to wade outside into the fast-moving stuff, as opposed to sitting inside with some protection. If the water somehow got up to our chests, I'd go digging to find that evacuation plan.
Luckily, it never got that far. The waters kept rising, but at a slower pace. The rain eased off. There was even a hint of dawn in the sky.
There was little to do but look out the window as things slowly got lighter, thus bringing us to the Potentially Religious Moment, Bypassed. My wife and I were looking outside at the river, now flowing somewhat more slowly than before. And there, coming from the east, carried along by the tide, was a large woven basket topped with a handle. It was a perfect replica of the basket that had carried Moses to his adoptive mother, at least as depicted in that scholarly work The Prince of Egypt. We looked at each other as the basket bumped up against our car and was momentarily entangled.
Was this a sign? Should one of us wade out there to see if a new Prophet had been brought forth to save the world from its antediluvian sin?
Nah, we decided. We weren't up to helping to save the world. We just wanted to save our house.
Moses, or the empty basket, was soon replaced by canoeists paddling up and down the street as the sun came out in force. They rescued our next-door neighbors, who had taken to their roof in the middle of the night, huddling against the chimney through the sheeting rain and incessant lightning with their two preschoolers and, as it turns out, our other cat, Tobi.
Still the water kept rising, even without the rain. It began to go above our front windows, giving us an aquariumlike look at the undersea world outside. We waited for the windows to crash and the water to pour in, but it never happened.
Then, about midmorning, we realized that the waters had indeed stopped rising. And then -- so, so, so slowly -- the flood began to recede. It took hours, hours filled with yet again little to do but watch as the heaviest furniture settled where it lay.
Seeing as how the water seemed to be incrementally flowing toward the rear of the house, I opened the back door. The incremental flow increased to a noticeable surge.
The door wouldn't stay open unless someone held it, so I stood there, watching the flotsam and jetsam of our life flow on out to the backyard and eventually, I guessed, to the Gulf of Mexico. (Most of it actually ended up getting hung up against our chain-link fence and so it was thrown out rather than sent to the sea.)
There, on the river gushing out the back door, were dozens and dozens of paperbacks. Hundreds of pages of paper for various stories my wife or I had reported on, papers that once seemed vitally important. There went the Texas-shaped plaque of some journalism award, there went a battalion of little plastic army men and their helicopter, there went countless little mementos of trips taken or concerts and shows seen. There went a bowling pin from my son's sixth birthday party, autographed by all his friends.
I saved the bowling pin, but the rest I just let float on by. After a sleepless night spent standing up in shitty brown water, none of it seemed to matter a bit. It flowed out of the house, to be replaced by the memories of the night when it was swept away. As I stood like a watchguard over the exodus of items, it just seemed more useful to focus on the future, the rebuilding, than on the past that those items represented.
In the days to come, we were utterly taken aback by the kindness and generosity shown by friends, neighbors, co-workers at the Houston Press and the management of New Times, the company that owns the Press.
Strangers pitched in too.
The Sheraton Brookhollow gave flood victims a disaster rate of just $25 a night, and let us stay for a week. (That's the Sheraton Brookhollow, conveniently located at Highway 290 and the West Loop, perfect for whenever your travel plans take you to Houston.)
The officers of Constable Jack Abercia constantly cruised the flood victims' streets to keep out looters. (That's Jack Abercia, perfect for whenever your plans include a constable.)
Churches and dry neighbors handed out lunches in the days after the storm. No fewer than four times on one Sunday, a friend and I were offered food and water by people going door to door. (Although eating is about the last thing on your mind while you're sweating your butt off in a muck-ridden, bug-infested, airless house.)
There's a moral to all this, I know, and it concerns the relative worth of your health and material goods. I think the moral is There's No Sense Being Healthy If You Don't Have Lots of Material Goods.
No, that can't be right. Maybe the moral is Health Is Nice, But Furniture Is Good Too.
Nah. We all know what the moral is. We all know because it's a trite cliché, but it does happen to be true.
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It's no disaster to lose belongings, no matter how dear they might be. Things can be replaced.
What can't be replaced is a wife who worries to death about a cat while her world is falling apart, or a kid who can belt out show-stoppers from The Producers while the floodwaters rage.
It didn't take a Bizarre Moment to realize all that. But everyone needs to be retaught once in a while about what's really important.
Next time, though, the Great Teacher in the Sky can just send a Hallmark card, as far as I'm concerned.