Restoration

“How many days,” I asked a friend at work, “would it take for society to break down?”

We are back at work. Power has been restored to 30% of the city. She had stayed in town. We had left.

We are comparing notes on what we had and didn’t have when the lights went out, listing things we’d want to keep on hand for next time: batteries, a battery-operated radio, flashlights, rice, water, candles, matches… Another colleague comes in. He is a person who can fix things, who stayed, did good deeds and kept order. To our list he adds, firewood, guns and ammo.

“Seven to 10 days?”

That’s a long time without a hot shower, but it’s a pretty quick jump to social breakdown and defending one’s property.

The city was under curfew for almost a week. Every morning the city’s officials gave a report of how many people had been arrested for robbery, looting and curfew violation. Things were under control but we were reminded that we are allowed to defend our homes. The second day back at work, there were still a few people without power.

After listening to our battery-operated radio all night after the storms we thought our best move was to go stay in a family house in a town with power. Under normal circumstances, this town is considered old-fashioned and somewhat of a backwater, but electricity and wifi count for a lot. One of my favorite things to do there is to photograph the main street, the buildings reflected in the plate glass, the old signs. Dilapidation and renewal are the twin themes. Social progressives and architecture students have been doing good and interesting work. This is a place where drivers wave to pedestrians. There is no TV in the house. Entertainment is other people.

As a microcosm to life turned upside-down, we find ourselves on the inside of the Main Street buildings.

We leave the girls in the library while we visit the cabinetmaker’s studio, to talk to him about making something from the wood of a tree that was cut down before the storm. The library doors are in the studio, being restored. There is man in the studio who knows the tree; a branch of it had fallen and nearly killed him five years ago. He played ball in high school with the brother of someone in my office.

When I go to pick up the girls, I tell the librarian I saw the doors. “How are they coming?” she asks. We are going to the church to see something he has made. The librarian tells me which people hold keys to two of the churches. One of the people is someone we know.

Later we meet a friend for lunch and he takes us into a double building that his friend has bought and is going to restore. There are empty Timex watch displays and racks for knives, their shapes outlined, hundreds of uncut keys on a stand and a shelf of fuses all arranged neatly in cubbies. There is an elevator, old oak counters and ancient, cobwebbed bottles of Coke with the Coke still in them. She is going to clean it up and make an apartment.

We meet a woman whose husband used to take a midday nap under one of the magnolia trees of the house where we are staying.

Back at the house, we listen to Alabama Public Radio and read online the updates for the power restoration. Our days are formless. We sink deeper into the town. It is the best place to do laundry because line-dried it smells of chamomile. We buy more milk.

Then it is time to go home, to unsuspend ourselves. Power is promised soon. What can we expect? We put a container of extra gas in the back of the car. This is the most survivalist thing we have ever done. Goodbye, town.

When we left home, we saw cars abandoned on the verge like the skeletons of oxen, the husks of covered wagons.

We exit the highway by the bad Wal-Mart. Traffic lights are still out. The sun has set. It is 15 minutes until curfew. But at the next intersection lights are on and lights are on in houses. The power is back. We clean out the refrigerator and rejoice in our good fortune.

This morning, my younger daughter’s school organized a service morning. Those 18 and older went to disaster sites, while we went with others went to a local food bank and assembled care packages for senior citizens whose meal service had been disrupted. We formed a human conveyor belt to fill plastic carrier bags with cereal, toiletries, snacks and a ready meal that came with a self-heating device.

The bus brought us to an apartment building. There were a few people sitting downstairs. Passing the day? Waiting? Meals on Wheels has not made a delivery this week. We have been instructed to stay together and knock loudly. We fan out in small groups, each group assigned to a floor. It is the first building I have been in here that has more than three floors. The students are not used to being in such close proximity to each other as they are in the elevator. They look at me dubiously as I assure them that this is nothing to riding a city bus.

The senior citizens open their doors. One lady has a cat, another a dog, a shadow flutters under one door but the door remains shut, two are connected to tubes, one is blind. Where would they go? They have been waiting, as we all have, in our different ways, for restoration.

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