My apartment building, across from the ferry, in the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island, fared well against Sandy. From my window, I saw the water rise above the seawall, and swallow the municipal parking lot, but situated on the hill, I never felt threatened. When the power went out, I was watching a DVD of Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York," and thought, Here we go. I was prepared, though, with a flashlight, a good stock of bottled water, and enough non-perishables -- pasta and jarred sauce, and peanut butter -- to survive for several days, and I was still connected to the world via smartphone. I passed the night working on my iPad, and went to bed at a reasonable hour.
The next day, I drove to my father's house, and got a real sense of the destruction -- trees and wires down everywhere, stores pumping the water from their ruined inventories, mounds of wood and debris, deposited at the entrances of side streets leading from the ocean -- as detours and snarled traffic turned what is normally a ten minute drive into a disconcerting forty-five minutes. So that he might rest assured, my father wanted to go to the cemetery, and visit the grave of my mother, who'd passed away earlier in the year.
Driving through South Beach was a firsthand experience with a disaster area: families standing outside their homes in tears, cars strewn about, a dresser, still full of someone's personal possessions, laying in the middle of the sidewalk, a bungalow moved several feet from where it had previously stood. Finding the cemetery gate locked, we parked and walked, having to abandon the road to avoid the giant toppled trees, improvising a route through centuries of dead. The maple tree near my mother's headstone was still standing, though the bush of Summer Survivors that we'd planted in the spring had died in the storm, the leaves eerily brittle.
That night, the lobby of my building became host to a movable feast of sorts, with a few residents firmly encamped, and any number of others dropping by and pausing to chat as they came and went -- sometimes relating their experiences or passing along information, other times just sitting silently, sharing in the sense of community. There was junk food piled on the coffee table for anyone to help themselves, and mention of a bottle of Scotch. Upon returning from my father's, I talked to a couple neighbors I was friendly with, and became acquainted with others I'd seen around. I asked if anyone had a car charger for an iPhone. A woman that I didn't know volunteered hers, and we instantly bonded.
Sitting in my car as my phone charged, I called my girlfriend, Dilki, and she came over. I met her out front where we embraced like it had been a long time since we’d seen each other, though it was only a single day. I guided her up the dark stairwell with a flashlight. Inside my apartment, I described the horrors I'd seen that day. “People lost everything,” I said. She told me that they had declared sixteen dead on Staten Island, and rumor was that the count could reach two hundred. When night came and darkness took hold, she asked if I thought A&S, the pizzeria around the corner, was open, and I said I believed it was, that someone had mentioned it in the lobby.
We walked the dark neighborhood with anticipation, to discover the A&S sign out. Dilki anxiously grabbed for the door, exclaiming, "They're open!" Entering, a jury-rigged spotlight in back turned the two pizza makers behind the counter into silhouettes. I asked if they were open for business, and the younger of the two acknowledged that they were indeed open, but it was just plain pizza, explaining that he was forced to throw out all the meat.
Studying the display case, Dilki inquired as to a pizza tray, and when he said it was fresh garlic, she reacted excitedly. I pointed to a plain pie, and he grabbed the two slices, and threw them in the oven. As we waited for the pizza to heat, he stood with us. I'd always maintained a friendly relationship with the three congenial pizza making brothers of A&S, though our exchanges mostly consisted of small talk. This night, however, he seemed to want to engage in conversation. We discussed our personal misfortunes, power situations. I told him that I was down by South Beach, pausing before adding that it was a disaster area. There was a moment of silence.
"Looks a little bit like the end of the world in here," I finally said.
He grinned. "Some people, they look forward to the pizza."
"It's quite a compliment," I said, "how excited she is that you're open. She loves your pizza. And she doesn't like anything."
"I got customers been coming here twenty, twenty-five years."
"I went to Curtis. I've been coming here since high school," I reminisced, when the phone rang, interrupting us.
Answering with "A and S," he explained the situation. "Delivery? It depends on where you are... because of the gas." He listened, then broke the bad news with, “...Sorry.”
When he hung up, he turned back to me with, "You came here in high school? What year was this?"
"I graduated in Eighty-one."
"Do you remember the video games?" he asked, enthusiastically.
As I considered it, he made a sweeping gesture. "Video games were over there." Pointing across the way, he said, "The pinball machine was here!"
I turned and looked, the emergency light flashing in my eyes, and I saw the pinball machine. I'm standing there with my best friend, Phil, both of us devouring slices. My hair is unkempt, as I straddle my oversized blue Puma bag. At the table in the corner sit the three future pizza making brothers, younger than me, kids. "I remember," I said.
A woman came in and asked if they were open, and the man explained that it was just plain pizza, said how he had to throw out all the meat, and they got into a conversation about the storm. Dilki and I sat at a table in the dark, and when the pizza was ready, he brought it over to us. "What more could you want?" he asked. "Romantic, good food, and it's cheap." As we ate, I told her how Phil and I used to get out of school, and run down the hill, on the way to catch the bus at the ferry terminal, and get slices, "Not too hot," so you could eat it faster, declaring that nothing ever tasted so good. She listened intently, and responded with, "...Oh!" like it helped to make a little more sense of who I was. When we finished, we paid at the counter. The younger pizza making brother thanked us, and wished us well, and I told him I hoped he got power back soon.
Tom Diriwachter is currently shopping a new screenplay, "Party Town," about high school tennis, set in the '80's. Think "Breaking Away" meets "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."