When You Are In the Apocalypse

In June of 2008, I sat in a Panera, huddled into a corner, with my phone pressed to my ear. I was interviewing for a freelance position based out of New York City. I cupped my hand around the receiver desperately hoping that the CEO of the company couldn’t hear the baby crying two booths over. She could.

“Where are you?”

“I’m sorry, I’m in a Panera because I have no power or internet at my house. My town is being flooded.”

There was silence. “It’s really bad,” I added.

“Well, I haven’t heard about it on the news,” she answered cautiously. Like she’d heard the old “my town is being flooded” excuse one too many times.

It was happening. Only hours before, I had been hoisted onto the roof of a building and crawled in through a skylight to save the art inside.  The building belonged to the marketing company where I worked as a copywriter. The day before, I had hoisted sandbags into the doorways, mere voodoo against the rising waters that we thought would never reach the ivy-edged steps.

I could still smell the noxious flood on my skin as I sweated in the cold Panera.

“I’m sorry, I’m sure it will be on the news soon.”

Of course, I apologized. I’m a Midwesterner. It’s our default setting. The next day, I got an email from the CEO.  “I just saw your town on CNN! I hope you are okay!” I was hired.

Three months later, I was working in a temporary office space, still damp from the flood. We were told there was no mold, but our sinuses and throbbing heads told another story. Three months after that, and two weeks before Christmas, we moved back into our renovated building.  The company was “Back and Better” the banner declared. But it was lying through its screen-printed teeth. That was 2008, remember? The recession had just come to Iowa. While I handed out t-shirts that welcomed employees back to their old/new offices, I got a call to meet my boss. I was fired.

That was over four years ago and my town is just starting to recover. Our library is still in a temporary location in the mall, where you can hunt for Kerouac while munching on Chik-fil-A.  But the new building is going up.  Homes have been leveled. Watermarks painted over. The feral cat problem that sprung up in the damaged homes is now under control. The incompetence of FEMA (yeah, they sent us mold-filled trailers too) no longer dominates our daily discussions. We’ll never be what we were, but we hope to be better.   Because of the flood, I started my freelance career. I’ll never be able to go back to what I was. But I hope, at least part of me is better.

As I watched coverage of Hurricane Sandy, I tweeted my friends and coworkers and clients in New York. “Are you okay?” “Don’t die!”  “Be safe. ” “Eat Spam!” I wanted to tell them that I knew what it was like to eat off paper plates for a month, not shower for weeks, boil your coffee water, and cry every time you remembered that something you loved–a store, a restaurant, a quiet park bench downtown–was washed away.

It’s an apocalypse. Even if you aren’t hurt, even if you are alright, the landscape you love has been washed away and replaced with a wasteland–noxious, poisonous, ruinous wasteland. Everything is harder. Getting gas. Getting the mail. Getting food. Simple tasks become lessons in patience, flexibility and how not to cry from frustration in public.

Of course, I didn’t tweet any of those things. It’s too hard to fit the nostalgia for places lost within 140 characters or less.

When you are in an apocalypse, it’s hard to be pithy.

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