From Liberty Street: Misery

John Turner

Until last week I had not been trapped in a natural disaster. Now I have been and I want to report that the experience alters your sense of things.

On Thursday evening, I was driving happily along I-90, approaching Buffalo, on my way to Chicago. It was about 9:30 and since I had driven later than I had intended I was thinking I should begin to look for a motel and settle in for the night. I saw a few white specks in the air. At first I couldn't believe they were there and then I laughed to myself to think that here, in western New York, you could get snow even in the first half of October.

Within five miles, the specks had become a blinding screen. I slowed down and began to look more avidly for an exit. Ten miles further along, the road sign said there was a motel at the next exit. The snow was now thicker than I had ever before seen. At the tollgate, a lady told me that there was no electricity anywhere in the area. She wasn't sure I could get in to the motel, but maybe I should try. I pulled off the exit ramp and onto the road where I thought the motel was. I never saw it.

The road was narrow with woods on either side. There were no lights anywhere in the area. There were cars behind me and the snow now was so blurry I could see only about thirty feet ahead. I kept looking for a place to pull off but I couldn't make out where the shoulder was so there seemed nothing to do but to keep going. I drove on under those conditions for about ten miles, thinking sooner or later I had to come to something. Finally, I saw flashing lights ahead. At a cross roads with a couple of stores, a fire engine was parked in the middle of the side road to the right. It gave off enough light for me to discern the outline of a small parking area just beyond. I pulled into it and walked back through driving snow to ask the fireman what was going on. He told me there were no motels anywhere close and, besides the electricity was out everywhere in the area. He was blocking the road because trees had crashed on it about a mile away. His best advice was to see if I could make it back to the throughway. Sixteen miles farther on there was a large motel and restaurant area where he thought I could get something. He wished me luck and said he had never seen anything like this, in October or any other time.

I had a hard time getting out of the parking area because the snow, by this time, had risen to the bottom of my car. After much rocking back and forth, I made it onto the road and crept back towards the throughway. More than a half hour later, I reached it and said to myself that, at least, the worst was over. You shouldn't tell yourself things like that.

A few miles down the throughway I ran into a traffic clot. I turned the radio on and heard that Buffalo was a disaster area. People were calling with cell phones to the announcer on WBEM. I learned that a big truck had jackknifed on the throughway ahead of us and there seemed to be no sense of how long it would take to get it cleared away.  I sat in the jam-up for four hours. Since I was running low on gas I didn't dare to keep the engine going much of the time. I would get so cold I couldn't stand it any longer, then crank up, run the heater and listen to the radio for five minutes. The curious thing was the announcer continued to take calls from people who were in trouble just like I was. But not once did he report on anything any official had said. There was no word from public authorities about the situation, no advice about what to do.

Finally, the traffic on the right side of the highway began to move just a little. I thanked the gods that I was in the right lane. We inched on for maybe a couple miles and then the traffic cleared enough for us to move forward at about twenty miles per hour. As we approached the exit the fireman told me about, I began to take hope. Sure enough there were lights shining in the dark, motel signs gleaming through the blanket of falling snow. But when I got to the exit I couldn't take it. It was so jammed with snow it was impossible to get off and I thought I saw a couple of policemen motioning people not to try.

Maybe ten miles farther, there was a toll gate. I said to myself, "these people would take tolls if there were a nuclear attack." I asked the toll-taker what to do, and she said I should try to get off at exit 52. I might be able to find something there. More miles of blind driving and I just managed to see the sign for exit 52. I pulled off into what I expected would be a commercial area. Everything was pitch black. All I could see was the road just a few feet ahead of me. I kept on for about two miles. Then, the car in front of me turned right, and not knowing what else to do, I followed it. I was on a small neighborhood street, with trees down everywhere. One fell ahead of me, and then one fell behind. And the snow got so deep I lost traction and the car wouldn't move. I was completely stuck. It was about 3:30 in the morning.

I sat there asking myself what to do. There seemed to be nothing. Every house around me was dark, and I didn't think it would be safe to go up and knock on a door at that hour. Gradually, it came to me that I could do nothing until day came. Then, maybe, I could see to go after help. By this time I was so cold I couldn't stop shivering. So, I sat there and shivered for four hours, waiting for the light.

At seven-thirty, a guy came out of one of the houses. He tried to help me get my car unstuck, mainly by telling me to gun the engine. But, gunning the engine did no good. I did manage to move it a few feet, into the first part of his driveway. He said he wasn't going to try to get his car out that day.

He told me there was a convenience store on the main street I had come down the previous night. I might be able to go there and get warm. I made it through two-foot snow to the convenience store. It was locked tight. Then, I began to wander around, hoping to find something. After about half an hour, I saw a man on the street, and asked him where I might go. He said he thought everything was closed. Then, mentioning that I looked cold, he asked if I would like to go into his basement for a few minutes to warm up. I was grateful for anything, so I followed him to his house. In his basement, we talked for a while. He said that about two miles away there was a Hampton Inn. That might be the best place to try, if I thought I could make it. Then, he did wonderful thing. He gave me a thick coat, a hat, and some gloves. They weren't the most stylish items. He said he was going to throw them away. But under those circumstances they were true treasures.

It would probably be an exaggeration to say that he saved my life. But, I will say, I thought at the time that he did. I was so cold, with only a light coat, I wasn't sure I could make it two miles through deep snow. But with the extra warmth, I decided to try. It wasn't much of a decision. There wasn't anything else to do.

About an hour later, I saw the Hampton Inn. I sloshed on and made it. There was no electricity, and the lobby was pretty cold. But the staff told me I was welcome to hang out there, along with other people who were more or less in my same situation. I tried to talk them into renting me a room. They said they couldn't, because their cleaning staff hadn't been able to come and get the rooms ready. I replied that I didn't care if the room was clean. I would take anything. No avail.

I waited for five hours. The remnants of their breakfast layout were still on the counter, so I got a muffin and a small cup of yogurt. In the late afternoon, when I went back to the counter for maybe the fifth time to try to persuade them to give me a room, I was told that I could have one. A couple of their cleaning staff had made it in. They warned me that the room was dark and cold. They didn't expect to get electricity before Tuesday. I said I didn't mind, and at about four o'clock I was ushered into a room.

I crawled into the bed and got warm. After shivering for eighteen hours, warmth felt so luxurious I could scarcely credit it. Twelve hours later, I waked to see a light shining in the bathroom. Another miracle.

That's pretty much the basics of my story. After breakfast, the motel van took me back to where I left my car. I had been worrying about it the whole time. But, there it was, and the street was cleared enough to navigate. I hopped in, cranked it up, and drove back to the motel parking lot.

As I say, those are the basics. But the real story is what went on in my head during all those hours. That's a tale that would require volumes.

I suppose we all tell ourselves we can endure physical misery. And in the event, we do endure it. But the part we don't tell ourselves is that every second it seems intolerable. Nor, do we recognize what happens to time. It is stretched out unbelievably. In my mind, the time from when I first ran into the snow until I got into the room at the Hampton Inn seems like many ordinary weeks.

We become accustomed to the belief that we can always go somewhere for help. Even though it might cost us more than we want to pay, we at least can get it. And, then, if you are plunged into a blackness where there is no help, none at all, anywhere, what that does to your mind is not a pretty thing.

I kept imagining people for whom all of life is like what I was enduring at the moment -- people in war, and prisons, and undergoing torture and so forth. After I had been shivering for twelve hours, I thought of the argument that keeping people cold and awake for forty hours is not torture but simply vigorous interrogation. That is the contention of an idiot.

Most of the time, most of the people we see are almost invisible. They don't attract our attention. But, when you're in dire circumstances, everybody you see becomes an intense question. Will he or she help me, or not? Another guest in the motel gave me a cold piece of pizza for supper. She said she was just going to throw it away, but in my mind now she figures like an angel. She fed me when I had no other food and had no way to get food. And, when you can't get food, it is no longer an ordinary thing.

In America, we are proud of our individual prowess. We don't think much about the social network. But when the social network goes completely away, I'll guarantee, you'll begin to think about it. The people who maintain our public safety and keep the network functioning are more important than all the billionaires in the world. If you don't believe that, then you're an ideological fanatic.

That, in short, was my little Buffalo adventure. I hope I never have another like it. But, I'll certainly remember it more intensely than any ordinary experience I'll ever have.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 16, 2006