Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Memories

It was a beautiful fall day here in Wisconsin – blue skies, crisp air, temperatures in the low 50s, the sort of day that you hope for when the calendar turns toward the latter part of the year and the leaves stop being green.  It was a lovely day.  This felt sort of odd, really.

Like a lot of people, I’ve spent most of today on various websites and television stations watching Hurricane Sandy head directly at the Northeast Corridor.  I have friends and family in the path of this storm – they’re all safe and sound, last I checked in with them – and I recognize the locations of many of the storm photos that are making the rounds on the internet.  I’ve been there, in happier weather.

There may not be much there, there, anymore.  That’s a sobering thought.

I spent an evening in a hurricane once, when I was in college.  It wasn’t nearly as severe as this one, fortunately, but it was an experience.  And really, that’s what blogs are for, writing down experiences.

Hurricane Gloria hit Philadelphia in September of 1985, at the beginning of my sophomore year at Penn.  We were pretty excited by the prospect, actually.  Hurricanes don’t hit Philadelphia very often and we were all young and indestructible.  That the university decided to cancel classes the next day – something that never happened again while I was there – only added to the anticipation.

But first, we had a job to do.

I had met Jack a few weeks before, at one of those interminable mixers they have at the beginning of school years when the RAs are trying to get all the new people in the dorms to say hi to one another.  We were each assigned a nonsense sound (“booka-booka” in our case) and told to find whoever had the matching sound.  Conversation ensued.  We eventually ended up being roommates for the next four years – unofficially that first year, officially the next two, and off campus the year after that.  We were groomsmen in each other’s weddings.  We’re still friends today.  So I suppose the RAs scored with that one.

One of the things we found out about each other fairly early is that we were both musicians and liked a lot of the same stuff.  We also discovered that Rob, another new member of the dorm whom we met later, shared those qualities as well.  We spent some evenings that month playing together.  College dorms are wonderful places for musicians, in large part because they’ll put up with just about any level of talent as long as you’re having a good time.  We had a very good time.

Eventually we formed an actual band, with a name and everything, and we’d play down at a bar in Center City, which was interesting considering none of us could legally walk into the place.

Penn liked to put a lot of entrepreneurial initiative into the hands of its students, and this is how our friend James ended up running a coffeehouse in the student union, six blocks down Spruce Street from our dorm.  James was always looking for acts, and at one point he must have asked Jack to play.  Jack agreed, thinking he’d get up and play three or four songs and let the other acts do the rest.

It turned out there were no other acts.

So Jack rounded up Rob and me and we rehearsed a few songs together – enough to bull our way through a coffeehouse gig, anyway – and we were set to go.

We were booked for the night Gloria hit.  It was our first show.

It wasn’t raining at all when we left to walk down to the student union.  As the keyboard player, I didn’t have to carry anything.  Jack and Rob had guitars.  Jack also had a harmonica on a mount so he could play it without using his hands, and he gave us a few tunes on the way down.  It was a pleasant walk, really.

We got set up, and waited for the coffeehouse to open for business.

By that time, however, it had started to rain.  Sheets of rain.  Buckets of rain.  Driving, howling rain.

So there wasn’t much of a crowd, is what I’m saying.  But we had a grand time playing everything we knew and a few things we sort of knew and one or two songs we really didn’t know very well at all to the half dozen or so students who had gotten stranded there.  It felt sort of conspiratorial, being there while the storm went on around us, and not having so many people for our first concert was actually kind of nice.

James, however, recognized a failing business model when he saw one, and eventually he decided that it was time to close.  He paid us in pastries – the only time we were ever paid as a band, as far as I can recall – and told us to go home.

This, it turned out, was harder than it looked.

We walked over to the big doors that fronted onto Spruce Street and looked out across the way to the hospital, which we were sure had been there just a few hours ago.  You couldn’t really tell now, with the rain driving down so hard.  Penn had a student van service, and when we called to get picked up they told us it would be sometime in the next four hours or so.  This struck us as sub-optimal.

So we went down into the basement where there were restaurants and managed to talk our way into a few plastic trash bags.  Those Jack and Rob used to seal up their guitar cases.  We would dry off, but guitars get damaged.  You have to have priorities, as a musician.

Fully prepared, we ventured into the storm.

Jack had planned to play his harmonica on the way back but one intake of breath had left it waterlogged, so he put it away.

The winds were gusty but not yet hurricane strength, or even tropical storm strength.  But it was raining.  Oh, sweet dancing monkeys on a stick was it raining.  You couldn’t see across the street.  You could barely see the buildings on your own side of the street. 

I have never in my life, before or since, been that wet, not even while swimming.  It was a penetrating rain, a driving rain, the kind of rain that made breathing tricky and felt like it was hammering against your skin without bothering to pass through your clothes.  It was the Platonic ideal of wet.

We walked for six blocks in that, singing at the top of our lungs every song we could think of that had the words “rain” or “sun” in the title, sometimes repeatedly.

I still, to this day, am not entirely sure how we made it back to the dorm, but we did.  We squelched into the lobby to the astonished stares of our fellow residents and continued on up to our respective rooms, laughing all the while.

And sure enough, eventually we dried off.

That turned out to be the worst of the storm, oddly enough.  They might as well have had classes the next day. 

But we had our story by then.


Lee I said...

One of the things I used to have on my -- as they call it now -- bucket list was to experience a hurricane, preferably wherever Hemingway's house is the keys or the Outer Banks of Carolina. (I'm a West Coaster -- I don't know whether that's North or South.) Only on the condition that no harm would come to my being. I guess that's not a guarantee that can be made, so this experience has slipped way down on my list.

David said...

Hurricanes are awesome things, in the original sense of that term - back when it meant "awe-inspiring." If you do the math, it works out that a Category 3 hurricane is essentially an F1 tornado that's a hundred miles wide.

I've been in three now, none of them nearly as severe as Sandy or any of the famous ones recently (Katrina, Andrew, etc.). I'm grateful for their lack of strength.

CeraVana said...

So there wasn’t much of a crowd, is what I’m saying...
I love the rhythym of this paragraph. It reminds me of the part in Alice's Restaurant where Arlo is describing his encounter on the group W bench.

David said...

CeraVana - actually, that was one of the songs we did. I knew the words, Jack knew the guitar part, and we had all the time in the world.

Thanks for reminding me. :)