Once again I awoke under the table. When you buy a gardener’s cottage that sits deep in the woods on a purling creek, you don’t fast-forward 24 years and think what that house would be like during a hurricane for the ages. Those shady trees become howling missiles. Small appliances jet by in that white-water creek.
So after the electricity went out the second time Monday, after the Scrabble by candlelight and the growler of South Philly IPA, we staked places to sleep on the first floor as Sandy’s unblinking eye headed our way. One son made his bunk in the den. The other flopped on a nearby couch. My wife and I claimed the dining room, wedging a comforter between a sideboard and the chairs. The dog was in faithful-protector heaven, ferrying from friend to friend.
At first light, I surveyed the damage. A couple of giant limbs had come crashing into the yard, but spared the cars, which were tar-and-feathered with leaves and twigs. A carpet of small branches lined the driveway. My car crunched its way onto the street, a state road in Elkins Park, which this morning looked like something from “The Andromeda Strain.” Everything in place, but the people.
A police barricade blocked New Second Street. I headed toward Montgomery Avenue and a couple lengths down a similarly deserted street, I saw one stalwart approaching on foot: Jules Epstein, defense lawyer, out for his morning jog.
I pulled over, stopping traffic, except at the 7:30 o’clock rush, we were the traffic.
“Much ado about nothing?” he asked. “Or did we get lucky?” We were surely fortunate, we agreed. His power went the same time ours did. Most lights were still during his 30-minute run, he said. He’d seen no more than 10 cars.
But he noticed the local coffee shop was open for business. Coffee.
Hong Kim, owner of Elkins Perk, was grinding beans when I walked in. The place was so empty he had room to show me the 108 Bows that Korean monks begin their day with, a routine that took up most of the floor space in his tiny shop as he kicked his legs out and stretched. I opted for a bagel instead.
Word hadn’t gotten out yet that he was open for business. It would soon, and grateful natives would wander in swapping stories. Kim had spent the night as I had, worrying about the trees, thinking about family. He waxed philosophical:
“Life goes on, no matter what.”
I was curious whether the temporary Red Cross shelter at Cheltenham High School did any business. Again, the roads were near-deserted. Motorists waved and nodded. It's a beautiful thing, a natural disaster.
As a volunteer fetched an official, I took a look around:
Two auxiliary cops, silent and deep in their chairs. An elderly man with long white hair on the phone, begging for a ride, as a woman in a walker waited nearby.
“They’re kicking us out now,” he said, then listened for a while. “…I’ll ask my bride.”
Virginia Kremer approached. She had authority to talk. The news was not pretty. The power had gone out at 9:30 p.m. in the gym, where 15 people – most of them single, elderly women – and four dogs spent the night.
There wasn’t much light. People talked, she said, then tried to get some sleep.
”All of our food went bad,” she said.
I asked what brought people there, as early as Sunday night. She didn’t mince words:
I could relate.