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Marc Philippe Eskenazi

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High-Rise Panic in a Hurricane Supermarket

Posted: 09/02/11 04:39 PM ET

Last Saturday night at 11 pm, as Mayor Bloomberg explained that Hurricane Irene was "now upon us," I violently grabbed my girlfriend's shoulders, and screamed, "If we don't move your 93-year-old grandma into the corridor overnight, we're all going to die." My girlfriend turned to me, and told me that I needed to calm down. I disagreed, and began to cry.

"This is a high-rise building!" I explained with a passionate, but measured, shrieking sound. "Any minute now, glass shards of debris will start launching in through the windows. They'll kill us all. You, me, and your Grandma."

"You're hurting me," she said. I moved my hands to her breasts, trying to calm both of us down. She pressed closer to me.

"Do you want us all to die?" I whispered into her ear.

Deep in an air-conditioned movie theatre in my mind, there was a midnight screening of the movie Twister, and -- would you believe it -- I was actually the only one in the entire theatre.

Almost 48 hours earlier, on Friday the 26th -- a beautiful August day, a warm bain de soleil -- miles before any talk of Tornados -- I strolled the two blocks to the supermarket, carrying my two-handed golf-umbrella just in case of another earthquake. My instructions from the girlfriend were to pick up some cabbage (for a salad), some bread (for a bread), and some pasta (for a sauce). My instructions from the government were to take this storm seriously. As a skeptical artist, of course, I had always mistrusted anyone telling me to take anything seriously. It made no difference how much pasta they were offering.

The automatic doors to the Gristedes shot open, and the cold air from the meat freezers blew over my shower-wet hair and towel-dried eyebrows. I noticed a huge cardboard box by the door. At the bottom, a lone watermelon, still spinning, waited like an orphan to be brought home and eaten in slices.

The first person I noticed was a woman. Typical for me. The second person was a man. The first woman was talking to the second man. The second man worked behind the fish and cold-cut counter. The woman filled the front compartment of her shopping cart with twenty different types of cheese. Then she turned back to the fish and cold-cuts man, and cautioned him that he'd better get home early.

"Thank you," he said, smiling graciously. "I live inland, though, so it'll be okay. You know? But many thanks, many thanks. I do appreciate that."

The woman turned to continue down the aisle.

"Suit yourself," she said coldly. I imagined some of her thoughts: this guy's a dead man. Or, I hope his house falls down.

At the end of the cheese section, the aisle opened up into the vegetables section, where more shopping carts than I'd have thought could fit in such small spaces clanged into each other. The clanging sounded like the distant rumbling thunder that must spook the cows roaming prairie hills, which is an example of foreshadowing.

Like in Congo when it's all of a sudden like, "Shit, how did all these gray gorillas get here?", I found my field of vision crowded with carts. "Move your cart!" one lady yelled at a young man. His t-shirt read "Heroes are remembered. Legends are never forgotten. Go Greek," and then had some fraternity name. His cart was filled with Molson Ice and hamburger buns.

I put down my umbrella sword, and picked up a cold, wet head of red cabbage, and a bushel of kale. The water dripped through my fingers. A brother and a sister, probably eight years old, were chasing each other, as I looked all around for the little plastic fruit bag dispenser. The metal hook showed that all the bags had been taken.

I had to move out of the way for the "Move your cart" lady, so I picked up my sword umbrella and held it under my armpit.

I'm holding too much stuff, I thought. Suddenly, a baby screaming somewhere nearby must have startled me because I turned around pretty fast, and the umbrella sword smacked the little boy in the face, and he tumbled down to the ground.

"Holy hell! Are you ok?" I asked bending down. I guess the kid didn't notice, because he just popped up still laughing and started chasing his sister again. I wanted to get out of there.

A man who looked like a well-dressed version of Mario of the Super Mario Brothers, and with a price tag labeller in his holster, crouched down, frantically rearranging the cabbages.

"Excuse me, sir?" I asked as politely as possible.

"Yes." he stated without looking up from his cabbages. He was sweating pretty bad.

"Uh, sorry to bother you, but are there any bags for the cabbages?"

Without any break in his speed, he lifted his head out from under the freezer's skirt, and pointed up and said, "There!" like spotting land.

The metal hook, barren of any bags, pointed menacingly right back at him.

"Santo Mierda!" he gasped. He pushed his hand down against the floor, rising painfully to his feet. He turned to the left, so I turned to the left. Then he turned to the right, so I also turned to the right. Then he turned back to the left, but I was still looking at the right, because there was a young mom. "Psst," the man said a few feet away, "they're over here," he hollered.

The bread shelves ended up being mostly empty, and I'd only been able to find mini-pita breads called "Pitettes." A similar word exists in French to describe flatulence. I picked up two boxes of whole-wheat pasta, and thought of Sleeper when he says, "But I ate brown rice..."

The registers had complex geometric shapes and lines spewing out from the registers. A helicopter view of the lines would have looked like a cross between the UFO crop circles in Mel Gibson's farm and the choreographed dances of Busby Berkeley. Now was the scene from Titanic when they've gone down into the water. The storm was... now upon us. You had to be very careful, because if you got on the wrong line, it could take you to the lost ruins of Petra in Jordan. I got on the Customer Service line.

A man who looked like Randy Newman, but with a white beard, and red Cornell reunion cap, sidled up next to me as he was deciding which line to go on. "You're before me," he said, "but only because you're bigger."

I laughed.

Was this actually Randy Newman, I thought? He looked also like a Sea Captain, if the Sea Captain rolled up his socks over his varicose legs.

"You can go ahead of me," I said to him. His smile suddenly iced over.

"Doesn't matter," he said stepping in front of me, "What goes around comes around." I had the vague sense that I should apologize for something.

A man at the front of the line unloaded six cartons of ice cream. From a few feet back, a woman looked on. "Emergency ice cream?" she shouted, teasing, "You betta hope the electricity doesn't go out." Then she laughed until a nearby baby in a double carriage began to scream.

The young mom above the carriage looked like a pipe inside her was fighting not to burst. Inside the double carriage, the baby on the right screamed like a red, baby Van Gogh, or like Thom York singing "Crazy Train." The calm baby on the left, separated by a canvas wall from the possessed baby on the right, looked overly calm. Like a traveller who hears things breaking through a thin hotel wall, or sits down next to someone bawling on a bus. I wondered whether the calm baby would knock lightly on the canvas wall, and say in a posh English accent, "Umm... excuse me, are you... is everything okay in there?"

Now the woman who had made the ice cream joke, was yelling at the ice cream guy. I must have missed a couple steps, but they were barking like a pitbull and a mini shnauzer.

"You're holding up the whole line," the shnauzer was yelling.

"I have a lot of ice cream!" the Pit Bull yelled right back. They were yelling in perfect rhythm, so that their yells covered each other. I hoped that they would turn to me, and start chanting "Let's Go Rangers!"

I looked around. The headlines on the tabloids surrounded us like playroom wallpaper. "Jada steals J-Lo's Husband," "Doris Day Going Broke," and my favorite one because it revealed to me how lazy they had gotten, "Brad Pitt." On a monitor opposite the check-out, a picture of young, pretty black woman who looked like she had used her cell phone, sat against a the screen's black background. Slowly, two dates separated by a hyphen rolled down over the screen. I felt a wave of sadness for such a young woman, and shock that her death was on such prominent display. Then the two dates disappeared, and rolling down the top of the screen were the words "Employee of the Month."

Finally, I got to the front of the line. To lighten the mood, I said to the Customer Service lady, "These are all returns." She fell backwards with a heart attack, and Mario dragged her into a nearby closet, bringing out a fresh sales girl. Just kidding. The phone was ringing without a pause, and she picked it up, shouting into the phone like an army medic calling for reinforcements off of a dead man's backpack in a movie called Forrest Gump.

"This place is just coo coo for Cocoa Puffs," the woman shouted into the phone.

"Oh, that's right I forgot!" I said pretending to take a few steps toward the Cocoa Puffs aisle. I turned around to see if anyone had laughed, but no one had. I pretended to laugh anyway. I placed my items in the bag, and paid her. The babies had stopped screaming, and the shnauzer and the pitbull had left, perhaps together, perhaps to eat some of that ice cream. Mario was wiping sweat from his neck. Heros are remembered, legends are never forgotten.

On Monday morning, the storm had passed. It was the kind of warm, August day that the great Gatsby would have called, "Old Sport," because he called everything "Old Sport," or -- if he'd had any self-awareness -- would have called "The type of day I could be murdered on." When my girlfriend asked me where I was going, I said I had to head back to Gristedes. I had to pick up a large umbrella that I had forgotten there.