On Hurricanes, Hardship and Chinese Food

If you’ve ever seen A Christmas Story, based on the reminiscences of humorist Jean Shepherd from when he was a by growing up in Indiana, you know that the character of Ralphie doesn’t exactly have what you would call a Norman Rockwell Christmas.  He gets chased by the school bully, has his mouth washed out with Lifebuoy soap, and is literally kicked in the face by a department store Santa who’s half in the bag–and it ain’t filled with toys.  To top it all off, his family is a little crazy–but only in ways that every family is crazy, and in the end their love for one another brings everyone together and Ralphie is even granted his fondest wish.  But just when you think the camera is about to pan over to the glittering Christmas tree and fade to black on a perfect ending, a pack of dogs from next door bursts into the house and destroys the kitchen, making off with the Yuletide turkey in the process.

Oh, no!  Christmas is ruined!

Or is it?

With nothing else left to eat, Ralphie’s dad (played by Darrin McGavin at his best) remembers the only place in town that would still be open on Christmas Day–the local Chinese restaurant.  He packs up the family, takes them there for dinner, and they all end up singing Christmas carols in broken English with the owner.  It’s a misadventure, to be sure, but they all made the best of it as people often do when circumstances take an unexpected turn into adversity.

I thought about this on Monday evening, after Hurricane Irma had blown through my home town the night before.  We had lost power, as a lot of people did, but we were pretty lucky otherwise.  A few tiles had blown off the roof, but that was the extent of the damage to our house, but with the lights out and no air conditioning, there wasn’t much appeal to staying inside and waiting.  We were also starting to get hungry–and even though we had a pantry full of dry goods stocked for the emergency, the idea of horking down a Clif Bar for dinner wasn’t that appealing either.  Problem was, all the restaurants in town were closed because of the storm.

Or were they?

Turns out there were isolated pockets nearby where the power was still on, and in one of those pockets there just happened to be–you guessed it–a Chinese restaurant.  Chopstick Express, it was called.  And it was open, praises be it was open!

But we weren’t the only ones who were hungry.  And we weren’t the only ones who got the idea that some Chinese food would really hit the spot.  The line going into Chopstick Express almost went around the block, probably more business than the place usually saw in two months.  If they were serving, though, we were waiting, and so I dropped my wife off to grab us a spot in line while I parked the car in a nearby lot.

I joined her a few minutes later, and she was already chatting up a woman who was one spot ahead of us.  She explained that she worked for an insurance company, and had already been manning the office getting ready to process the claims that were flooding in from all across the state.  This dinner, she said, would be the first meal she’d had all day.  Right behind us, we met another person who managed a condominium, and he told us about how his entire building swayed in the wind when Irma passed through.  Taking a look at the rest of the line, I saw that other people were doing much the same thing:  talking about their families, relating their own experiences during the storm, breathing a sigh of relief that we’d escaped the worst of it.  The line was long, and moved really slow, and we all got pelted by the occasional rain that still fell, as if Irma wanted to remind us that she was still around even if she was a shadow of her former self–but nobody seemed to mind.  Meanwhile, inside the tiny restaurant, the industrious entrepreneurs who decided to open when nobody else would worked hard to provide food for those who had ventured out.

And I thought:  This is how America really works.  This is how America really is.

We weren’t divided, like the media always tells us we are.  We weren’t liberals or conservatives, black or white, or even really men and women in that moment.  We were just people who had all shared the same terrifying experience, and who now shared the same gratitude that our families and our homes had been spared.  There was no squabbling, no pushing, no shoving–no complaining at having to wait for the few items that still remained on the Chopstick Express menu.  We all had too much in common for that.  Even though nobody spoke of it, we all just knew:  In a near disaster, we were united in a way that politics had not been able to divide.

The shrimp lo mein wasn’t half bad either.

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Marc Giller

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