Tuesday, June 06, 2006

If This Had Been An Actual Emergency

Didn't you wonder, growing up, why the "Emergency Broadcasting System" would cut in on Sally Jessy Raphael, or while you were rocking out to a Tiffany song on your FM stereo? I mean, if you did that sort of thing? The obnoxious squelching always made me think someone at the station was sending out morse code for a hostage situation. But in every case, a man's voice would break in, reassuringly, "This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. If this had been an actual emergency, it would have been followed by instuctions....blah blah blah..." By then I was on to my next ADD kid adventure.

But today, on my second day in Iowa City, I was not equipped for an actual emergency. It all started last night around 3:30am. It started raining hard, and thundering so much it was like a strobe light and discotecque in my bedroom. The popcorn-snapping lightening began to whip around my attic house, and I started to get, well, scared.

My emergency plan: REMI. I called my sister at 1:30am her time. She always answers when I call. I've count on her like a hotline. "Yes?" she answered. We don't bother with the pleasantries of hello. We know to cut to the chase after midnight. "What's the matter?"

"Are you up?" I said.

"Oh yeah," she said. "I was just laying in bed, with my eyes closed, waiting for your call." Did I mention she's a funny one?

The lightening snapped all around. I kept saying, "That! Did you hear that?" She didn't. I had a hard time believing that people in Florida could hear a pin drop in Alaska but my sister couldn't hear ARMAGGEDON outside my window.

Then, after keeping her on the line for about fifteen minutes, she could hear the storm and I got my redemption. "Oh my God! Are people on the streets? What is going on?" But no one was on the street. No lights were on. Everyone was tucked in their homes, and it appeared I was the only one having a freak out. "Maybe you should get in your car and go to the hospital. Everyone's probably at the hospital," my Hospital Administrator sister said. I was not about to become a part of an Iowa City ER episode.

At around 5am we got off the phone and I crashed out, convinced that 6-6-6 had arrived and it was best to sleep through as much of it as possible.

Today, I drove to the grocery store and it was closed "due to unpredictable weather." The cafe was closed down, and everywhere was grey and dark, streets emptied out. I turned off my iPod and turned on the AM radio. "This is like War of the Worlds, Man! I can see the tornado from my house heading east!" said a guy who sounded like he just set down his bong and taken a break from listening to his classic rock cassette tapes to call in. "Now sir, please," the radio host said, "No need to scare the children."

Exactly. Those children don't need any more scaring.

I watched people exit out of businesses and houses, looking up at the sky, pointing. People were on cell phones and loading into cars. Half the sky was greyish black, the other half forming into quick cylinder clouds. "If you are outside, you need to get your Storm Plan in action," the radio host said. "I repeat, the tornado is headed east, 7 miles from Iowa City. Begin your Storm Plan!" Now, I'm a girl who gets my teeth cleaned every six months. I pay my parking tickets on time. I buy warranties to products that already have lifetime guarantees. Who said anything about getting a Storm Plan? Officially paniced and at the mercy of Mother Nature, I called my Father.

Surely my Dad, a Weather Channel Junkie, would know about the tornado. He could tell me the size and location, and its impact. My father watches the Weather Channel like teenagers watch TRL. I rushed to my house, grabbed the cat, and headed into the basement. I listened to the radio, which talked about counties that didn't correspond with cities, confusing me even further.

My Dad stayed on the phone with me for a little while. Just enough for me to keep my mind off the fact that the world was about to end, and I was going to be found in a concrete basement with someone else's dirty laundry. He was on the phone with me for about fifteen minutes. He later told Remi he talked to me for an hour. "Well, fifteen minutes IS an hour in Dad Time," I told her.

A little while later, the radio host cheerfully announced that all was clear and normal programming, Dr. Phil and One Life to Live, would resume. He apologized for everyone who missed their soap opera. I was kind of in shock. That was it. The rain stopped. The sun came out. 6-6-6 had it's moment. If having a dress rehearsal for the end of the world has an up side, you could say, that I now officially have a Storm Plan.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Iowa City Road Trip

I packed up my convertible: one carry-on suitcase, a hair dryer and my laptop. Traveling Europe taught me the virtues of traveling light. I drove through Nevada, testing the cruise control and turbo engine. Somewhere between rocking out to my new iPod playlists and working through new story ideas in my head, I neglected to check the gas gauge.

It hit E, and I thought, No big. I'll just stop at the next exit.

Next exits can be 40-140 miles apart, so that wasn't a solution. Still, I was calm. Until I saw the big black and white sign.


I. am. so. dead.

My mind raced and the little orange gas light came on. I imagined myself, out of cell phone range, inside my convertible on the side of the road. The silver-toothed jailbird with cowboy boots would stroll up to the side of my car. Locked doors mean nothing inside of a cloth-roof convertible. Of course, Jailbird would have a box cutter, or a swiss army knife-because that's what he would have used to dig the hole to escape prision. (Think Shawshank Redemption.) And that's what he'd use to McGyver open my cloth convertible top. The rest? Well, the rest would be all over 48 Hours Investigates. Or 20/20. I would become the next Holloway girl except not a highschool grad, and not in Aruba, and not be last seen drunk dancing in a club. Ok, so nothing like that Hollaway girl.

Instead, my car chokes upon a wreck. A big wreck. Involving a U-Haul truck and a big farm trailer. While the two families get out to access the damage, and look at their lives scattered all over the road, two cop cars zoom in front of me, Dukes of Hazard style. A cop with a tan state outfit hiding a bullet-proof vest moves toward my car. "You need to get back on the Intersate and go back two miles," he tells me. Maybe he's the killer, I think in a Steven King kinda way. Maybe it's all a conspiracy.

"I won't make it," I yell out my window, pointing at my dash. He leans inside my car, flashing his light with authority. It creeps me out. Mostly because he has a gun. I suppose cops on dark nights just inherently give off a creepy vibe. Like Ani diFranco phrased in God's Country, "He's gonna put his two cents in cos he's got a gun, but I'm gonna put in three cos history owes me one." That means nothing to a girl out of gas on the side of the road, but it's all I could think of when faced eye-level with that stupid gun.

"Pull over," he instructs, "It's gonna be awhile." I begin to turn the wheel. "Yeah, sorry," I start to ramble,"I'm just one of those retards you read about who doesn't check the gauge. I just got this car, so I guess I wasn't paying attention." He looks at me, disgusted, like he's offended by my use of the offhanded use of the word 'retard.' Like he's got a brother hanging out in a closet at home like the dude in Desperate Housewives. His eyes narrow as though he's calculating a way in his brain to rationalize a legal way to give me a ticket for reckless use of the word retard. I turn on my hazards and smile. "I'm just gonna, you know, obey and all. You go ahead and deal with those accident victims." He isn't listening to me anymore, lucky for me. I roll up the window, call myself stupid, and wait for the aforementioned fictional Jailbird to come and take myself out of my misery.

An hour passes and I'm back on the road. Of course, the officer can't let the moment pass without saying, "I hope you've learned your lesson, young lady!" I sit up and say, "Oh, I have!" Later, I think how moronic that was. He was all of twenty-five years old, and it's not like he followed me to the station and payed for my gas.

Nebraska was like a bad, depressing dream. People smoking in your face. Nothing with any nutritional value to eat-anywhere. Pro Bush-Cheney signs. I couldn't travel through this state fast enough. I packed a small cooler of food from San Francisco (Trader Joes) that was nearly gone. I stopped in a store and asked if they had any fruit. They handed me some fruit rollups. They said, "If you want breakfast, we got donuts." I said, "No thanks, but I guess I'll take a scone." The lady who wears bangs, not because they've just made a comeback, but because that's her "look" says, "What's a scone?"

My iPod reception converter kept getting interupted by preacher broadcasts declaring that the satan was coming to claim the secular world. It was amusing. Another highlight was stopping at a pizza place in Lincoln and overhearing two farmer couples talking about their favorite soap operas. The two men continued the conversation while their wives went to get their soft drinks. "That Victor really put Jack in his place!" Farmer #1 told Farmer #2. "Ain't that the truth. Ya just don't mess with Victor Newman! He's got all the money in town." Farmer #2 said. You have to understand, they are talking about fictional characters, and a fictional "town", Genoa City. I know, because my sister, Remi and I used to watch the Young and the Restless as kids. Being a Y&R fan is something that never leaves you. The show moves so slowly, that although I haven't seen it in about ten years, I can vouch for the fact that Farmer #2 is right: Ya just don't mess with Victor Newman!

I got back on the road and tapped into a whole library of unheard songs on my iPod library. My friend Peter listens to entire albums, whereas I compile playlists. Since I had hours ahead, I randomly selected songs, without looking, and played them. It was so much fun! There's no other way I could ever listen to a string of Courtney Love, followed by Billie Holiday, Lyrics Born, L7, Galvanize, Frank Sinatra and Jeff Buckley. I am the absolute worst singer you can imagine, but my fellow truckers didn't seem to mind. I even got an encore honk every once in awhile.

I arrived in Iowa City late Sunday. I found my new apartment effortlessly. It reminds me of my apartment in Eugene. Although it was 2am, I considered calling my college roommate Amy. But what would I say? The walls are red! We studied from these same books! This kitchen is Barbie-sized! Maybe her husband would answer, and they'd be alarmed and think it was an emergency of some sort. You just can't call your girlfriend at 2am anymore when she's married. I mean, you probably could, but it's kind of not the same.

The best part is there's this really cool cat. That's a big deal to me after living for years in apartments with no pet rules. It's just so great to have this living creature hanging out. I left Louis (the cat) this morning to explore my new little city. I called Remi this morning and tried to describe what it looked like here, how I feel like I'm exactly where I should be.

Taking the chance to come to Iowa City to work on Creative Writing is right. I know it, in my bones. It seems right for me in the way that Italy's language and large jewerly, colorful scarves and leather handbags felt like I had found an entire culture that got me. Maybe I came here to experience what Ani diFranco summed up: "I guess I came out here to see some stuff for myself, I mean, why leave the telling up to everybody else?" It's hard to describe, being here. It's the closest thing to a calling I could imagine.