It had only been two winters ago when a huge snow storm struck Philadelphia . It lasted over 24 hours with nonstop snowfall and paralyzed the entire region. The City’s snow plows couldn’t handle the rapid accumulation, and every street and road became impassable. After the first six hours MK and I gave up on shoveling the driveway and the front walk of our townhouse.
By six AM the next morning, 22 inches had already hit the ground, and the snow just kept on falling. With school closed and the entire City shut down, MK and I both knew we’d be spending the day with Jason as a family. By seven-thirty AM, MK poked her head into the family room where Jason and I sat in our pajamas playing video games. She informed me there was no bread for breakfast. I grinned with a shrug and said “So, let them eat pancakes.” And MK laughed right out loud with a laugh I hadn’t heard from her in months. With a grin and a dance in her step she promptly started mixing pancake batter. It was a relief to be able to get an actual laugh out of her since she and I had been grumbling at each other so much lately.
But then, as eight-year-old Jason was helping me set the breakfast table, he tried to get both the milk and the pancake syrup out of the fridge at the same time.
Now I thought I had done a pretty smart thing the day before when I closed the shop early in anticipation of the coming snow storm and picked up two whole gallons of milk on the way home. But MK made Swedish meatballs for dinner so we had already gone through over a half a gallon before midnight. And then for breakfast MK used another pint to make her pancake batter. So when Jason went to the fridge he didn’t realize his mother already had the open gallon jug next to her on the counter as she cooked. So while I was setting plates, he grabbed the other jug --the unopened and completely full one-- right out of the fridge. Between the awkwardness of the pancake syrup bottle and the nearly ten pounds of that heavy milk jug, Jason dropped them both. The plastic gallon jug burst open on the floor at his feet, spattering his legs with milk and sending a rapid stream of the white liquid surging across the floor to me.
While he wasn’t injured in any way he still started crying, and MK ran and consoled him. But she also snarled at me for letting him lift the jug on his own. I wordlessly cleaned up the milk and then --without having eaten any breakfast-- I donned my boots and coat and headed out into the city in search of an open supermarket. “Get some bread while you’re at it,” she said with a snort as I headed out the door.
While on the first few lengths of sidewalk, I struggled through over two feet of snow, pumping my legs upward then downward again into the wet heavy drifts, wishing I had actual snow shoes. After only ten strides I could see that the sidewalks were useless so I stuck to the street itself. The plows hadn’t been by our part of the city in almost five hours so the depth of snow on the streets exceeded a foot for most of the time, again requiring me to pump my legs up and down.
I walked in near-solitude under the falling onslaught of tiny white flakes, not a single person around me for blocks at a time. I saw not one moving vehicle on any street and only encountered the occasional pedestrian who likewise struggled in the deepening snow. The streets had many large mounds lining the curbs -- cars all buried under the snow since their owners knew better than to try uncovering them.
Every store I came to was closed -- every supermarket, every convenience store, every fruit stand. All were closed because the owners and employees were incapable of getting to work. Restaurants likewise were closed. I peeked into the front windows of the closed food stores, hoping to spot an employee who might take a bribe to let me in, I saw that the shelves lay completely empty. Every shop had been stripped bare the night before by prudent city dwellers who (like me) cut out of work early and bought gallons of milk and (unlike me) loaves of bread. Then after the milk and bread disappeared from those shops, the jugs of spring water, the cans of soup and the boxes of pasta went. Finally the soft drinks, Pop Tarts and Cheeze Doodles got snatched up out of desperation by the late comers. Non-food items like birthday candles, diapers and batteries also went quite fast, as did medical supplies like aspirin, rubbing alcohol, and cough syrup. But then odd items like scotch tape and brown paper lunch bags, even ballpoint pens got snatched up as well. The final emptying of the stores consisted of sales to people who perhaps needed those items, and also by those people who had no need of them at all of those things, but who were so frustrated at the lack of milk and bread that the act of just buying something --anything-- lent a false sense of control over their predicament. Those pathetic spurts of “comfort-driven consumerism” were the last push that emptied the shelves down to practically nothing.
I continued plodding through the snow for many blocks, asking the rare pedestrian if they knew of any store that was open, explaining to each new person that I had a wife and a young child at home in need of milk and bread. But all of them shook their heads with the news they too were unable to locate milk and bread for their own families.
I finally found one man carrying a brown grocery bag. He said there was a mom & pop bakery ten blocks north, run for over 40 years by an old Italian couple who still lived above the shop. He further said the bakery sold milk and butter, but they were almost out of that so I needed to hurry. I started heading north.
Normally I would have achieved ten blocks in mere minutes, but that morning it took me almost half an hour. I paused during that northward journey and tried to call MK to report my intended quest in the north, but the cellular service was down for some reason. As I huffed and puffed and replaced my useless cell phone back into my jacket pocket, I suddenly saw a huge silent blur pass me from behind: a man on skis had just whizzed right by, a backpack full of food on his back.
I finally turned onto the street that the man with the grocery bag had named for me. And I spotted an unmoving line of people stretched out the door of an Italian bakery. I trudged over and got on line. The sidewalk in front of the bakery was being endlessly cleared by a pair of young boys armed with shovels and rock salt, presumably relatives of the couple who ran the bakery.
After fifteen minutes of waiting and after a dozen more people had gotten on line behind me, the line progressed to where I finally made it into the door. But my fellow line-waiters and I were now informed that the latest batch of bread had sold out and we all had to wait for the next batch to come out of the ovens. While an old man with a heavy Italian accent hurried around behind the counter, mixing more dough in his mixers, an old woman stood at the register taking orders on a notepad. I pulled off my hat and unzipped my coat in the face of the unbearable heat inside the bakery, then I gave the old woman my order. In her gentle Italian accent she said not to pay me until the bread was ready. She also said that if I left the store and wasn’t there when the bread came out of the oven, I would lose my order.
A young teenaged girl --presumably another relative of the bakery owners-- had set up a folding card table in one corner of the customer waiting area. On that table she tended to a coffee urn and sold small styrofoam cups of coffee to people for a dollar a cup. I bought one and the coffee actually tasted pretty good, so I bought a second cup and a canoli to go with it.
As I finished off the pastry and sipped my coffee I glanced around at the small crowd of other customers who made up a passive human barrier, blocking my view of the wall opposite the service counter. I stretched my neck to peer around them and noticed a row of glass-front refrigerator units behind them. I politely pushed my way past the small mob to get a look at what the fridges contained.
The cold shelves of the humming fridges sat completely empty under their stark florescent lights. The signs permanently pasted onto the glass doors listed the sale prices for things like juice, milk, and butter, but they’d obviously been sold out hours ago. I asked other customers if they knew of any place else selling milk, but they all shook their heads, some with smirks and shrugs, others with eye-rolling frustration.
One man in a parka and an oily mustache held up a half gallon of milk before me and said: “I’ll sell ya’ this half gallon fer fifty bucks.”
I balked openly at the offer --normally a half gallon would sell for five. But the color of the cap --pale blue-- told me it was the correct grade of milk that my family preferred (skim milk). So perhaps I shouldn’t let this opportunity go by. I noticed a few stares from the crowd and even heard a restrained scoff of disbelief.
“Ten,” I snorted at him. The room of spectators grew silent with breathless interest.
“Forty-five,” the parka man countered. A few quiet gasps of both amusement and astonishment sifted around.
I hesitated, wondering if I could get him down to fifteen. I was just about to offer him twelve, but then another man in a Flyers cap brazenly stepped out, waving a twenty dollar bill. “I’ll give ya’ twenty for it,” the Flyers cap guy said. More gasps were suddenly sucked in right as more quiet scoffs were suddenly coughed out.
“Sold,” the parka man said, and the two completed their transaction.
I felt blindsided as I helplessly watched them swap the cash and the milk. I said nothing and slinked back to one side, angry and even embarrassed.
The parka man pocketed his money then walked quickly out of the bakery into the snow storm. But then the guy with the Flyers cap examined his new jug of twenty dollar milk and suddenly cursed.
“Hey!” the Flyers cap guy shouted. “This milk is already open!”
That revelation prompted one spectator to mumble: “Uh oh,” with a dash of nervous laughter. The rest of the crowd watched in tension-filled silence as Flyers cap guy opened the milk and took a swig. He loudly spit his swig right out again, spraying it all over the floor, causing people to jump backward from him and his spray. “It’s not even milk!” And he ran out of the bakery after parka man.
The remaining crowd looked at each other in varying shades of embarrassment. Some chuckled darkly at the incident while shaking their heads. Others grumbled their disgust.
“Yo, man,” one guy said to me, “good thing you got outbid.” Others nodded their agreement. I shrugged and turned away from their gazes. The old lady who ran the register came out to the customer area with a mop to clean up the messy spray of white stuff that obviously wasn’t milk.
I then noticed a pay phone on the wall behind a cluster of other people. As I reached for it two people simultaneously warned me the phone was dead. My hand hesitated in its reach, but then I went ahead and tried the phone anyway. But it was indeed dead. After hanging it up I asked just those two people about their cell phones, explaining my own was dead. And more than a dozen people all chimed in with the regrettable news that their own landline phones and cell phones likewise didn’t work. Some even brandished their cell phones and i-Phones, gesturing to them in regret. And then one man said “Even the MAC machines are down,” causing many heads to turn in rapt attention. (A MAC machine was really an ATM, but in Philly we called them MAC machines.)
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Yeah,” another man nodded his agreement. “I tried to hit three different MAC’s on the way over here and they were all down.” The whole room got very quiet.
I waited with the crowd for another half an hour for the bread to come out of the ovens. The smell of it baking was wonderful. After the old man finished setting aside another rack of dough balls to rise, he cleared off one of his large wooden work tables. Upon that table he started setting up dozens of brown paper bags. After he had each bag set up like a phalanx of soldiers, the loud DING! of a small bell echoed through the store. The old man froze in his tracks at the sound of that ding, then clapped his hands together just once and shouted: “That’s my bread! Time for it to come out!” We all sighed in relief and amusement then watched him pop open the ovens. “Okay! Okay! Okay!” he shouted while sliding the pans out of the ovens. “Lots of bread for everybody! Coming right up!” He and his wife worked together as a team to methodically insert each de-panned loaf into the dozens of waiting paper bags with astonishing speed.
I paid for my bag of bread, shoved it down into the front of my coat, and headed back outside where the snow continued to fall. In thankfulness I strolled the cleared off sidewalk which the two shovel-toting boys diligently kept clean, and I took a moment to marvel at the number of people who now stood on line: easily three dozen, although I didn’t afford myself the luxury of sticking around to count. After leaving the zone of clean sidewalk that the shovel boys tended with such vigilance, I took a deep breath and returned to trudging through the snow-choked streets rather than the far-worse sidewalks.
The accumulation had only gotten deeper and my efforts to struggle along the streets became even more labored than earlier. For many blocks I could smell the slowly cooling bread under my coat where I tried to shield its brown paper from the falling snow. The heat against my chest felt good for the brief while that it lasted.
On the way back I crossed the street to a bank with a MAC machine. I fished out my wallet and was about to slide my card when I noticed the screen had a message that read: “SYSTEM TEMPORARILY UNAVAILBLE.” I put away my card and my wallet and started walking again, trying to recall exactly how much cash MK and I had on hand in the house.
As I once again passed by the same unattended stores with their abnormally empty shelves, I spotted one store that had only just suffered a broken window --I knew for certain that the break-in was barely a minute ago because the deep footprints on the sidewalk leading into the broken window were still very clear and well-defined. I paused in the street and looked through the jagged glass to see two teenagers in hoodies running through the empty aisles, carrying what was likely stolen merchandise in their arms.
After almost two hours of my snowy odyssey I finally made it back to the townhouse, out of breath and in need of a hot shower. As soon as I stomped my snow-covered feet into the side porch, MK yelled at me -- right in front of Jason -- for being gone so long, especially since the phones, the internet and the cable TV were all dead. Still standing there in my wet clothes I explained in breathless exhaustion the entire story. Then I handed her the crumpled and snow covered bag of no-longer-warm bread, apologizing that there was no milk to go with it. But then she further yelled at me because (in her opinion) between getting milk and getting bread, the higher priority was getting the milk. Then she peeked into the bag and yelled at me further because the bread wasn’t even sliced. In disgust she turned back into the kitchen, hurled the damp and sorry looking bag of bread out of her grasp and clear across the room onto a distant countertop, then opened one of the upper kitchen cabinets where she retrieved a box of powdered milk packets.
I snorted at the utter lack of gratitude for my hard-fought mission and plodded into the kitchen while still wearing my wet boots and coat. I passed by the sink where she busily mixed the powdered milk -- a sink I had installed myself -- and I went straight to the fridge. She heard my heavy footfalls and turned from her powdered milk project to yell at me for tracking snow into the house. I ignored her screamings as if she wasn’t even in the room, grabbed a can of beer out of the fridge, then plodded upstairs into the master bedroom, tracking even more snow throughout the house. I locked myself into the master bathroom for an hour to take a long bath. I had custom built that entire bathroom according to her specifications with no consideration for my own preferences. I rarely took baths, so the tub was usually her domain. But I was too tired to actually stand up and take a shower, and I was so chilled to the bone that I needed a good hot soak.
After my bath I got dressed and sat down with MK, telling her in earnest about the teenagers I had seen robbing the store. I feared that between the suddenly dead phones and the impassable streets, the police were incapable of performing their services. I also feared that because the MAC machines were down, that even decent people might start getting desperate enough to resort to thievery. I further explained that with the phones down, the electricity might be the next thing to go, and then we’d have to fall back upon wood burning for heat. (While we had gas heat, the gas furnace relied on an electric ignition system.) And to top it all off, other people throughout the City were probably also stoking up their own fireplaces as well -- some probably for the first time in years -- which would only increase the likelihood of fires breaking out in the city. And if the police weren’t able to help anyone, the fire trucks likewise wouldn’t be very helpful to anyone either. So I adamantly insisted that she and I needed to work together and protect our son and our home during this snow emergency.
She agreed. Without a word she started preparing candles and flashlights. She also filled over two dozen jars and bottles with water from the kitchen sink. While she did all that I went outside into the snow again and shoveled off our pile of firewood. From it I made multiple trips back and forth, hauling many armloads inside to the wood crib in the living room and built a fire in the living room fireplace. After vacuuming up the trail of chips and splinters from my wood hauling effort, I pulled my gun out of storage and started cleaning and oiling it. She didn’t like the gun, but I assured her that I’d keep the safety on. She rolled her eyes and returned to the kitchen to slice up the loaf of fresh bread I had bought for us earlier.
By sundown, as the snow continued to fall, she and I went through the entire house, peeking into all our normal hiding places, retrieving every scrap of hard cash we had on hand. We pooled all the “hiding place” cash with what she and I both had in our own wallets, and we came up with a total of almost four hundred dollars. We agreed to stash it all into a plastic baggie and hide it under the mattress on her side of the bed that night. But then I told her I also wanted to build a fire in the master bedroom, and that she and I needed to have Jason sleep with us in there. She agreed to that.
After I secured all the doors and windows in the house, she and I both tucked flashlights beneath our respective pillows. While she filled a portable AM/FM radio with batteries and set it up on her nightstand, I went the extra step of putting my loaded gun into the top drawer of my own nightstand. She watched me do that and said nothing.
Jason was delighted to sleep with us and gladly lay down upon the bed between us as the fireplace roared nearby. Right as MK and I jointly pulled the covers up over the three of us at once, Jason reached both his arms out from his sides and simultaneously hugged himself against MK’s arm and my arm. With his eyes closed he clutched our two arms tightly against himself and said: “We’re all together! Mommy and Daddy love each other again and now we can we stay this way forever.” MK and I looked at each other sadly and didn’t even answer him.
The snow stopped falling by seven PM the next evening with a total accumulation of 51 inches. But Philadelphia remained paralyzed for three more days due to there being nowhere to actually put all that snow. Looting commenced each night for two nights in a row with the police unable to intervene. Several fires broke out and gutted entire apartment buildings. The fire department response time for some fires was close to twenty minutes during the emergency, allowing one entire block to be lost down in South Philly. Ambulances also were unable to deliver adequate response times, and one man --a heart attack victim-- died in transit to the hospital. By the third day some neighborhoods had banded together and started massive bucket brigades of several hundred people at once, tossing the snow into the nearest river --either the Schuylkill or the Delaware, whichever was closer-- one bucketful at a time. The majority of all the stores remained closed and empty until the following Monday. The Walczak household --other than having to drink powdered milk-- remained unscathed by the emergency.
After sleeping together as a family for the rest of the week, life eventually returned to normal. The phones became available, the MAC machines came back on line, the streets were cleared of snow, the store shelves got restocked with food, my gun went back into its locked storage box, I went back to work, Jason went back to school, and MK and I started sleeping without our son again. She and I made an honest effort for a few months to sleep together with civility. We even had sex at times, although not very good sex. A wall of distance and mistrust had grown between us and the sex couldn’t breach that wall. When summer came, it was hot, we grew increasingly annoyed with each other, and we soon found ourselves sleeping on opposite sides of the mattress. By August she declared she wanted a divorce, so I moved out of the townhouse and spent two months living in the rear of my shop’s office trailer. In October I landed the apartment near Locust Street .
The following May, the judge in family court expressed his disapproval over my being so irresponsible in front of my son as to make a rude and deliberate display of tracking snow through the house in what was an undeniable temper tantrum. He further disliked my drinking a can of beer in the middle of the day. And he reprimanded me right in court for selfishly locking myself into a room away from my family for an entire hour while a severe weather emergency was taking place. His final measure of disgust came from his anger over my placing a loaded gun in the unlocked drawer next to the same bed where my son slept.
-------------------End of Chapter 29--------------------