Thank you, Luke Mulks and Becky Tsaros Dickson
I walked back to the local station where the gas line had formed. Actually, there were two lines. One line was for people waiting on foot, each holding one or two of those red polyethylene gas cans; the other was the convergence of cars from every road leading to this particular gas station.
Local law enforcement and the fire department were trying to manage this, directing traffic and keeping people calm while the attendants ran around pumping gas as quickly as possible.
The mood in the parking lot was one of stunned exhaustion on the run. People need to get to work, and the word around town’s this station is the only place to get gas. Every other gas station is dry.
There was a palpable sense of people’s impatience being repeatedly, almost forcibly smacked in the face by a flood of reality. Look at Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore. Look at Moonachie, and Little Ferry, and Carlstadt: destroyed. There are cars floating down the streets of Hoboken!
I could almost feel people’s body language screaming: This sucks! But I can’t complain about waiting on a line for gas, not when other people, my neighbors, have lost so much, everything: houses, cars, their loved ones, their lives. But this really sucks!
Yet I’m sure when these drivers, after waiting an hour, hour and a half on line, finally pulled into that gas station, only to see a very long line of pedestrians—people, standing in line waiting to buy a gallon of gas!—I’m sure when drivers saw that, any aggravation they’d been feeling was wiped away by the overall shock of the scene.
I remember waiting with my mother on line for gas in the 1970s—but never on foot.
All I could think to do was wander around the parking lot, talk to people, try to take pictures, to document this. I was trying to find the best angle, the best light, to get the entire scene in the shot, and this random dude—standing by the store entrance on crutches, smoking a cigarette—saw me taking pictures, and said:
“Feed the Instagram, bro.”
And we started talking. It turned out he was from Nutley, NJ, a town neighboring my hometown of Bloomfield, NJ, but a long way, a very long drive west, just to buy gas in Parsippany.
I asked him his age.
“Thirty-one,” he said, still smoking and leaning on his crutches. And I said something like:
“I used to hang in Nutley, but I’m forty, so you wouldn’t know me.”
He said, offhand:
“My sister Carmen is your age.”
And when I was seventeen, I dated a girl from Nutley, NJ, named Carmen.
Startled by this synaptic connection, I stepped back, stopped focusing on the disaster all around me, the aftermath of Sandy, and took a good hard look at the guy.
His name is Tom, but everyone called him Tommy the last time I saw him—when he was eight years old.
I told him who I was. “Dude, I dated your sister!”
And he stepped back, startled by his own synaptic connection, finally took a good look at me, and hugged me. I mean he just leaned over on his crutches and hugged me, right there in the middle of the chaos of Hurricane Sandy.
I hugged him back.
Then he leaned back on his crutches and said, beaming:
“Man, you were awesome! You used to swing me around by my arms when I was a kid. You were just so awesome to me back then!”
And I said: “Dude! It was easy! You were a fucking awesome kid!”
Turns out, he just got medically discharged from the Army—a serious injury, hence the crutches—just before his scheduled deployment to Afghanistan.
“But I’m no Right Wing Nut Job,” he assured me. And I just laughed and told him “I fucking hate politics.”
He’s studying for a BA in Education. The Army is paying for it. And he’s a writer.
We exchanged numbers and emails. He asked if I had a website. I gave him my URL and told him to send me some of his writing as soon as possible.
“I mean it, Tom!” I slapped him on the shoulder. “I want to read something you’ve written, immediately.” He really was a great kid.
He said, “Ok! Ok!” laughing, and hugged me again before hobbling back to his sister-in-law’s car. He got in, and they drove off, leaving me alone again, still surrounded by Hurricane Sandy.
I walked back to my apartment, dazed, wondering what my Buddhist teachers would say about what had just happened.
From every other car, someone on the gas line made eye contact, asked me what was going on at the station.
“Is there really gas?” they asked, or “Why is this taking so long?” they wondered.
I did my best to reassure them.
“The attendants are practically running from car to car,” I told one old man. “I’ve never seen people pumping gas so quickly,” I told a middle-aged couple.
It was dishonest, exaggeration, but my white lies made drivers in every other car relax a bit, smile, shake their heads, and sigh.
Suddenly, it occurred to me—in a flash—what my Buddhist teachers might say about my karmic collision, my reconnecting with eight-year-old Tommy, all grown up, during a dismal walk through the local aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Your good karma, the seeds of your living compassion, will blossom in the most unexpected moments. That’s why you must always be brave, have faith, and keep planting.
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