Welcome to Florida
Twenty-four hours before the fourth hurricane is due to hit, I join all other storm-weary Floridians in the quest for what our disaster-preparation guides call “alternative light sources.”
I begin by entering grocery stores and asking, “Where can I find D batteries?” This soon degenerates into “Is there another place in the store where you shelve D batteries?” then into “Do you know another store where I can get D batteries?” Finally I drive by the Kash-n-Karry, roll down the window, and shout at a skinny guy in jeans exiting the store, “ANY DS IN THERE?” He spits a wad of tobacco onto the asphalt and holds up a plastic bag. “Got me the last ones!”
Good thing I'm not holding my heavy-duty flashlight--or I would clock him.
With nary a D battery in sight, I'm forced to do the previously unthinkable: go to Wal-Mart. With every breath of my being I loathe this brightly lit warehouse full of cheap goods and bleeping cash registers and whining children and their ineffective parents (so unlike my own Ma and Da, who used to threaten me and my sisters with a good paddling with a wooden spoon and a mouthful of Lava soap if we didn’t siddown and shuddup). Shoppers now are out in full force, so I have to leave my car half a mile away in the overflow parking lot. I grab the last cart in the lobby--an oversized silver buggy outfitted with a special baby seat--and quickly fill up the embarrassingly empty seat with the first item I encounter in the produce section: a five-pound King O’ the West honeydew melon. Then, fearing this splendid specimen of the gourd family will roll to the ground and split open, I take the two black straps meant to hold back a wiggling infant and lock the melon firmly inside.
Since I grew up firmly entrenched in the grit of the Northeast, it's rare that I think of myself as a real resident of the Sunshine State. But now, herded together with my fellow citizens in the face of a natural disaster, I find I don't even blink twice at the odd behavior of the folk of Wesley Chapel, Florida. I pass one woman who makes getting ready for a hurricane look like preparations for a church picnic. Piled high inside her cart: a Styrofoam cooler, plastic cutlery, two jumbo packs of napkins, citronella candles, copious cans of B&M Baked Beans, and a 10 x 13 velvet portrait of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Another housewife looks like she's getting to ready to hose down a crime scene or swab down a teenager’s bedroom; her cart is full of Hefty trash bags, gallon jugs of Formula 409 and Mr. Clean, and two deck mops. She's followed by a twenty-something guy who seems to think weathering a hurricane is the equivalent of spending a week on the space shuttle; his cart holds TANG, beef jerky, and Sanka.
Who else do I encounter? A pregnant woman pushing a cart full of diapers and baby formula (does she expect to give birth at home?) and a resourceful woman in a lime-green sari whose cart is stacked to the brim with board games such as Risk, Monopoly, Sorry, and Clue. We all have to find our own way to cope. But somehow I can't imagine sitting out 120-mile-per-hour winds by dramatically intoning, “Miss Scarlet--in the ball room--with the candlestick” or “Colonel Mustard--in the conservatory--with the knife.”
My favorite anthropological specimens are a couple of transplanted New Yawk-ers shouting on cell phones from opposite ends of the same grocery aisle
“GET SOME DIET COKE, VINNY.”
“THERE IS NO DIET COKE LEFT, JUDY.”
“GET SOME VANILLA COKE, VINNY.”
“THERE IS NO VANILLA COKE LEFT, JUDY.”
“OH, LOOK, SOMEBODY LEFT A CAN OF CREAMED CORN NEXT TO THE SCHWEPPES.”
“BUT YOU DON’T LIKE CREAMED CORN.”
“SO WHAT? JUST GET THE CAN. GET THE CAN, JUDY, BEFORE SOMEBODY ELSE SWIPES IT!”
All soda is wiped out. All Pop-Tarts. All bottled water. All cans of Norwegian sardines and Chicken of the Sea. All rain ponchos and umbrellas. All plastic garbage bags and buckets with secure lids. Also missing: masking tape, duct tape, painter’s tape, and tape approved by the United States Postal Service for securing mailed packages. All playing cards, except a lone pinochle deck soon pounced upon by a couple who clearly don't plan to ride out the storm by having a weekend of hot sex.
Unable to purchase necessities, shoppers all around me begin placing in their carts weird items that bear no relation whatsoever to the potentially dire situation we all will find ourselves in if Hurricane Numero Quattro gives us a direct hit: lava lamps, golf balls, tennis rackets, alarm clocks, tubular hangers, greeting cards, inkjet cartridges, potted succulents, light-up makeup mirrors, Gas-X, I SUPPORT OUR TROOPS yellow ribbons, wet/dry vacuum cleaners, Chia pets, foosball tables, and The Greatest Hits of Robert Goulet. One doofus guy actually carries a 28-inch Sony TV to the cash register. Does he intend to watch television when the power fails--or does he just want to take comfort in staring at a blank screen like everyone else?
The din in the store sends me to the aspirin aisle, where I find my beloved Goody’s Headache Powders long gone, as well as all the Alka-Seltzer and Extra-Strength Excedrin. I slip a 60-capsule box of generic ibuprofen into my cart and head for the cash register. Over the insistent bleeping of bar codes being scanned, I keep asking people “Is this the end of the line?” Those who don't answer “che?” look down with disdain at the King O’ The West honeydew strapped into my cart and say, “I don’t know--but I got here before you did.”
I stand in line for close to half an hour. When I push my cart out into the lobby, a blond-bobbed mother holding an enormously ugly baby in her arms confronts me. “That cart is meant for babies, not watermelons!”
“This is a honeydew,” I icily inform her. “And--for your information--this cart was the last one available when I entered the store. If you’ll wait a moment, I’ll be happy to--”
But she doesn't give me a chance to graciously surrender my cart. Latching one manicured hand onto the edge of the buggy, she calls out to the elderly man in the blue May I Help You? vest, “Greeter: Switch her bags to a regular cart! I need this one.”
In the parking lot, the sky is gray and the air feels heavy, ready to burst into another downpour that once again will prove I need to replace my dull windshield wiper blades. As I cautiously back out--my vision impeded by the fact that my ant-sized Corolla is wedged between a buffalo-like GMC Yukon and a mammoth Ford
Expedition--the drivers of two more incoming SUVs start honking at one another, each insisting that they're the rightful owners of my space once I vacate it. I gladly leave them there to honk it out.
I drive home past a cattle ranch slated to be turned into yet another thousand-home development. The cows huddle by the barbed wire. Horses in the next pasture stand frozen in the middle of the field. I neither see nor hear birds as I unload my heavy blue plastic bags from the car. I hurry inside as the rain continues splattering the pavement. And I rue that I didn't purchase--for two dollars and eighty-eight cents--the one thing I really wanted for sale in Wal-Mart, a bumper sticker that read WELCOME TO FLORIDA: NOW GO HOME.
About the author:
Rita Ciresi is the author of four novels (Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You) and two award-winning story collections (Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket). She is professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.