Every Sunday night after dinner I would drive to the Esso station and fill the tank of my Dodge Durango. It was a habit to prepare for the workweek. In the afternoon, I’d shop for food, do my laundry, make myself dinner, and pack a lunch for the next day. After filling the old Durango, I’d return home, ready for the upcoming week. And so it went for the last fourteen years. I am a man of habit, and I think of my schedule of conscious habits as rituals — they give order to my life, make the week run smoothly.
I don’t really follow the news. Politics and the economy are a hot mess, a bloody catastrophe I can’t really influence. I would catch the headlines when changing television channels or when listening to the radio to and from work, but it’s all so distasteful and disturbing — an infection for which there is no inoculation, only abstinence. I made it a point to inform myself enough to vote, but I avoided all blabbering negativity that passes for news. Back then I preferred collecting vinyl records, drinking a beer now and again, and meeting with my regular Saturday-morning klatch for coffee and jibber jabber. I believed in the status quo, a solid floor beneath my feet and the roof over my head.
When all the markets crashed — stock markets around the world! — my savings, my stocks and bonds, and emergency money stashed in a small safe behind a portrait of Susan B. Anthony were worth nothing. I might as well have had Confederate currency. I am a man of habit, of ritual, as I say. I think of myself as a prudent man who always plans for the future, but my planning has been based on a bedrock assumption I would have enough money to provide for myself, take care of medical costs, and retire in modest comfort. I foolishly believed, as oblivious as Franklin and Jefferson (my cats named for esteemed founders of our nation's experiment), I would not “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I now know better and am ashamed I could have been so ignorant as to brush off Shakespeare’s warning, and I really should have listened and taken better notes in my high-school history and Western-Civ classes. Too late.
In the snap of a finger, my economic life was demolished. Everyone’s was, but that brings little comfort. We suddenly had to stockpile goods. In that regard, my prudence had served me well. I had stored an abundance of food in two well stocked freezers, enough canned goods to survive a season, hefty carboys of bottled water enough to last months, and boxes of batteries. Back when the state advised preparedness for earthquake, fire, or floods, I took their warnings and recommendations to heart. Just the same, a financial disaster of the current magnitude meant I had to rush to supermarkets and elbow my way through aisles, filling my pack and my bags as quickly as possible with essentials, looting survival goods with the rest of my raging neighbors. Having played football in high school, after all these years I am still well versed in dodging and stiff-arming oncoming players, or manic shoppers, so I got back to my car with cooking oil, potatoes, miso, salt, and other foodstuffs in short supply at home. I made it back to the old Dodge Durango and drove to the Esso station, met with two lines thirty cars deep.
Unlike most weeks, I’d taken a sick day to visit Dr. Verse for my annual physical checkup, so I’d driven round trip to Darrington one-hundred and seventy miles in all. Doc Verse has been my physician since I was a teenager, so once a year I gladly make the trip, even enjoy the casual, solitary drive. Which is to say, my gas tank was low this week, of all weeks. And there I was, number thirty-one in line at the pump, all my doors locked. Listening to the car radio, I heard reports of marauding gangs threatening drivers, robbing them, and in some cases beating drivers senseless and stealing the car for its gas. I don’t own a gun but, being prudent, before leaving the house grabbed my baseball bat from beneath the couch for extra protection.
Thank the forces that be, hooligans did not approach the Esso. Some drivers grew outraged at how long it was taking to get to the pump, but I know you can’t push the river. Things take as long as they take, so yelling at drivers up ahead would serve no purpose, only fan the flames of discontent. I sat in my car, pulling up one length at a time as each vehicle completed filling up and drove off. I must have edged ahead for over an hour and a half, when Alan, the owner of the Esso, came out from his place at the cash register and card scanner with a crudely made sign reading: ALL PUMPS IN THIS ROW EMPTY. The other row of gas pumps, apparently, still functioned; but by this time that line was fifty deep, and it was a cinch those toward the end would meet a similar fate. If our pumps were dry, it couldn’t be long before Alan would need to place another sign (though I doubt he’d brave exposing himself to attack), and as exasperated as I felt, I thought it wise to leave before the worst elements of human nature would raise their ugly heads.
Angry men and women swung their car doors open, jumped out, and turned into crazy people, throwing fists in the air, threatening to pull the poor station owner limb from limb. I understood their frustration and anger, but it wasn’t Alan’s fault. He fled back to his office and locked the door. Police were occupied all over the city, unsuccessfully attempting to contain looters, so the poor man was on his own. I pulled out of line and drove home with an eighth of a tank of gas in the Durango, but well stocked with food and water for months to come.
If, however, I wanted or needed to pack up the car and hightail it to our family cabin in the foothills, where we might fish and hunt and raise a garden, no way an eighth of a tank would get me there. I suspect my sister and her husband and two children headed to the hills at the first signs of public mayhem. As far back as when mom and dad were still alive, we discussed the family cabin as a shared vacation spot, sure, but talked about it as our escape destination where we could meet in an emergency. In those days, thinking earthquake or erupting volcano the most possible emergencies, our faith in the national economy was still unshakeable. Lisa and her husband, Phil, aren’t survivalists, but they know their way around hunting rifles, fishing rods, and the intricacies of organic gardening — all of which still befuddles me, but I like to think of myself as a quick learner when my life’s at stake.
I stayed put at my little house for two months, October and November, content and safe. I kept the Durango locked in the garage. Little by little a strange normalcy set in around my neighborhood, though windows and doors now exhibited bars or were boarded and bolted for safety. The hooligans had been subdued, but not one-hundred percent. Police monitored streets in exchange for food and other survival necessities, and their police cars were kept running, enough gas to patrol and protect us. Oh, there were officers who went rogue, but the majority remained dedicated to public service, which surprised me. I don’t have great confidence in human nature, and even as a child, didn’t believe the policeman was my friend.
When I’d eaten my way through all fresh vegetables and blocks of cheddar cheese, consumed all but two loaves of bread, and those loaves rock hard in the freezer, I started daydreaming about the years of vacations at the family cabin, how cozy it had been sitting by the fireplace, eating stew and drinking spiced cider when the family took a week there on winter breaks. I remembered lighting Hanukkah candles together and playing dreidel, gambling for chocolates.
I enjoyed my solitude at home for nearly six weeks, but discovered I was growing strange, talking to myself, addressing inanimate objects and pausing like the object might answer. Then I’d catch myself and laugh. I don’t know if ensuing paranoia was entirely justified, but every sound made me fearful, and dark loneliness set in. It became time to seriously consider heading to the cabin. So, when I woke at three a.m. from horrific dreams, concluding with lynchings and burnings at the stake, in a panic I set to work packing clothes and personal belongings, filling temperature-insulated containers with frozen meat and vegetables, stuffing sturdy boxes with sealed bags of grains and flour and salt and other dry goods.
With dawn of the new day, I pulled on my heavy winter coat, wrapped a warm cashmere scarf around my neck, donned a woolen cap and set off in the Durango with no more than an eighth of a tank of gas, pedal to the metal down deserted streets, swung on to the empty highway, and not being a religious man, against all logic maintained faith somehow my meager eighth of a tank of gas would fuel my journey to a source for more gas, and if not, I would somehow make my way from there, on foot if need be. I knew if I had to walk, I would likely die along the way, from the elements or at the hands of desperate outliers — in my nightmares I’d envisioned cannibalism and worse. I had reached the point of no return, and drove on, full knowing I would need a full tank to make it to my sister and her family. I would need a miracle to make it to our cabin in the hills.
Dawn was gorgeous orange and pink and yellow. Morning sky moved me to tears, unable to bat away the thought I might not enjoy another dawn. The heater blasting to keep me warm, I drove on, preferring sounds of tires humming and whining, to ugly reports and mediocre music from the car radio. The possibility of real news was a bitter joke. Nothing reported about our global catastrophes was new, but I smiled while absorbing dawning light, thinking “nothing is new under the sun.”
Mile after mile, I continued driving, periodically checking the gas gauge. Oddly, it stayed the same for the first forty miles. When I checked it again at seventy miles, the gauge indicated an increase of another eighth of a tank. Likewise, the gauge arrow slowly but steadily nudged right, showing the gas tank filling as I drove onward. The world gone mad, a world of misfortune and misery, I concluded the gauge, like civilization and everything in it, had broken, rife with miscalculation. But I continued driving into and through the afternoon, watching my gas gauge actually rise an eighth of a tank at a time, until cold night set in after sundown. And driving through dark foothills, my tires finally rolled on to the long dirt road and ramshackle, washboard drive cut through dense woods, the Durango’s gauge having reached a full tank of gas as I arrived at the family cabin, warm candlelight miraculously shimmering, glowing from our large picture window, welcoming me home.
December 7-11, 2018
Facebook Post on the 7th Night of Hanukkah:
I've never written a Hanukkah story, so I'm spinning one from whatever yarn comes to mind. This will be the seventh night. I'll post my Hanukkah story tomorrow, on the eighth and final night of lighting candles.
For me, Hanukkah is a gentle antidote to Christmas shopping frenzy. When Ari was young, we enjoyed giving her a present each night, and she was a very appreciative person, heartwarmingly delighted. We would read a Hanukkah story aloud, Ari and Sheila and I giving dramatic readings over the eight nights. Gifts were there, but not so central. We took time after lighting candles to sit quietly and watch the flames sway in cool currents moving through the house.
The date for Hanukkah varies, because it is based on a moon calendar, and when Hanukkah and Christmas do not conflict, we have the best of both worlds. Sheila is from a secular Christian background, I am from a Jewish background. Ari gets it all. I enjoy familial Christmas traditions, the solstice rituals. I appreciate beautiful Christmas music, mostly from centuries past, not so much the novelty tunes and earworms that Muzak us to the brink of madness. Christmas with extended family is a pleasure.
Hanukkah, a celebration of light in the dark days of the year, celebrates the notion of a miracle in dire times--a simple miracle--but, for me, the miracle is coherent survival and sweetness with family when nights are cold and the world seemingly falling apart all around us.
Steven Jay Weinberg was a writer, editor, teacher, reader, raconteur and gourmand. A native of Baltimore, he earned a master's degree at The Johns Hopkins University. He taught creative writing and literature at the Art Institute of Seattle from 1997 until his retirement in 2014. Weinberg died in February 2021 at the age of 70.