Thursday, November 15, 2012

To New York and Back (The Accidental Baker)

I have a knack for flying right into hurricanes. I moved to Florida as Georges was approaching many years ago and drove a rented car out of West Palm Beach airport past lines of people in front of super markets and Home Depot. I remember a strange meal at Kenny Rogers Roasters, by myself, and shopping for canned goods at the Walgreen's. (I had no idea what I was grabbing, and it's possible that I didn't buy any bottled water.) That night, I saw the wind rip the screen door off of the screened-in porch of my corporate housing. The lights flickered, but somehow I was unscathed and it became nothing more than a weird anecdote inaugurating my "real" adult life. After that, I learned what foods I should have around in case of an emergency, learned that beds and furniture should be moved away from windows when there's a storm approaching, that a windowless bathroom or walk-in closet is a good place to take shelter, but a friend's house further inland is even better, and that it's a good idea to have a bag packed with all my important documents. At first, this included only my driver's license, passport and check book. After my initial trip to Cuba, I added the pictures I'd brought back of my grandparents and other family members and their baptisms, weddings and quinceañeras. These had been saved by my uncle Orlando in a big box for years and I was not going to let any hurricane obliterate their existence.

Fourteen years later, I've scanned and digitized all the old family photos. Most of the photographic evidence of my life in the last decade, including Malanga Girl's birth, was digital to begin with. When I arrived in New York this past October 28th, I had bags full of water, canned beans, dried fruit, bread, rice cakes, and tinned sardines and meat (hello, Vienna sausages!). I had a little girl who had no real idea what a hurricane was, except for to understand that the power could go out at any moment. She helped me put the flashlights and candles in places where we could easily find/use them in the dark. And she ate dinner, brushed her teeth and put on her pjs in record time Monday night, "in case the lights go out." We hunkered down in the master bedroom together, where I would know exactly where Malanga Girl was should we have to leave in the middle of the night or should the wind shatter any windows in the apartment. I had my purse next to the bed, with money, passports, my phone, a change of clothing and some of Malanga Girl's books. I didn't hunt around the house for birth or marriage certificates since all of this was scanned less than a year ago for our French visa application. Sometimes bureaucracy has its benefits.

I woke up to the sound of the wind a few times Monday night, but in the morning, everything was calm and still. I looked out the back window and saw a few fallen trees behind our building, as well as strewn leaves. But there was no water pooled high anywhere in sight. I waited until Malanga Girl was awake to gingerly test a light switch. We both held our breaths in anticipation. Click! On went the light. Malanga Girl cheered and sang, "we don't need candles!" We ripped open a pack of Thomas' English muffins in celebration and pulled the butter from our still-humming refrigerator.

Then I turned on the news. By now, everyone knows how devastating the effects of the hurricane were, but I felt sick as I watched the fires in Breezy Point and the floods in lower Manhattan on the screen for the first time. While it was comforting to know first-hand that the piece of New York around me was quiet and undisturbed (something I would have no way of immediately confirming had I woken up in France that morning), I could not help but think "why were we so lucky?" It made for a very complicated inner life, one that joins other emotional baggage accumulated while professionally dealing with other people's trauma for years.

I had Malanga Girl and her happy crew of friends to distract me a bit (school was cancelled all week), but I needed to still the chaotic buzz in my head otherwise. Keeping my hands busy is usually a good trick. Keeping them busy clicking away on my phone to get the latest news on the New York Times web site, however, was not calming. So I turned to baking.

I love to cook, but have never thought I had much aptitude for baking. It seems too exact, too scientific. Just like I remember all the chemistry experiments I failed at in high school (the liquids never turned the color they were supposed to or evaporated before even getting to that point), I clearly remember the cookies that melted into each other on a sheet or the breads that didn't rise at all. But something about it being such a challenge makes baking a form of meditation for me. I cannot let my mind wander when I am trying to follow a baking recipe. I have to methodically go from step 1 to step 2 to step 3, put my hands in there, grind, mix, mold, and next thing you know, I have something in the oven and a clearer mind and lighter spirit. I baked my most-ambitious cake until then on the eve of Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, baked not just pumpkin cupcakes, but pumpkin cheesecake, too. I had to wait until the local grocery store had restocked their eggs to make either, but once I had a fridge full of eggs, I was zen baker-girl for almost a whole day. It was good for the soul.

Better still for the soul was that I donated the cupcakes for a neighborhood-organized hurricane relief effort. They were sold for a dollar each alongside cups of hot chocolate donated by the local Starbucks. It felt like everyone in the neighborhood was out, buying or contributing baked goods, and organizing boxes of donated clothing and food that some neighbors would later drive out to the Rockaways, despite the gas shortage.

The cheesecake I ate with some friends who came over one night after Malanga Girl had gone to sleep and for their company, I am eternally grateful. Gone are the days of weathering a hurricane alone at the Kenny Rogers Roasters.

The picture above was what Malanga Girl drew when I prompted her to depict Hurricane Sandy. (I was inspired by the "Kids Draw the News" feature of the New York Times.) She says these are the trees that were still standing in our neighborhood after the hurricane. I need to take a cue from my child and her eternal optimism!