Waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for the Hurricane

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Growing up in Ireland, my only exposure to hurricanes was Chris De Burgh’s song, Waiting for the Hurricane, which, actually, made the whole thing sound rather glamorous. Now that I’ve been living in Florida for 23 years, I can attest that the reality is anything but. Here’s what waiting for a hurricane is – it’s boring.

You heard right. It’s boring. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to imagine. Unlike most catastrophes, which tend to be unexpected, or sudden, hurricanes announce their intention to visit well in advance of their arrival. Irma has left one of the longest calling cards in history. We’ve been watching her track towards us for more than a week, with vacillating dread and optimism. When it was confirmed, a few days ago, that we would likely feel an impact our lives went into hurricane preparation mode.

Being in hurricane preparation mode is something that is difficult to explain. It’s like having a massive heart attack written in your calendar for a weeks’ time, and everyone in a couple hundred miles radius of you is getting one too. And there’s absolutely no way of knowing if it’s really going to happen at all, nor if it does, how bad it’s going to be. Like, we all know death is coming for us eventually, but when a hurricane is tracking towards you it’s like Death is your Uber driver, winding ever closer to your house.

Now think about how that influences your interactions with the people in your daily life. After shutting up our school in advance of the hurricane, my co-workers hugged and said things like, “See you on the other side”! In Cork, where I’m from, it’s not unusual to end an interaction with a nod of the head and a generalized salutation of, “Good luck”. The same salutation is said in Florida when you’re in hurricane preparation mode, but with a bit more of depth of meaning. “Good luck – I hope your house doesn’t get blown away and that all the people in it don’t go flying off too”. “Good luck – I hope we see each other alive again at some time in the future”. “Good luck – may the odds be ever in your favor”. It’s surreal. I’ve taken to saying, “Have a lovely hurricane”, or the slightly less fluid, “May you be minimally impacted”.

There is a list of prescribed things to do when a hurricane is coming your way. You must fill up your gas tank, buy bottled water, canned food, bread, batteries, flashlights and, if you’re flush, a generator. Ironically, medical examiners confirm that, generators tend to kill more people than hurricanes – still, you’re in good shape if you have one. Depending on where you are, or your general level of attention to detail, you may need to board up windows or get sandbags. Everything I’ve just mentioned will become incredibly difficult to buy in the days before the hurricane hits. You’ll spend hours in line for petrol and sandbags, and feel like you’ve won the lottery if you happen to find yourself in a shop that has just had a delivery of bread or water. Bread and water – not normally symbols of good fortune are now the most coveted of commodities. You’ll measure your wealth in them. “Oh, we’ve got eight cases of water; we’ll be fine”, as though the hurricanes will sense the presence of the bottled water stock pile in your house and, acknowledging your superior preparation skills, pass over you.

Hurricane consumerism is a thing. People are financially impacted by a hurricane long before the first leaf flitters down from a tree in their garden. Even after we’ve checked all the boxes on the Must Haves list, we are compelled to wander around shops in the off chance that there’s something we forgot to get. I must have tuna. Canned soup calls to me. E batteries – I don’t even know what they’re for, but I need them. I think my very existence may depend on having baby wipes. I know I forgot something!

There’s also a rule that you must eat all the perishable foods in your house before the storm arrives. There will be no electricity and no garbage collection and you simply don’t want to deal with piles of rotting food in your house. It takes a lot of dedication to get this done, but it must be done.

Generally, we’ll have all the tuna and baby wipes in a full day or two before the storm actually impacts us. The patio furniture will have been secured and we’ll be as ready as we can be. And then what? We sit around watching the news telling us it’s likely we’re all about to die, and we start to get antsy. That’s when pre-hurricane snacking will start. Hurricane snacks are meant to distract us while tornadoes are whirling outside our windows. However, despite being stuffed from all the eggs and cheese we’ve had to eat while doing our due diligence, the waiting and waiting for the hurricane to come leads to snacks being devoured long before the first drop of rain falls.

Beer. They won’t show you that on CNN, but as well as the bread, water and canned goods aisles, the beer aisle will be decimated. I can personally attest to that, partially because a good one eighth of our grocery store’s stock is now stacked on our kitchen floor. Hurricanes are conducive to drinking. So much so, that a standard warning broadcast in Florida when a storm is approaching is not to get too drunk until after the storm. Like, we know you’ll be drunk, but try to hold it together a bit until the worst of the threat of death and destruction has passed.

To summarize, the storm is still a day away and I’m broke and I’m fat. To that injury, add this insult – the pubs will all be closed for the next two days. Last night, shopping and exterior prep all done, I went out with friends to Hurricane prep my liver a little. That’s when we found out that all our favorite local spots will be closed until Tuesday. This is devastating news, especially when it’s not unusual, in the hurricane preparation period, to feel the strong urge to sit in a pub with your friends to discuss how unconcerned you are about the hurricane.

Unconcerned, watching and waiting, but NOT hunkering down. Even though this is something that we are required to do in hurricanes, I think it involves some form of squatting, and I’m definitely not doing that. I am also not going to batten down any hatches.

Nope, none of this is glamorous at all, but Chris De Burgh was right about one thing; “[t]here ain’t no place to hide, waiting for the hurricane”. For now, so, I’ll just sit here, on my kitchen floor, with my beer and my canned soup (darn it – no can opener!), and hope for the best. See you on the other side.

Waiting for the Hurricane (Irish Times)

Hurricane season in Florida runs from June 1st to November 30th. Veteran Floridians know that those five months are also silly season for local news and weather shows; the slightest bit of movement off the coast of Africa is likely to lead to pronouncements of impending doom. Usually the cloudy clumps on the weather map disperse or veer off, leaving the TV weather guys crestfallen, and the rest of us chuckling at our own insightfulness in not having been bothered to begin with. Sometimes, however, the pronouncements are accurate.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is a prime example of that. Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, hit a year before I moved to Orlando, but my cousin Val ran into it on his honeymoon in South Florida, and described it terms that put hurricanes right at the top of my “things I may not like about living in Florida” list – even beating alligators, mosquitos and snakes.

And of course, I didn’t arrive here a veteran Floridian; my first few years in residence I watched every slight swirl in the Atlantic with the exact degree of attention and trepidation that the weather guys wanted me to. Ten years in and I had noticed a definite pattern of dissipation or redirection, leading me to become almost native grade blasé about the whole hurricane thing. Until Charley, that is.

In August, 2004, it became clear that one particular swirly mass coming headed towards Florida was not going to fade into oblivion. Veteran Floridians tend to play chicken with hurricanes. Even when the weather guys were yelling, “we really mean it this time”, it was only when the storm was a couple of days out that we started to pay attention. In fact, I went straight from blasé to terrified with no stops in between.

There’s something incredibly surreal about an approaching hurricane. We could see the storm tracking towards us on our TV screens and there was nothing we could really do about it other than stock up on water, canned food, batteries, flash lights, ice and such. The grocery store shelves were ransacked. I remember thinking it was odd how bread was such a hot commodity (people seem compelled to make sandwiches in hurricanes). Alcohol, more understandably, is also a hurricane staple, and hurricane parties are actually a thing.

In 2004, my husband Tom and I had expanded our tribe to include a one-year-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. We got as prepared as we could. We brought in outside furniture and anything that might become a projectile. We stocked up on the recommended supplies, filled the cars up with petrol, and reckoned the rest was out of our control. Then Tom had to go to work; he’s a firefighter and is wont to be at work during hurricanes and such. That left me, our three children, my mother, and our friend Colin, taking shelter in our little tree shaded bungalow as the winds picked up.

We watched the TV coverage for as long as we could before huddling into a small interior hallway which we had furbished with a single bed mattress, blankets, flashlights, water and food. Listening to the winds whipping outside, punctuated by the occasional crash and bang, was totally unnerving. Tornadoes were a worry so we tried to notice changes in the stormy concerto; anything that might signal that impending doom we had heard about for so long. The storm seemed to last for hours, but when things finally quieted down, Colin announced that he would venture out to assess the damage. We had heard one particularly painful metallic crunch, and that turned out to have been the swansong of my mini-van, which was discovered to have a large tree directly down its middle. Our cul-de-sac looked like a war zone and a huge pine had fallen across it’s exit, essentially imprisoning us.

The aftermath of the storm was even more traumatic than its visit. The damage to the scenery of our daily backdrop was deeply disturbing. Piles of debris stacked in front of houses sat there for weeks as our utilities companies struggled to meet the need. Worst of all was the fact that damage to the lines left us without electricity for a week. No electricity is a challenge under any circumstances, but in August, in Florida, it was unbearable. My three sweaty babies cried often and emphatically. But little by little, not helped by the subsequent visits of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the damage was undone and we scratched our way back to normalcy.

Shockingly, I have since grown blasé again about hurricanes. That’s likely a function of time, but also a probability thing – we hear the names of the storms as they form in the Atlantic or in the Tropics but since the majority of them really do fizzle out, we don’t pay attention. Until now, and Matthew.

As I write we are hours away from meeting the massive Matthew. I gave Matthew the same sparse attention I normally do when a name is first announced. Matthew didn’t fizzle out though, and here I am, twelve years post Charley, sitting in the same little house, waiting for a storm which our state governor earlier announced, “. . . will kill you”. My Weather Channel app sent me a notification a few hours ago which said, “Get Out Now”. Yet, I’m trying to remain optimistic.

We have two cases of water, food, batteries, candles, flashlights and petrol. All the patio furniture is stacked and the basketball hoop is reclined. Like last time, Tom’s at work and Colin will be over soon to spend the night. The toddlers are now teenagers (so deodorant is currently a hurricane staple too). The rain is here now and the trees are starting a slow dance. We will watch the wind pick up and our sense of foreboding will increase as daylight dwindles. We will attend to the TV for as long as it’s safe, or until the power goes out, whichever comes first. We will hole up in our safe space and listen to the harsh notes of the storm playing outside. This time we will have smart phones to keep us informed (for as long as the towers stay standing) and laptops to keep us distracted (for as long as the batteries last).

The TV weather guys won’t get to sleep tonight, and chances are we won’t either. There’s a heaviness around the uncertainty of what this night will bring. Either we’ll be digging out tomorrow or we’ll be wondering what to do with all the sandwiches and batteries. We’ll know soon enough.


Bye-bye, Baby

When my first-born, Ciara, was four I enrolled her in a half day program at a local Montessori school. I was a Montessori teacher (taking a year or two out for reproductive purposes) so it made sense that I would want her to reap the Montessori benefits. I prepped Ciara for that first day; we toured the school, bought the snacks, I talked it up, but on the day she was due to start, about ten minutes into the new morning routine, she asked me to sit on the couch with her. “I’m not ready”, she said. “Me neither”, I replied, and that was that. Ciara never made it to preschool.

She was reading, and social and doing just fine without preschool, I told myself, but there was no reasonable way to avoid kindergarten. We toured the school, we bought the backpack, we talked it up, we met the teacher, and on one warm August morning, with her three year old sister on one hand, and her soon to be baby brother kicking around my innards, my husband, Tom, and I walked our little Ciara into Blankner K-8 to begin her educational journey.

She was ready then. I still wasn’t. I held it together in the school, encouraged by her total excitement and absolute confidence. I held it together in the car, not wanting to upset little Aoife. But, when I got to the bathroom at home, I took a look at my sorry self in the mirror and started to bawl. Oh, how I wept. I wept for Ireland. I wept for the “loss” of my child. I wept for the “loss” of Aoife and (unborn baby) Tomas’s time with their big sister. I wept for the books we wouldn’t read together, the Dragon Tales episodes that would go unwatched, the playground trips we’d miss. I wept for the loss of control. I wept the ugly weep, with snot and slime and deep, reverberating sobs. After about thirty minutes, with my husband knocking on the door to check if I might ever come out, I looked at my red, swollen face, hair “glued” haphazardly  across it, and knew I had to get myself together. Life would go on. We would adjust. She’d be back at 2:45 PM, after all.

Jump forward in time 13 years. The way I just said that is kind of the way it was –  a short jump. Ciara, now 18, had finished her elementary and secondary education. She had played a blinder (despite the deprivation of preschool). She was class president all four years of high school. She joined soccer and swim teams, she soared academically, but more than all that she was a very decent and kind human being. Tom and I had one end goal when we decided to have children; to raise people whose company we would enjoy as adults, and we knocked it out of the park with Ciara. But now, having raised a person we really liked, came the cruel irony of college.

In America, college age kids have a tendency to move away, far away, for college. Back in my day you took the bus to UCC (University College Cork) or the Tech, and were back home in time for the dinner. Parents generally had to beg their children to move out at some point in their twenties. Despite a concerted effort on my part to extol the merits of online college (which could be comfortably attended from the kitchen counter) our American girl had indeed set her sights very far away. Indulgently we drove her to visit universities as much  as ten hours away, but heaved deep, deep sighs of relief when she accepted an offer from the University of Florida, a mere one hundred and twelve miles from home.

Once the decision was made I entered a long and lovely period of denial. I was finishing up my Master’s degree, starting a new job and we were planning a big celebratory European trip to mark multiple family milestones; it was easy to put the college thing on the long finger. A few weeks out from move in day and Ciara told me about moms of her friends who were already openly weeping at any mention of the upcoming nest departures. I was cool as a breeze (though I did find myself humming the Beatles, She’s Leaving Home, at odd times).

The weekend before she left, I went dorm room shopping with her and, though I acknowledged on some strange level, that something was about to change, I still managed to remain aloof. On the one hand I was proud of myself for being able to put her excitement above my potential grief, but on the other I thought it was odd that I was feeling so detached. I speculated that maybe my experience as an emigrant helped me put it all in perspective – she wasn’t leaving us to cross an ocean, after all. That was probably it.

I got through packing and the pile of boxes by the front door feeling calm. My sister came by on the morning of moving day to say her goodbyes. She had confessed to being weepy for days at the prospect of Ciara’s departure, and I had her well warned to “behave”. No sooner had she sat with her cup of tea, across the kitchen island from me, than she sighed deeply, “I remember when she was just born”. Tears stung my eyes, and my heart actually hurt. I shook my head, “Oh, no. We are not doing that, Audrey. No, no, no!” But, by the time the “last” hug was given in the driveway, my sister’s sorrows had me beginning to really feel my own. But I kept it together on the drive up there, thankful that Aoife had come with us in place of Tom, who had to work. I did find myself glancing sideways in the car a lot to see the face in the passenger seat, beginning to realize I wouldn’t be seeing it so much anymore.

Arriving at UF we got elbows deep in the move in process; lugging and hefting in 98 degrees. One elevator trip per family was the rule and with an entire van load of boxes and bags, that meant quite a few lumbering, sweaty stair climbs. Once everything was in the dorm room we set about the fun decorating stuff; hanging pictures and mirrors and setting up the extra long twin bed to make it feel like home. Finally came unpacking the clothes. This is when I really began to feel it; we were going to soon be at the part where we left her. As each bag got unpacked my dread grew. I slowed my unpacking pace, tried to remain upbeat, but my voice was cracking, there were deep sighs, and I know she caught my watery eyes a few times. She started to get a little less excited too, realizing soon she’d be on her own. Thankfully, she had a Rush Week orientation to attend at 7 PM, which meant we ran out of time to linger at an emotional goodbye. I drove her to Whatever Hall, hugged her hard and said goodbye. Yes, crying a bit at this point. As we drove away, I watched her in the rear view mirror walking off into her future without me.

The two hour drive home was not as awful as it might have been. Aoife (for once not having to call shotgun) snoozed and I listened to News Radio to stop my thoughts from wandering. I was good, I told myself. She’d be good. It would all be fine. Exhausted I turned onto our street, feeling pretty darn proud of my levels of stoicism throughout the day, but then I saw it – her car. Her car parked outside our house. Our house that no longer had her in it. That was it; the floodgates opened and I was transported back to that first day of kindergarten – a big snotty, sobby mess, and this time she was not going to be home at 2:45 PM.

The sobbing lasted for about two hours on and off that night, and there has been intermittent sobbing since. Don’t tell me how great it’s going to be – I know. No need to remind me that she has entered the best days of her life – I get it. No one is more delighted for her or proud of her than me. And her leaving – we did that – we explicitly raised her to leave; it was all part of the plan. But just for now I’m indulging my sadness about losing the company of one of the people I love the very most from my daily life. I’m lamenting not knowing how she’s feeling throughout each day, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s done, where she’s going. I’m missing the sound of her laugh from the bedroom, her random hugs, her funny stories. And I know that life will go on. I  know that I will adjust. But I also know that it won’t be anytime soon.

Pulse (for the Irish Times)

On Saturday I woke to the horrible news that a young singer had been senselessly shot while signing autographs at a venue just 5 miles (8km) from our house. I shook my head and lamented the loss of this young life, and the fact that Orlando would now be synonymous with the violent act of one crazed man.

On Sunday I woke up to the sounds of helicopters hovering in the airspace over my house. Scrolling through my newsfeed minutes later I learned, with horror, about the shooting at Pulse Nightclub, less than a mile from our front door.

I pass Pulse every day on my drive to work. In its past incarnation as Dante’s Restaurant, my husband and I and a group of friends used to enjoy Thursday happy hours there every week. Since it became Pulse we’ve visited a few times, even held my sister Audrey’s hen night there a few years back.

Now, the early morning news said, 20 people were lying dead inside those walls. I tried to wrap my mind around that, and couldn’t.

I stepped out front and saw our neighbour Fred across the street, partially obscured by the large rainbow flag that flies in his yard. I put my hands up to the sky – what gives? Fred walked towards me with tears in his eyes. We hugged and he told me that he was frantically trying to get hold of his brother, who is often at Pulse on a Saturday night. He told me he was leaving for church. I told him I felt I needed to go too.

I hastily dressed and 10 minutes later was sitting in a pew at Christchurch Unity, a non-denominational church with about a 50 per cent gay congregation. People were hugging each other, sitting looking stunned, crying. Fred told me he’d been in touch with his brother and he was safe. I listened to the uplifting message of tolerance and love and, feeling somewhat better, headed home.

My husband was home from his shift at Winter Park Fire Department by then. He had been unaware of events at Pulse. His crew did run calls for Orange County overnight, but hadn’t known why. He told me the number of dead had been raised to 50 and that this shooting, a stone’s throw from our house, was now being labelled the worst mass shooting in American history. None of us could comprehend the magnitude of that. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando. How is that possible? Down the road. Madness.

Our 18-year-old, Ciara, suggested we go donate blood. My sister had already dropped her young children off so she could do so too. I called home to Cork to let our parents know we were well.

At 10.30am we arrived at the blood centre to see a long line of people reaching out to the street and wrapping back around again into the parking lot. We found my sister Audrey, standing with our friend Lu Hanbury from Dublin, and began our wait. The crowd, a mix of all the demographics, was sombre. People were crying, hugging and expressing pure disbelief that such hatred and violence had visited us in the City Beautiful.

Volunteers were distributing water, snacks and sunscreen to those of us in line. June in Orlando is brutally hot. As we waited the donations got more elaborate. Local restaurants sent employees laden with burritos, ice creams, pizza and subs. An ex-Orlando Magic player, very concerned with everyone’s hydration levels, handed out water bottles insistently. A bank of portable toilets was delivered.

News crews from all over interviewed the people in line. We saw crews from Norway, China, England and Vietnam. The sombre feeling of the morning lifted as the hours passed by, and a strangely muted festive atmosphere settled in. We felt we were part of something, part of a solution, and we were held up by each other.

The lines were amazing; one reporter speculated as many as 1,000 people were at our site alone. When officials from One Blood came to speak to us, about three hours into the wait, to tell us we were likely to be in line for as many as five more hours, hardly anyone left.

Audrey and I had our donation plans thwarted by a Mad Cow Disease restriction on those of us who lived in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 90s. We waited with Ciara, because she was still free to donate. When she got to the registration point we left her to go grab a drink and digest the happenings of the day.

Shortly after we arrived at Vanbarry’s, a restaurant owned by a friend of ours, we realised we had been carried along on a wave of altruism and unity to that point. Separated from the crowd we were left to consider the reality of the violence. The two helicopters still hovering in sight were a stark reminder.

Loud music played and a large group of drunk people seemed oblivious to the fact that the worst mass shooting in US history had just occurred just 3km away. It seemed bizarre. I felt oddly annoyed that the whole place wasn’t full of people hugging and crying. Audrey and I sipped our beers and barely spoke.

I saw him then. A young man intermittently sobbing and staring into space. Wanting to share some of the solidarity we felt at One Blood, and wanting to feel that connection again ourselves, we went and hugged him. His friends told me he worked at the restaurant and had lost multiple friends at Pulse. I asked how he was even vertical, and they told me he needed to be with his work family – he needed their support.

Other patrons followed suit and shared their condolences and hugs. A few minutes before 6pm, everyone gathered around a TV for a live news report and, though not observed on the news station we were tuned to, one of the bartenders announced there would be a minute’s silence. Our friend fell to the floor and his support dissolved around him. It was heartbreaking.

My husband called from One Blood, where he had gone to Ciara, and I went to join them. It had been almost 11 hours since we first joined the line. Inside were the people who had been around us in that line, sun burnt and exhausted but still managing smiles. Amazingly, the staff inside the centre were still smiling too, even as the TVs on the walls reminded us of the horrific reason we had all come together.

News crews were still interviewing donors; a persistent crew from Vietnam filmed needles going in to veins. A photographer shot multiple frames of bags of blood lying on a cart. I watched my daughter’s blood flow into a bag next to her gurney and thanked God she was one of the people able to help, rather than one of those in need of help.

My daughter’s first time donating blood was on the day that the worst mass shooting in US history occurred less than a mile from our home.

I reread that sentence and still can’t come to grips with it. It was a long and harrowing day.

Here’s the thing I take away from this; evil visited but love lives here. One man brought the hate but thousands replied with love. Psychological scars will remain, and I wonder how long it will take, passing Pulse on the way to work, before I won’t think of this day. But I feel more bonded to my community now than ever before. Orlando Proud.


Half Expecting to get Shot

I admit that when I first came to America, I was a little terrified. My exposure to American culture mostly came from television and movie screens, and I was pretty certain that it was only a matter of time before I’d be shot. That will tell you how bad the Irish economy was at the time; I was actually willing to risk being hit by a bullet to escape it. So serious was this fear that I vividly remember spending the entirety of my first long drive with my mother folded over in the back seat of the car. Granted that, by American standards, the 90 miles from Tampa to Orlando isn’t a very long drive at all, but I was not taking any chances. I was ducked down seeking cover from the guy who would predictably (and possibly, deservedly) open fire on mother in a fit of road rage somewhere along the route.

Over time, noticing that I hadn’t actually been shot at all, I relaxed about the whole thing and hung up my bullet proof vest. Mind you, despite living in a decent enough neighborhood, there was a bit of shooting going on around me. Someone in the house behind and two doors down from ours, got shot dead in a drug thing a few years back. We were horrified when a cashier at our local grocery store was shot by her ex-husband not long after that. Sure, we had two police chases through our garden (nothing I’d ever have experienced in Ireland) but, dagnabbit, I was an American now and overall, having no personal bullet wounds, I was feeling pretty good about things.

 Then, one Saturday morning, driving my young daughter to a soccer game, a traffic detour took us through a less than savory part of town. Despite the shabby surroundings it was a beautiful day and I was drinking it all in as drove. I saw a clear blue sky, I saw a liquor store, I saw a run down motel, I saw a prostitute, I saw a young Hispanic man going for a jog, I saw his friend cycling along behind him. “How nice”, I thought, “two pals out for a bit of exercise on a fine day.”

As we got closer I saw the fella on the bike launch himself right on top of the jogger. An act of affection? Nope. An attack. I was appalled; not only for the sake of the jogger, but also for me. I had worked for years to convince myself that America wasn’t really like those movies after all (at least not in my actual, personal experience) and now this was going on right in front of my very eyes. In an act of high indignance, I slowed the car down to almost a stop and honked my horn very seriously. The message I hoped to convey was, “How dare you do that in broad daylight, AND in front of me and my child? How very dare you?” The cyclist got up, never turning in my direction, and casually pulled out what looked a lot like a gun. “OH, NO, NO, NO!” I honked. “NO, YOU, DO, NOT”. He seemed to pick up on my tone. Or maybe it wasn’t me at all; maybe he was getting fed up of getting smacked by the jogger’s towel. Either way, he turned and seemed to wander off.

I drove on to the soccer field, my daughter and I both feeling a little shook. When we got to the game I realized that I should probably make a police report, just in case the jogger filed a complaint, and needed back up of his story. I didn’t even dial 911 – that was something they did in movies. I googled the phone number of the local police department and called them. The conversation was all very casual until I gave the location of the incident that I had witnessed. I was quickly made aware that my heartfelt and vigorous honking hadn’t saved the day at all; that the cyclist had turned back no sooner had I turned the corner, and shot the jogger quite seriously. Thirty minutes later I was back on scene surrounded by police tape and flashing lights. I was now a movie extra. I crouched down nervously behind a squad car, scanning the streets as I recounted my story for the police, fairly convinced I was now closer than ever to being shot. After an eternity, I was told that I could go. A detective would be out to my house later to take my full statement.

Sitting in the detective’s car on our street that afternoon, with painstaking detail I recounted my version of events. Midway through my very serious account I thought I caught a glimpse of amusement on the otherwise austere detective’s face. What was so funny? Did he take me for some Fresh off the Boat? I may not have been shot in all my time in America, but I was a bona-fide citizen by then. “So, a jogger, you say?” the detective asked. “Correct, a jogger.”  That amused look again. After a pause, the detective put down his pencil and turned around to face me dead on. “Ma’am, no one jogs in that neighborhood. No one. All running in that part of town is strictly of the “run-for-your-life” variety.”

I felt a bit deflated. Good Lord, I am still totally a Cork woman, I thought. I’m not a hardened American at all. I was even beginning to feel a slight bit twittish. “And the towel, you saw the “jogger” hit his alleged assailant with . . .” (dear God, make this nice detective stop talking to me now) “was actually a hammer.” Hmm. So not only was I not a good witness by virtue of never having seen the cyclist’s face, but now I wasn’t even credible on account of my seriously shaky powers of observation.

The experience left me with renewed nervousness and some lingering civic obligations. Those obligations finally evaporated – on account of my uselessness, I imagine. I did eventually get to meet the “jogger” face to face. Someone pointed me out to him at a court hearing, and he came over and thanked me for being willing to step up. I apologized for being so idiotic as to think that my honking had saved the day, and for not having called 911 immediately. He was gracious. He turned out to be a nice young man minding his own business that day, walking back from the hardware store, where he’d just bought a towel (okay, a hammer). He was an immigrant, like me. And the experience of being shot didn’t prompt him to run back to his motherland – he just moved to another American city. Nowadays he’s probably feeling decidedly superior in the fullness of his American experience. But I’ll have to give him that much. Me? I’m dusting off my bullet proof vest.