Hurricane Irene Victim Gets Little Sympathy

Or, how I was reminded that when someone asks how you are, they don't really want the truth

I can’t remember which of my Facebook friends it was whose post said it all: “Irene, Schmirene. That forecast was all wet.” Starting Sunday morning they came in fast and furious like that, all basic renditions of “What was the big deal?” and “What a joke!” and “Thank God everything turned out OK.”

Hmm. Not for everyone.

Yesterday I was in Lambertville, that lovely little hamlet we all love to window-shop through and eat an ice-cream cone in along the Delaware River, and where I happen to own an 1855 Federal townhouse that I bought in 2005 with the thought that it would prove to be a lovely country retreat, a place I could come home to each night and enjoy as a bastion of gracious living.

It wasn’t so gracious yesterday, I have to tell you. Almost seven feet of water had crashed into the basement in a flood both violent and mysterious (no one can really explain what happened, given the Delaware River itself never reached flood stage), leaving a swath of destruction that left the house without power, with damaged electric and gas service, and with a muddy mess in the basement I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It looked less like Lambertville than it did Kandahar Province.

So you’ll pardon me if I didn’t post “Thank God everything turned out OK” on my Facebook page.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at these kind of sweeping declarations anymore, such a fitting reflection of the vainglorious culture in which we now all live. Our societal mantra now seems to be, “If it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen.” For those of us unfortunate enough to be in Lambertville or Whitemarsh or Darby or certain sections of Yardley, for whom Irene’s exit only signaled a fresh and even more dire round of misery, this hurricane was certainly a “big deal.” The forecasters may have focused too much on the Shore and not on the rivers, but the fact remains that hurricanes are nasty, life-changing events, and no matter where they land, whether it’s West Cape May or West Trenton, someone gets hurt in the process. Really hurt.

But who wants to hear all of that? Many of the people who casually inquired how I had fared in the storm were openly flummoxed when I began to tell them my (abridged) tale of woe. Asking “Were you OK after the storm?” is simply the upgraded version of the “Hi, how are you?” expressed in elevators and office hallways. Nobody really cares how you are, right? But they have to say something. And heaven forbid if the answer is anything but “OK” or “Fine.”

I don’t expect people to hold a fundraiser for me (though I confess I have at times during this ordeal fantasized about it, the way one might fantasize about striking up a friendship with Angelina and Brad). But for God’s sakes, people, has empathy completely vanished from the civic conversation? I’ve been amazed at how many people, hearing some of what has happened (and I swear, I have kept it a brief summary), have appeared cuckolded, slowly backing away with some ridiculous comment (“I’m sure it will all be fine” is my favorite) and an expression that screams, “Please don’t ask me to help you with anything.” There is a larger issue here. We’ve become a society where reports of any hardship—a natural disaster, special-needs kids, a parent with Alzheimer’s, the loss of a job—is met not with, “What can I do?” or even “I’m truly sorry to hear that, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be,” but rather a stiff smile, a slight head shake and an unspoken “Thank God that isn’t me.” And then a silent internal sigh, as the mind goes off to wondering what to have for dinner.

We’re better than this, people, especially in hard-knocks Philly. And remember the timeless adage: The next time, it might be you. If it is, be prepared. Because the silence is deafening.