SHORT STORY | Hurricane Caffeine


Caffeine supplies were dwindling to dangerously low levels. Given the night of tornado warnings, this was a problem. As was the broken hurricane shutter.

Intermittent blackouts were rolling through the area more frequently than the waves hitting Brickell. This was a problem, as we no longer had consistent access to tea or coffee. And Facebook. I wasn’t sure which was worse—non-constant updates in a constantly-connected world or the headache sure to follow last night’s caffeine binge.

Neither was as concerning as the window issue.

The elevator seemed like a quick option, but, thinking better, I grabbed my keys and braced for the long trek from Floor 14 to the lobby. If anyone could secure the shutters, it was security.

Wind battered the stairwell facing Southeast, beating against the reinforced concrete like a tribal drum circle. Hypnotic. Supernatural. Slightly disturbing.

Fourteen flights went a lot more quickly than expected. Maybe it had something to do with going down instead of up. Maybe it had to do with the adrenaline. Or the caffeine.

As I descended, my mind jumped back and forth between the windows in my best friend’s room and my old condo on Edgewater Drive. Before the last “blip” in the TV service, Channel 7 had shown the Grove and Gables. Flooding. Trees down. Branches, too.

The Halloween flood of 2011 had hit Edgewater hard, floating BMWs and Civics to their final resting places across major roadways leading out of the neighborhood. Or bumpers halfway up a banyan tree. Reports of a nearby waterspout were unsurprising. I had to try five routes to get to the Metrorail and make my Statistical Consulting class on time that morning.

I made it to the lobby and found out that reports of spontaneously opening windows had been coming in for a while. The solution? Security closing them tighter, provided the shutters weren’t ripped from the building or windows broken by debris.

While I waited for help closing the shutters, I surveyed the tree carnage playing out like a B-movie thriller. Leaves pasted to the impact glass. Branches littering the driveway and battering the uncovered parking lot. Rain pelting everything as the palms groaned. I hoped the neighbors outside the garage had comprehensive auto insurance.

The shutters were secured for about 10 minutes when the next tornado warning was issued. Before I could get out of the condo to take shelter in the lobby, the power flashed and flickered, sputtering its SOS before giving up the ghost.

I’d been in a tornado before and did not wish to be caught on the way to the lobby. The last had been on my college roommate’s 21st birthday, a soiree on Milwaukee’s East Side. She was trapped in West Allis by the flooding, but the rest of us were in the apartment, talking near the back of the living room about the viability of the birthday plans given the storm when the windows shuttered and the car alarms shrieked. An EF0 straight down Kane Street, as well as the nearby bustling Brady Street art and bar scene. We looked at each other in surprise, noting the swirling beyond the windows. Yup. It was a tornado driving down the street.

I was glad security had secured my shutters. The power was definitely not coming back on, and we’d have to ride out Irma in the 2pm darkness. The building shook, and I heard the straining of the metal against the window. Staccato notes punctuated by eerie silence.

Glad that the outdoor temperature was lower than my usual thermostat settings, I knew I’d eventually need to ditch the sweatpants for something cooler and procure my water stash from the kitchen. The bathroom could get hot, even without the shower running. When the winds died down, I’d have to throw on a t-shirt and shorts.

My ears popped and popped again. I remembered the last cup of Darjeeling tea sitting on the kitchen counter, abandoned in my hasty retreat. I should have stashed some cookies and tea in the bathroom.

It was suddenly still, stiller than it had been for however-long-I’d-been-in-the-bathroom. The winds picked up again, freight-trains whooshing through the parking lot going to God-knows-where. It sounded like another tornado warning was nigh.

There was something hypnotic about the winds, ebbing and flowing like woodwinds in a symphony, like Vivaldi’s take on the apocalypse.

I, of course, was aware of the impending apocalypse and its various forms (or as aware as one could be). I had been since I was young. Grandpa had built the house after World War II; the furnace room—and a few other rooms—were built as bunkers in case of nuclear war, always stocked with water, snacks, and Mountain Dew. I used to crawl between the rooms, lost in a maze of intersecting indoor tunnels connecting rooms to each other and to various patio exits. As a kid, they were toys and games; as an adult, they were the smartest feat of engineering I could imagine.

Irma wasn’t the apocalypse (or so I hoped), but she shed light on the fragility of civilized society, particularly the repercussions of a divided one. What would the guy in the pick-up—filling his tank on one pump and gas cans with another 3 as he blocked the station entrance—do when he ran out of food or water? Chicken plates sounded like a good investment. Or maybe a tank.

I’ve learned over the years that it doesn’t take much to put society—particularly a politically-divided one—over the edge. A famine like Sudan or Somalia. Illegal funding sources for factions in Sri Lanka. Or an economic tilt pushed past its tipping point like Rwanda. Even inner-city Milwaukee under growing equity disparities. Growing up around diplomats and Bosnian refugees had a way of painting one’s world view. Years in medical relief work only accentuated them.

At the societal tipping point, coffee would be the least of our concerns (though a cup would still help). It could be that neighbor who watched your kids, that boy from elementary school, or even the coworker with whom you always ate lunch. Most war criminals don’t start out as such. The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments elucidated that much.
The wind knocked at the windows like a kid who’d forgotten her key. Rain crawled up the window sills, snaking behind the shutters. I was glad that they were shut tight.

The lone tea cup sat in its corner of the kitchen, growing colder as the bathroom sweat. It was about half full, staring at the nearby chocolate-covered espresso beans.

3 o’clock. How had it only been two hours? It reminded me of relativity in reverse. The winds were moving faster, but I was standing still (well, sitting still on the bathroom floor). Yes, time was passing slowly for me—too slowly, slower than it had for a while. Or maybe it was just a byproduct of the espresso beans I’d downed for lunch.

Life is a bit like caffeine. The comforting routine of that first morning cup, especially on a cold, dark day. The excitement of trying a new roast.
The panic when the last bag finally runs out.