Nonfiction Issue #47

Imaginary Maps 5
Image: “Imaginary Map 5,” by Fabio Sassi, photography, 11×8.5 in., 2019

Song for No One’s Backyard

By Steven Moore

Jim McCrumb always told the same stories to every new batch of student employees. Jim had been a manager at the university bookstore for a long time. He spoke gently. He smiled. He had gray hair. He liked surrealism. One of the stories Jim McCrumb told over and over was about his friend, a painter, who once painted a warehouse scene that Jim adored: in the painting, a forklift was raising a pallet to place it among a lot of other pallets, and you had to look close—you had to glance again—you had to refocus—to realize that what sat on the pallet being hoisted by the forklift was not a stack of boxes but a huge porcelain coffee cup on a huge porcelain saucer. 

            Steam rose from the cup.

            But it took a moment to see that.

            First the scene looked ordinary—boring—then the boredom got overturned by the ridiculous.

            Or not the ridiculous, but seriousness in a different way. 

            Suddenly the warehouse was a site of delicacy. 

            Suddenly the forklift driver was taking great care not to spill the coffee. 

            The way Jim McCrumb explained his admiration for the warehouse-coffee-cup painting, you got the sense he felt the painting’s weirdness required a certain bravery. Like the painting was a very steep bet. 

            You got the sense he had this bravery within himself only on occasion.

            I liked Jim.

            Jim never fired anyone even when they probably deserved it. He gave everyone a lot of chances. He let the store be slightly inefficient due to a surplus of errors. He knew exactly how much leeway he had, and disbursed the leeway generously. His generosity seemed to imply a belief that the work would get done no matter what. That the work would always get done. That the books would eventually arrive to the people who needed them. His manner seemed to presuppose that the world was indestructible. It’s possible I’m projecting. But that’s how the world seemed to seem to Jim McCrumb.

            He explained where to stack the books and where to shelve them.

            He had a system.

            The work always got done.

            Batch after batch of students arrived and he showed them how to do a bookstore.



I had been working in the bookstore for one year when the store was destroyed in a flood. The bookstore was in the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union, which sat beside the Iowa River, which bisected the campus in Iowa City. In the summer of 2008 the river exceeded its banks by nine feet and flooded twenty buildings on campus and nearly a hundred homes. 

            The river went inside the Memorial Union. 

            The river went inside the National Guard armory and the water treatment plant. 

            The river was on top of the interstate. 

            The river was on top of First Avenue in the next town over. 

            The river was in places that were usually nowhere near the river.

            Engineers drilled holes in the pedestrian bridges, so the river would flow through the holes instead of tearing the bridges off their foundations, which had happened in other towns.

            The pedestrian bridges were saved.

            The armory and the water treatment plant were not.

            Both got demolished.

            The present we had been living in got demolished.

            The present got demolished not just by a new, updated edition of the present, but by the future.

            The future came in hard. The future arrived with some real enthusiasm.




When something like this happens, you have to get creative.

            The art building was destroyed, so art classes were moved to a former hardware store. 

            The auditorium was destroyed, so the ballet performed at theaters in Chicago and Des Moines. 

            The orchestra performed at a casino conference room. 

            The magician performed at a local high school. 

            The brass band performed on the campus lawn. 

            The bookstore was destroyed, so our books were moved into the Old Capitol Mall, uphill from the river, into a space recently vacated by a consignment shop. Jim instructed us to stack boxes of textbooks in the dressing rooms but there were not nearly enough dressing rooms, so warehouse space was procured at a building on South Gilbert Street, a building the university owned as a distribution center for apparel, supplying shirts to the football stadium. Jim dispatched five of his most experienced students to be a team at the warehouse. The people who already worked there made room in the refrigerator for our lunches. I remember Michelle, who had worked for the bookstore longer than me, assessing our new space. The forklifts. The incredible heat. The isolation. Pickers climbed ladders, grabbing plastic-wrapped shirts from plastic buckets, fulfilling internet orders. Almost everyone listened to headphones. Except Linda. Linda who managed receiving, and who had worked in the warehouse for many years, was cheerful almost all the time, and wanted to talk to everyone to tell them how they were doing such a great job. 

            Michelle was thoughtful, articulate, friendly, and I remember she said this about Linda: 

            You would have to have a good attitude to work in a place like this.

            Like the place would drain you. 

            Like the sadness was inevitable.

            Like the joy was nothing but a learned barrier, an emergency response to the environment.

            I tried to have a good attitude. I liked the work sometimes. Lifting the boxes, driving the pallets around, it was physical work, and physical work made me feel useful, like a horse. And it was physical work in service of intellectual work. The books were about physics, business, microbiology, macroeconomics. Intro to Literature was teaching The Handmaid’s TaleAutobiography of Red, and an anthology of short stories with James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Flannery O’Connor, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I liked the weight of the books. The space they took up. Trucks backed against the loading dock so we could scoot pallet jacks between the wooden slats and haul the work of Anne Carson into a huge room where it waited for its trip to the store, where at least one student would take it from the shelf, carry it to their dorm, open it up, start to read, and think, Wait, you can do that? You’re allowed to do that?

            You are.

            You are allowed to do that.

            In fact, you have to.

            You have to puncture the bridges to make way for the water.

            You have to place a coffee cup where, at first, it does not seem to belong.

            You have to come at it with a little creativity.

            You have to have a good attitude to work in a place like this.

            You have to get used to it.

            You will have to spend a lot of time in places like this.

            Most places, in fact, will turn out to be like this.




I was living in Iowa City again. I had graduated from the university, then spent an intervening year in Afghanistan. My fiancée Jessica and I rented a studio apartment on South Clinton Street, one block from the county courthouse, with its two looming sandstone turrets, and one block diagonally from the post office where Jessica had mailed letters to me during the time I was gone. The apartment had a bright red bathroom floor. Our mattress lay in the corner of the main room. The porch had a porch swing where we sat and drank coffee and planned our wedding, which would take place at a hotel four blocks north, downtown, followed by a honeymoon on a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea, followed by our plan to move to California. We felt we didn’t belong in Iowa City anymore. 

            In the meantime I needed work, so I brought my resume to a temp agency. 

            They paid me to serve pizza at a biotechnology research conference.

            They paid me to serve barbeque pork at a wedding reception at the Old Brick Church. 

            They paid me to answer phones for a construction contractor, which was bidding on the renovation of a sports arena in Cedar Rapids. The arena had been damaged in the flood three years earlier. The renovation would require subcontractors for plumbing, electrical, flooring, a special firm to rebuild the escalators, all of whom faxed in their estimates the day the bid was due. I checked the fax machine every five minutes, but Mark, the project manager, said that wasn’t often enough, I want you to stand right here in front of the machine and tell me as soon as an estimate arrives. So I was paid to stand right here in front of the fax machine and as soonas an estimate arrived, I hurried the paper over to Mark’s corner office so he could assemble the company’s bid, which was rejected.

            I was paid to answer phones for the planning department at city hall, while the regular secretary was on leave receiving cancer treatments. I answered a call from a woman who wanted to know if the city had dispensed a white panel van to her block. The van had been parked outside her home every day for a week. I asked around the office and learned the van did not belong to the City of Iowa City, and offered to transfer her call to the police department.

            I scanned documents. Faxed documents. I brewed coffee.

            I loved brewing coffee.

            When I first came home, I had brought my resume to every coffee shop in Iowa City. Overseas, I had brewed coffee for my platoon. I loved sharing coffee with people. I loved drinking chai with the Afghan interpreters and security guards. How you could stop in the middle of anything and become closer to people if you had a hot enough beverage. But no shops in Iowa City would let me brew their coffee. So I made it for the planning department. 

            People love to arrive somewhere and be told the coffee is on.

            They say, Ohthankgod.

            They act like they have been searching all night for a hospital.

            They act like they have been holding their breath underwater and just pierced the surface.

            They act like what you have done is a miracle.

            So I made coffee. I answered phones. I read the city’s planning documents. Here is what I learned: After the flood, the city had invited “key stakeholders” to do interviews about the future of the neighborhoods affected by the flood, including the neighborhood where I now lived, between downtown and the river. 

            The stakeholders had been invited to do “visioning.”

            The stakeholders had been invited to do a SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.

            A strength was proximity to the University of Iowa.

            A threat was drunken bar patrons.

            A strength was the Iowa River.

            A threat was flooding.

            A weakness was homeless population nearby. 

            A threat was new low-income housing.

            I learned the street outside my apartment would be widened into a promenade to better connect downtown with the new parks being built in the floodplain. A light rail stop would be constructed along the current tracks, dispensing passengers who would spend money at the new small businesses, described as local flair – ‘mom and pop’ stores. I learned my neighborhood was called Central Crossings, because people would be crossing through to reach the new beautiful spaces being made on the land the river had ruined.




For a month I worked in an auto parts factory just off Highway 1, a building I had driven past but never really seen. The factory molded plastic into dashboards and interior paneling. It had a shop where machinists checked out parts and tools to repair their equipment. Nothing in the tool shop had been inventoried in forty years, so a man whose name I’ve forgotten was contracted to do so, but the job was so big he subcontracted the work by calling the temp agency. I counted gaskets and spark plugs. Most of the parts were upstairs in the shop’s attic, walled in by chain-link fence and thus overlooking the factory floor. Shelves held motors the size of microwaves. The man in charge told me to make a pile of anything that looked broken and make a count of everything else. 

            I had no idea what was broken, so the man had to review the pile. Sometimes he would remove a motor, and say this is in fine condition and it costs ten-thousand dollars. Let’s keep it. 

            Like we were deciding together. 

            I’d say, Yeah, let’s keep it. 

            I organized the drill bits. I kept my counts on a clipboard. Grease stained the papers. Grease stained my jeans and t-shirt, stained through my shoes to my socks, through my socks to my toenails. My skin smelled like motor oil. I ate lunch in my car in the parking lot because the machinists intimidated me; the breakroom was loud and crowded and they would know I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t own steel-toed footwear. I didn’t know to bring my own earplugs and protective glasses to wear on the factory floor, so the supervisor had to lend them to me. On the floor, yellow lines marked where you could walk. Forklifts beeped around corners. Signs hanging from the rafters announced what vehicles the parts were being made for. 

            Jeep Patriot. 

            Chevrolet Corvette. 

            The factory wanted you to imagine the end result.

            The factory wanted you to keep your eye on the ball.

            Remember what you’re a part of.

            Some person in the future will be cruising the Pacific Coast Highway and you will have been the builder of their ecstasy, which means the ecstasy belongs, in part, to you. 

            It belongs to you in advance. 

            It belongs to you right now. 

            Try to feel it.




When I arrived back at the apartment, the only parking spaces in the neighborhood were on the other side of the tracks, and often a train was parked on the tracks because our street was not yet a promenade, so I had to climb over a hitch between the cars. The grease of the hitch didn’t bother me because I was already like this.




Jessica was paid to supervise the night shift at a shelter for kids who could not live at home. The kids had gotten in trouble with law enforcement, or the parents had, or the kids were transitioning from state-run care facilities to foster families. The shelter was south of the highway, on a side street, behind the grocery store. Even if you’ve lived in Iowa City your whole life you’ve probably never seen it. 

            Places like this are hard to find. 

            The most important thing is that they are not in your backyard. 

            Space that is no one’s backyard is usually no one’s backyard for a reason.

            Another word for space that is no one’s backyard is floodplain.




Jessica and I moved to San Francisco. We piled our things into the Taurus, which sagged from the density of our belongings, which made me feel sure we would break down in Utah or Nevada, but we drove and drove, and slept, and arrived, and lived at a hotel near the airport for five days before moving into a two-bedroom flat two blocks from Golden Gate Park—the forest I soon learned was built on a sand dune—and eight blocks from Ocean Beach, which I soon learned usually had a bulldozer crawling over it, shoving the sand back into place, trying to prevent the beach’s erosion into the sea. 




If you think a job is temporary, consider a beach.

            If you think a beach is temporary, consider an auditorium.

            Consider an arena.

            Compare the future to the present it demolishes.

            Compare what we thought the climate could obliterate to what the climate, in fact, can obliterate.

            Compare the National Guard armory, which still had horse stables on its lower level from the time it housed a cavalry unit, to the grassy park that was built on the same lot after the building was destroyed.

            The first time I walked to the beach, a bulldozer was tracking across the sand, trying to impose beach onto the continent’s edge.

            I’m just saying what you arrive to is already a frailty.

            I’m just saying who you become is a frailty.

            I’m just saying things are going to break.

            I’m saying they are breaking.

            I’m saying you better be ready to respond.

            You better be ready to do something.




In California, we lived with another couple. David was a developer working on an app that scraped songs from YouTube and imported them into a music player, for some reason. He was a DJ on the side. Olivia was an opera singer, with a rock band on the side. 

            Olivia’s voice was magnificent.

            Its power felt elegant, like the power of a star exploding. 

            She wanted to make it. 

            She was getting there.

            She had gotten a call-back from The Voice and now spent her afternoons rehearsing the song she would perform, a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” 

            Olivia’s voice was beautiful in a way that Thom Yorke’s voice was not—grander, and the grandness she gave the song made it more haunting. I overheard her sing this version of “Creep” maybe thirty times. She was hurt when the show rejected her. She knew it was silly and commercial but she had wanted it. She had dressed up for the performance. She owned a lot of elaborate costumes, with sequins and feathers. She knew you had to make the cameras look at you. She had arrived at the auditorium. People had noticed. They had looked. Olivia understood their looking mattered as much as the music.

            Olivia introduced herself as an opera singer but she didn’t perform with a company, or perform in public very often. For money, Olivia taught voice lessons on a piano in the living room. The piano is why Olivia and David had agreed to live in the flat. The piano belonged to the landlord, who once lived in the same space and, upon leaving, hadn’t wanted to move it. Once, Olivia wanted to make a music video, so she dragged the piano to the center of the living room and performed one of her band’s songs while David filmed her. She sat sideways to the piano, corkscrewing her upper torso to the keys. Later she explained this was a very difficult posture to hold for the length of the song, and indeed it looked forced and awkward and made me wonder why she wasn’t sitting at the piano the right way. But that was the idea. You were supposed to notice. The posture demonstrated her strength. That’s what the song was about.
 




I wanted a job at Starbucks so I could brew coffee, but it took them two months to call me back and by then I had gotten an office job in the Financial District. I worked for a start-up, though technically I worked for a staffing agency, which contracted me into the office where I worked. 

            Because I was not technically an employee of the company, I was ineligible for benefits. 

            Most of the employees of the company were not employees of the company. 

            I received minimum wage. I rode a bus from the city’s oceanside to its downtown, which smelled like cappuccino and piss and bread being made. My office was on the seventh floor of the Shell Building, which stood on the last block of the city’s real ground. A line etched in the sidewalk showed where the true earth stopped and the landfill began—where in the nineteenth century ships abandoned by gold miners were sunk in place, buried, covered with asphalt and concrete to create room for more city. To impose cityonto the water.

            The company where I worked didn’t require a special skillset, so it attracted artist types. 

            Marta drummed in a band. 

            Rebecca cartooned. 

            Andrew played jazz. 

            Celeste modeled. 

            Julie studied poetry at a graduate program. 

            Tyler was the ringleader of a steampunk-inspired alternative circus that performed at a warehouse in Oakland. 

            It was important to have something else going on.

            Your something else made the office more tolerable, and made you a more interesting person. 

            You’re here, but who are you really.

            You had to provide an identity that would overturn the fact that you worked in an office.

            We rooted for each other’s identities. We showed up. 

            We saw Marta’s band play at Bottom of the Hill. 

            We went to Rebecca’s art show, where they served craft beer and made-to-order pancakes. 

            We went to Tyler’s circus and afterward got drunk with the fire eaters while two trapeze artists dangled upside down from silk curtains in the middle of the room, making out with each other. 

            Of the kissing, Tyler seemed proud, like the quirkiness of the PDA was an expression of his own personality.




David and Olivia argued. We heard them. Their bedroom was supposed to be the flat’s dining room, but it was advertised as a bedroom to increase the rent. The room had one door into the hall and one door into the kitchen, and David sealed off the door into the kitchen by stuffing the top and bottom with towels, but it didn’t matter; the room lay in the center of the flat. It had been planned as a space to gather.

            I’m just saying we heard them. 

            He threw things at her. 

            He screamed.

            Objects shattered against the wall. 

            I didn’t intervene. 

            Neither Jessica nor I knew what to do with them. 

            From the beginning, they seemed to believe we were simple, adorable Midwesterners. Like our presence in the world was anachronistic. David and Olivia were not from the Midwest. She was from Portland. He was from Beirut. The Midwest astonished them. We did not own anyelaborate costumes. We had nothing outlandish to wear to festivals or parades, and sometimes chose not to attend festivals and parades. We didn’t listen to Skrillex. Once, I was hand-washing a dish in the sink and David asked if I knew we had a dishwasher. 

            I told him I’d noticed it. 

            He told me hand-washing wastes water. 

            I said okay. 

            He said it really does. 

            He pointed at the dishwasher and said: Do you know what centrifugal force is?

            We were people who probably hadn’t heard about centrifugal force.

            We were people who probably would’ve sat at the piano facing forward.

            We would’ve worn slacks to the audition.

            We would’ve sung “Creep” exactly as Yorke had done.

            We had different sorts of lives.

            Their shit was their shit, or so I had convinced myself.

            When people tell you who they are, you are supposed to do something.

            When the present demolishes the present, you are supposed to respond.




On the seventh floor of the Shell Building, the company’s engineers—all rock climbing enthusiasts—took a break every day at 2:00 PM to do push-ups in the conference room. Tyler joined them. Doing push-ups in the conference room thrilled Tyler. When the engineers walked over from the engineering side to the operations side, he glowed. It was a way of having something else going on. It was a hedge. You had to protect yourself from the possibility that what you were being paid to do amounted to an identity. 

            Andrew, the jazz player, grew up in Ohio and had come to San Francisco from graduate school in New Jersey, where he studied jazz performance. Andrew was a tall, skinny white guy with bony cheeks. His joints seemed to protrude because his limbs were so narrow. He played the trumpet, which he called a horn. During our lunch breaks, he told me about going into New York City at night to play clubs, putting his name on a list and hoping he got called to the stage. Hoping he knew the tune they called out. 

            He never called them songs. They were tunes.

            You get up there and the band leader calls a tune, and you just have to know it. 

            You have to be sharp.

            Andrew worried he was losing his sharpness. Fewer clubs. Fewer bands. His neighbors complained whenever he played, so he started going to Golden Gate Park at night to practice scales and solos in the artificial forest, where his sounds were drowned out by the waterfall.




Andrew told me he was once paid to play jazz on a street corner in his college town in Ohio because the town had wanted to seem more cultured. He was supposed to appear to be playing for the loose change of passersby but received an hourly wage.




Once, Andrew and I were having beers at a café on Balboa Street and while standing in line for another beer he began flirting with the woman in line behind him. She asked what he did, and Andrew said he was a musician. I could hear them from the table and thought to myself, Bullshit you are. You work in an office, same as me

            But I admired what he heard in the question. 

            She had said, What do you do? 

            He heard, What do you love to do?




Andrew tried to teach me about jazz. 

            Why Hank Mobley and Freddie Hubbard were geniuses.

            Why it was such a tragedy that Clifford Brown died so young.

            That Clifford Brown was doing it right.

            That Clifford Brown avoided the substances that kept killing jazz musicians. 

            He lived clean. 

            He focused on the art.

            He died in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at age twenty-five. 

            I said I had never heard of him. Exactly, Andrew said. You would’ve though.

            Andrew explained that not all jazz is improvised.

            That not much jazz is improvised. 

            That perpetual spontaneity is not the point.

            You have to know the standards.

            You have to know what to play when you’re called to the stage.

            You have to begin the tune from somewhere, together.

            You have to begin with a kind of mutual precision, a mutual belief in the beauty of the tune, which eventually means taking the tune beyond itself, and this beyondness requires live creativity.

            More is possible but it must be brought into the room anew.

            It must be brought into the room every single time.

            It must be what you love to do.




One day Andrew announced he had gotten a new job as an office manager for a start-up.

            One day Tyler announced he had gotten a new job as an office manager for a start-up.

            One day a Boeing 777 crashed into the tarmac at San Francisco International, which is built on the edge of the peninsula. Runway 28L stretches out over the bay, and the plane’s landing gear and tail clipped the seawall. The tail and both engines broke off, and the plane skidded down the runway. Jessica and I watched the pillar of smoke from our living room. The broken aircraft remained in place while the crash was investigated. Flights continued to land on Runway 28L, taxiing past the fuselage that had killed three people and injured 187. One person had been ejected from the plane and run over by a fire truck responding to the flames. The truck hadn’t seen them because so much foam had been sprayed at the crash by other trucks, and the person died concealed in the foam.

            One day Jessica and I moved to a college town in Oregon where I was paid to teach writing at a land-grant university. One student, older than me by two decades, wrote about how his spouse had died in a motorcycle crash. One student wrote about growing up near the Bakken oil fields amid a culture of unrelenting sexual violence. One student wrote about the joy of surfing. I never knew if I was helping. I never knew if I was doing what I was being paid to do. Sometimes their writing improved but sometimes it didn’t. The older student, who wrote about his spouse dying, was often frustrated with me, because I never told him if I liked his writing. I told him what I thought he was trying to achieve, and how he might continue going about it. 

            But that’s not what he wanted to know. 

            He wanted to know if I liked it. 

            We disagreed about what I was being paid to do.




After teaching, I was paid to do administrative work at a homeless shelter. The shelter was on a side street of a side street, behind a corndog factory which was behind a faux-Mexican fast food restaurant. People who had lived in the town for decades had no idea what street I was talking about. They had no idea what building I meant. You had to drive over a little bridge to get there. It was next to the train tracks. By the Toyota dealership. The tributary of a powerful river crossed through the shelter’s backyard, which flooded every time it rained.

            Threat: flooding.

            Weakness: homeless population nearby.

            Threat: new low-income housing.            

            Jessica worked there too, writing grants. She worked down the hall. The shelter was upstairs from us and we could hear when the kids woke up and started moving around, their feet pounding between us.

            The university’s volleyball team brought holiday presents for the kids. 

            The football team brought free tickets to their games. 

            Fraternity men came for a tour—they were planning a fundraiser for the shelter and first wanted to learn about its programs. When the men heard we were looking for donations of winter coats, they began to remove the coats they were wearing. They took off their jackets. They pulled their sweatshirts over their heads and said here. You can have these. They made a pile of coats. One of them asked, Do you need shoes? And started to take off his shoes.

            I was paid to share this story on social media. I almost cried while I wrote it. 

            Maybe that’s silly.

            Maybe it was nothing.

            Compare their generosity to their privilege.

            Compare the coats they gave to the castle they lived in. 

            And yet. I still love what they did.

            And I hope the men are still like that.

            I hope they are like that more often than once.

            I hope they are constantly prepared to offer whatever they have right now, right now.




Part of my job was human resources, and one day a shelter assistant was fired. I don’t remember why, but I remember disagreeing with the decision. Courtney worked the overnight shift, the same job Jessica had worked eight years before in Iowa City. Courtney’s manager waited to fire her at the end of a shift, at 8 AM, a tactic I also disagreed with. Courtney was exhausted, then she was unemployed. She came to my office and sat in a wheely chair and cried for thirty minutes. She told me this was her first job out of college. How was she going to pay rent? How was she going to buy food? How was she going to get a new job in social services if she was fired from her very first job in social services? The office cat circled the wheels of her chair. She was going to miss the cat. I nodded. I listened. I ordered her last paycheck from the finance office, then left the job for a different one.

            One day at my new job, I was taking money to the bank, and Courtney was my teller. 

            She looked miserable.

            Probably not because she worked at a bank.

            Probably because I had just walked into it.

One day at my new job, I received a text message from Jessica that the shelter was on lockdown. My new office was between the shelter and the police department, and police vehicles started zooming past. 

            City police. 

            Sheriff deputies. 

            State police. 

            A man had brought a gun into the corndog factory and started firing. 

            I logged onto a Facebook group where people who owned police scanners reported all the stuff that was happening on the scanner. A SWAT team was brought in. The Toyota dealership was being locked down. The faux-Mexican restaurant was evacuated. 

            Then it was done. The SWAT team did what they were paid to do. The man was arrested. No one was injured. The next day, the newspaper reported how certain nearby businesses were evacuated or locked down. The newspaper did not mention the shelter, even though it was the nearest building to the factory and the only nearby building where people lived. Even though the shelter was in the factory’s backyard. Between the factory and the creek. 

            It was in that backyard so we wouldn’t have to think about it. 

            When people decide to forget about something, they are often successful.




One day at my new job, I was paid to attend a training designed to help nonprofits prepare for the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, also known as the Really Big One. The idea was that nonprofits would be important in responding to the catastrophe because they are already adept at serving people in crisis, people who need emergency food or shelter or clothing. The training was in Eugene, and a man in the audience suggested that Eugene should prepare for an influx of people fleeing the tsunami-devastated coastline. The trainer shook his head. The trainer said, No. You don’t need to prepare for an influx. Nobody will be fleeing the coast. People on the coast who survive will not be able to flee because the mountains of the Coast Range will be impassable.

            The bridges will have all collapsed. 

            The roads will have ruptured. 

            Every community will be an island. 

            What we are talking about right now is rescuing each other.

            Your literal neighbor. 

            That is the most you will be able to do.

            It is still a lot to have to do.

            Some in the audience volunteered that they had trained in first aid. 

            Some had learned to triage a mass-casualty event.

            Some had experience communicating with satellite phones, because of the recent blizzards.

            Some had experience evacuating the elderly, whose homes had been threatened by the recent fires.

            We talked about transportation issues that had arisen during the recent flood.

            I’m just saying you have to stay sharp.

            You have to stay sharp for a lot of reasons. 

            You have to know what to play when your name is picked from the list.

            When the bandleader calls a tune.

            The tune is only the beginning. 

            Whatever you prepared for is only the beginning. 

            Whatever you prepared for you have to exceed.

            You have to corkscrew your torso to the piano as an intentional display of strength.

            You have to arrive at the present with some enthusiasm.

            You have to have a good attitude to live in a world like this.

            You have to love it.

Steven Moore

Steven Moore holds a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Oregon State University. His debut book, The Longer We Were There: A Memoir of a Part-Time Soldier (University of Georgia Press, 2019), won the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction. His essays have previously appeared in Kenyon Review online, The Georgia ReviewNinth LetterEntropy, and the anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War (Middle West Press, 2019), among others. He is a contributing editor at Moss: A Journal of the Pacific Northwest and currently resides in Corvallis, Oregon.

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