When you write for a newspaper in Florida, you write a lot about hurricanes and how to cope with them I did this piece two mornings after one of the biggest ones hit us.
OUR GOOD LIFE HAS CHANGED . . . FOR NOW
For Cecile Levant, the search for a cup of coffee took her all the way from Century Village in Deerfield Beach to North Federal Highway in Boca Raton.
And to, of all places, a hardware store.
She stood outside the front door of Belzer's Hardware Co. on Wednesday morning with her fellow huntress, Merlene Humphrey, a home health aide who works in that same Century Village.
They had money in their hands from five neighbors who had the shared hope they'd come back with the small item that loomed large in their notion of survival: a Master Glow Backpack/Expedition Stove.
It is a contraption with two pieces: a grapefruit-size propane canister and a spider-shaped metal stovetop, which can grip a small pot or a can of beans, and heat it over a flame.
This feat seems almost like magic when the electricity is out for you and 6 million of your fellow South Floridians.
It was the second post-Wilma day that Levant and Humphrey made their way to Belzer's, their second 20-minute wait to be let in the door.
"I love a cup of coffee in the morning," said Levant, a pert white-haired woman in a pink workout suit, explaining her need for the stove. "That's why I'm so determined."
Most days you wouldn't notice Belzer's, though it's been at the corner at Northeast 32nd Street for 50 years. North Federal Highway in Boca Raton is mile upon mile of stores for designer kitchens, imported furniture and custom home-entertainment units. It is an avenue devoted to creating your very own luxury environment.
But Wilma has violently turned environments like North Federal upside down. Now, all the interior-design showrooms are closed. You see twisted metal storefronts, dangling power lines, crushed gas station overhangs, high-rise patios without guardrails, broken trees. The Boca Diner's roof looks scalped.
One of the only signs of life on Wednesday morning was the line of a dozen or so people standing outside the unglamorous old hardware store, clad in plywood and streaked with spray-painted words advertising the new must-haves:
Ash Singh, who bought Belzer's nine years ago, opened it Tuesday. He had about a half-dozen people to help out and a generator to run a few lights and the computer/cash register.
He was open for 10 hours, when most other merchants were closed, and planned to be open 10 hours Wednesday.
"A godsend," Humphrey said.
Agit Singh, a friend of the owner's, had driven up from his home in Coral Springs for a chain saw. He stuck around to help behind the counter. He said the biggest demand was for generators ("We're taking orders"), portable stoves and chainsaws.
Luckily, a telephone line was working -- a rare thing this week -- so the staff could restock.
"We've got a big truck coming tomorrow," Agit Singh said.
In the trying Wilma aftermath -- no electricity, no running water, no after-dark travel, but lots of debris to pick up and repairs to make -- the mood at Belzer's was cool. People were patient.
They were nice to one another.
You wouldn't know it was South Florida.
Jim Buckman, who lives west of Boca, got in line in hopes of scoring adhesive. He needed to repair a half-dozen roof tiles and figured the wait would be too long at a mega-store like Home Depot.
Ahead of him in line stood Larry Gabriel, owner of a wireless-services company, and his engineer, Bob Barnett. Their 8-foot satellite dish shifted during the hurricane, though it was anchored to six yards of concrete, and was no longer sending signals. Now, they needed a big wrench to try to loosen bolts so they could readjust the dish's direction and get it working again.
Valerie Oliveira and her son Leo, 9, had smaller-scale needs: lamp oil, a lamp wick and candles.
Their one disappointment: Belzer's was out of Sterno.
"They said it was coming tomorrow," Leo said.
Levant and Humphrey were thrilled to find the gas cylinders they needed. They bought 10 of them: $4.25 each, same price as usual.
They planned to come back today for the top pieces, when a new shipment was due. But then Ash Singh told them they'd misunderstood.
Those pieces wouldn't be coming for a week or more.
When she heard that, Levant told Singh: "My heart just dropped."
The cylinders weren't of much use without the tops. So, they returned eight of them. Agit Singh, all smiles, gave them refunds.
They'd have to go looking all over again today, Humphrey said.
"At least we're still standing here talking," she said philosophically, "not like those poor people in New Orleans."
They drove away, trying to keep their spirits up, not knowing how much patience they'll need or how long it will have to last.
For all of us, the good life is being redefined as success in finding a hot meal or a shower or a reading light.
And none of us knows how long we'll be forced to recalibrate life's pleasures and pains this way.