17 February 1998
On Monday, February 16, 1998, I had an encounter with the Finger of God.
Not having shopped for clothes in half a decade, and being the growing boy that I am, it was time for a new suit. I decided to sample the sartorial splendors of Dillard's department store in First Colony Mall in Sugar Land (First Colony is a Yuppie Entitlement Zone between Richmond, where I work, and Houston, where I live, and the mall there is the newest jewel in Houston's mercantile crown). On the way to the mall, I noticed storm clouds gathering in the west, behind me, but thought little of them. After all, spectacular atmospheric displays are commonplace in this part of the country, where the gridiron-flat coastal plain affords an unobstructed, panoramic view of the sky for miles in every direction.
I parked outside the mall and entered the two-story Dillard's building by way of one of the doors that open directly to the outside. In the men's department, I was waited on by an older, distinguished-looking salesman who had that rare knack of being able to fit the right apparel to the customer without making an issue of the latter's morphometric idiosyncrasies. "Hey, this is so painless, I think I'll get fitted for another suit," I advised myself smugly. Of course, the salesman had no objection. As we selected another suit to try, the salesman remarked that the wind was starting to kick up outside. "Yep," I thought, "Even as much as I hate clothes shopping, I'm better off in here than out there fighting rush-hour traffic in a thunderstorm!"
As I slipped into the dressing room with the suit trousers, I noticed that the wind was really howling. Apparently the room was up against an exterior wall. I dropped the first suit's trousers and, with the characteristic one-foot hop, started to put on the pants from the second suit. Then, "Whooom!" and "Whooom!" again. It sounded like the mall was being shelled. With the second blast the air filled with dust and bits of flying insulation. A few more whooms in rapid succession, and the lights went out. It was pitch black with no source of light in sight.
I guess I knew it was a tornado by the second boom, and my first mental image was one of "Hot Lips" Houlihan in the shower prank scene in the M*A*S*H movie, or worse, that lawyer in the outhouse in Jurassic Park. There I was in my skivvies, socks, dress shirt, and tie. All I needed was big, baggy boxers with hearts on them to complete the Benny Hill-esque tableau. My next thought was something like, "Please let me get my pants on before I die. I don't want my body found half-naked, especially with all this Clinton stuff in the news." Then my mind slipped into footnote mode and burlesqued a gravel-voiced anchorman: "The Presidential sex-in-the-office scandal took a bizarre turn today as a prominent pathologist and former resident of Arkansas was found inflagrante delicto at the site of a shopping mall disaster..."
All this happened in about two seconds; I wish my mind worked this fast when I am doing pathology.
Anyway, the lights came back on in about fifteen seconds. I could hear the screams of many women in the distance (well, maybe not all women; Michael Jackson may have been in the store, too). Scrambling into my pants, I left the dressing room and went down the hall about twenty feet to be met by a view of the parking lot, a view that seconds before had been obstructed by a solid brick veneer wall. Looking up toward the sky, I saw the cone-shaped cloud begin to dissipate and recede into the overlying dark purple pall. I thought I caught the end of a whispered message from God: "...and the horse you rode in on, materialistic ingrates! Now it's off to Iraq for some real Old Testament action. Catch you on the flip."
The musing ended with my first desperate thought: "My car!" Leaving the salesman with the reassurance that I would return, I trotted out the door through which I had entered. There were a few scattered dazed people in the lot, no one injured apparently. The car was fine; the alarm had not even been activated. I decided to walk around the corner to view the wall damage from the outside. Expecting to see a ten-foot square hole, I was astounded to find the entire two-story wall, fifty or sixty feet long, had been peeled off the building and was lying across the sidewalk, a tattered mass of fluffy insulation, brick, and twisted metal members. Naked offices glared blankly from the denuded second storey. No security officers were in sight. I yelled to see of I could get any response from anyone trapped under the debris, but I heard no human voice until the cops started arriving and shooing people off.
I went back into the main part of the store, the horizontal surfaces of which were covered with bits of insulation and chips of the square things they make suspended ceilings out of. The screams had died down as the store emptied of employees and shoppers, who were directed to the Cosmetics area near the mall entrance. My salesman remained doggedly professional, fitting me for the second suit, and, noting that the store infosystem was still fully operational, began to ring up my purchase. As the card reader cheerily validated my Visa in the growing silence, the store manager appeared out of the dust, looking justifiably upset but still in charge. "You'll all have to gather in cosmetics, Gary," she said to the salesman, "There may be a second funnel cloud coming."
He looked up at her, hiding any annoyance. "Sure, as soon as I ring up this customer's two suits," he emphasized.
"Oh," she said, impressed, but perhaps not aware that they were half-off markdowns, "Of course. No hurry." Every profession has its absolute priorities, I guess.
She left, and the purchase was completed. As the parking lot was cordoned off, it looked like there would be a barricade between the outer door and my car. Accordingly, I decided to exit by way of the mall. As I approached Cosmetics, I began to hear what I thought was a heavy rain. "And me without a raincoat. Damn!" I thought. But it wasn't raining; the sound was that of gallons of water pouring into Cosmetics through the many can-shaped ceiling fixtures that normally provide the sparkling light that makes overpriced crystal perfume bottles so visually appealing. Now they only served to display ruin in stark, clinical detail.
The water on the floor was already about a centimeter deep. I walked through the flooded area nonchalantly. Every employee was standing in the mall looking back into the store as their last customer exited, so I did not want to appear rattled. Glad to be alive, I'm sure, but equally troubled about their financial prospects, they looked like they needed an icebreaker. I approached the first group and said, "I hate it when this happens."
Well, at least I got a few smiles.
As I got back on the freeway, the setting sun peeked through, sandwiched between the horizon and the still dense cloud cover. Heading out toward the east, I was treated to the apocalyptic vision of a purple-black sky adorned with an exceedingly bright double rainbow. My exhilaration grew as the thrill of my great fortune slowly sank in. Had I been twenty feet from where I was at the time the twister hit, I would be dead.
You know, I haven't thought about declining Medicare reimbursements even once today.