What Is a Cistern?

I fell asleep in a meeting like this once. The conference room had a Southern exposure. Sunlight flooded in. In fact, this meeting was all about flooding. Flooding in the South suburbs. How to stop it. My presence wasn’t needed. I was a field guy. I did cost estimates. The analysts here, all engineers, talked about design parameters for preventing flooding – cisterns, permeable pavers, watersheds, District Meetings, baselines, Community Overlap, Ward aldermen. The sun made me sleepy. I thought about lunch. I could see the South Loop and knew of a restaurant that had great fried fish. If I stretched my neck, I might be able to see it. I was more interested in seeing a clock. There wasn’t one here, unless it was directly behind me. If I turned around, they’d see how bored I was. I tried to keep that a secret. I didn’t at that last meeting.

But they all droned on about their flooding analysis and how they could be sure it worked and whether it was the right flood control design. How do you measure that? By manhole freeboard, acre-feet, inches of rainfall? No one knew. I suggested a new parameter.


How do you measure grief? They all seemed keen on this new concept. I said that as long as we were trying to make things better, why were we only discussing floods? We should compare all kinds of grief from natural disasters – floods, forest fires, tsunamis, typhoons, mudslides, hurricanes, volcano eruptions. That got them going. Everyone had a story of personal tragedy, or one they read about. Everyone wanted to show they knew grief better than the next one. One guy lived through Fifi, one through Katrina, one was vacationing in Indonesia when that big typhoon hit. Someone else read about Mount Saint Helens. But no one knew how to quantify it.

I said,” you do that by the way people scream.” The volume level of the peoples’ screams should tell how severe the flood or volcano eruption was. I heard that in the Johnstown Flood, for example, people wept bitterly for days. An engineer bested me, saying that during Katrina, people did more than weep, they gnashed their teeth from the rooftops of the Lower Ninth Ward.

“That’s nothing,” an environmental scientist named Tabitha said. “When Andrew hit Homestead, Florida, people bawled their eyes out for weeks when they saw the devastation.”

“Were you there?”

“No, but I heard.”

“You heard them?”

“No, but I heard about them.”

We all compared screams until we were tired and finally concluded screaming was too subjective. We moved on to visual representations of woe and suffering.


“I saw a Dust Bowler disconsolate during the Depression. An Okie.”

“I saw a couple consoling each other after the Mississippi flooded in ‘27.”

“I saw a family of three huddled in a pickup truck, where they slept after Betsy went through New Orleans.”

I suggested the photograph of the young naked Vietnamese girl running down a dirt road when her village was being napalmed by American airplanes. Everyone knew this photo. Everyone agreed that this girl, with her crescent-shaped howl, was the ‘baseline’ to which all grief should be compared to. Her mouth captured the raw terror of someone confronted by evil, stupidity and malice. We ignored the fact that this wasn’t a natural disaster. It was man made. We had done this. We had created a disaster that no natural cause could equal. There was no plan to stop us. We were a force more powerful than Nature, and more stupid. It made us scream. We started screaming at our stupid meeting, screaming at the cisterns, screaming at the conference room, screaming at the clock behind me, screaming at our own stupidity trying to outdo each other coming up with better, more compelling images of grief. We screamed until our bellies ached and then fell to sobbing.

Someone passed our conference room with the bright sun over the Loop streaming billions of photons our way, heard our wailing and remarked, “Sounds to me like they’re hungry.”