"You want lox? Bagels? How about some gefilte fish? Arthur, offer the lady a schpritzer!"
Linda and Hal and Marshall and Arlene and Marilyn and Arthur and their kids and their dogs were making the best of it in Room 221 of Merrick Avenue Junior High School.
Outside, the hurricane bent dogwood trees in half. Fallen power lines electrified huge puddles in the street. A savage wind blew broken glass down the sidewalks. Meanwhile, their houses were quite possibly awash in eight-foot waves.
But within the institutional green-painted walls of a ninth-grade Spanish classroom, "We're having a little party," said Linda Goluboff, a psychiatrist.
At 6:30 this morning, Goluboff roused her husband and her 14-year-old daughter, called her friends, the Cohens and the Libmans, and said, "We gotta get out of here!"
As the electricity sputtered in their century-old house by the shore, they evacuated, along with about 500 other families in this middle-class suburb who took up residence in the squat brick school, the largest of Nassau County's makeshift evacuation centers.
In the auditorium, which became hot and stuffy as the day wore on, men slouched in cramped seats, resting their heads on transistor radios and snoring through the latest bulletins from WINS all-news radio. Children whined. A woman stretched out on an exercise mat near the stage with two pink-cased pillows and a tiny Scottish terrier.
"I was afraid of bedlam," said Marc V. Silbergleit, the shelter coordinator. "But people are calm. They've pulled together."
On a wall of the classroom staked out by the Goluboff party, a teacher had tacked up phrases to learn: "A Donde? Que? Cuando? Porque?"
But accountant Arthur Libman, savoring a giant cigar, was paying no heed to the Where? What? When? Why? of the situation. Squinched in an adolescent-sized desk, he buried his nose in the latest issue of "Byte, the small systems journal."
Marshall Cohen, an optometrist, was also ignoring the hurricane, while munching on Jarlsberg and telling amusing stories about this Egyptian diplomat who was flying back to Cairo today from the United Nations and just wouldn't be able to get his glasses in time.
"Can I get in a plug for my client?" asked Hal Goluboff, an advertising man. "It's Bully Toilet Bowl Cleaners. I just knocked off one commercial, and I got five more to go for a meeting Tuesday."
He launched into a jingle, singing, "Don't be bullied by your bowl, bully your bowl instead!"
On Merrick Avenue, a huge tree had fallen on a yellow Cadillac. Most stores were boarded with plywood, and only the Merrick bake shop remained open, as Terri Nace, 40, sold rich chocolate brownies with the aid of a flashlight.
Above the bake shop, Leonard Schreiber, an orthodontist, had taken refuge from his shoreline home with his wife, two sons, sister, brother-in-law and nephew. The sign on the receptionist's desk says, "New Patients Cheerfully Accepted," but even the old patients weren't showing up today.
To kill time, Schreiber started putting new braces on his son Steve, 14, who already seemed to have a full complement. But the electricity failed.
Schreiber had a comment for the news media. "I want to say one thing for the record," he said. "The police are doing a fine job. They're putting their lives on the line . . . . "
"Oh Lenny," interrupted his wife, Emily, shoving a salami sandwich at him. "Don't be so dramatic!"
Outside, sirens shrieked, fire engines screamed by and the wind tore huge sheets of green aluminum siding off the front of "Gene's Stag Shop." Emily Schreiber went back to addressing her PTA envelopes, and the kids settled down to a game of Dungeon Dice.
Back at the school, two strangers sat on the radiator making lackadaisical conversation. "Were you around for the hurricane in '38?" Leisel Appel, a saleswoman at Bloomingdales, asked Marcus Horowitz, a furrier.
No, Horowitz was in France. Funny, said Appel, so was I. Both, it turned out, were in the same orphanage at Brout-Vernet, near Vichy. The orphanage was for Jewish children whose parents were sent to concentration camps before the war.
"In forty years, I have never met anyone I knew here," said Appel, who lives three blocks from Horowitz. "It was so exciting," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "We had a reunion!"
As if by magic, the wind and rain subsided. A disembodied voice over the PA system announced, "We are now in the eye of the storm."
Outside, the sun shone blindingly through the mist. A strange stillness spread over the trees. Men, women and children poured out of the school to look.
The radio predicted tornadoes. "The worst is yet to come," said an announcer, recounting that the storm's backlash was over New Jersey and heading straight for Merrick.
"It's like the Oz, but I don't feel like playing Dorothy," said Isabel Liotti, a restaurant owner, frowning as the tornado report came over her radio.
But the dreaded backlash passed overhead, or over there, no one quite knew where, and by late afternoon families were trickling home to survey the damage.
"I respect nature," said Liotti philosophically. "I respect God, and this is his thing."