BRIDGEPORT – Slumped on a cot at Bassick High School Sunday evening, Maurice Ballestas was exhibit A that emergency evacuation shelters have open door policies.
Scattered about him were the remnants of his improbable journey: His round-trip bus ticket from Hartford to New York, half used, laid across his backpack; his Streetwise Southern New England Map, purchased on a whim in Stamford, folded on his blanket; his clothes, still soaked through, 12 hours after he’d stumbled into the shelter; and his boat shoes, which served as hiking boots, propped against a fan.
“It was the longest I ever walked,” he said, relaying the tale of his 20-mile overnight odyssey from Stamford to Bridgeport, which took place as Hurricane Irene was closing in on and then buffeting the region. “I’ve pretty much slept all of today.”
Hoping to spend a day with an old friend, Ballestas, a 34-year-old Hartford resident, had taken a Greyhound bus Saturday morning to New York, arriving at the Port Authority terminal about 11:30 a.m. – only to learn that outgoing travel was closing at noon.
He might have turned around and left. He might have booked a hotel. Instead, he and his friend lunched over pizza before he haggled with cab drivers over the return fare to Hartford. The going rate was $500, well above the basement deal he’d hoped the approaching hurricane would grant. But then he stumbled on what seemed almost too good to be true — $100. “To Hartford?” he kept asking. The driver said yes. He climbed in.
A while later, though, as the cab cruised along the highway for Connecticut, the misunderstanding arose — the driver thought he was heading for Stamford. Hartford, the driver said, would cost $500 — just look at the GPS.
Ballestas argued with the driver. Then he argued over the phone with the driver’s boss. Then, fed up, he asked to be dropped off in Stamford. He would find another way to get home.
About 6 p.m. Sunday at the Bassick shelter, a full 24 hours after he arrived in Stamford, Ballestas marveled at how difficult finding an alternate way home had been. He failed on two occasions to convince strangers to bring him as far as $50 should go. He couldn’t get a connecting bus or train from Stamford.
Instead, he walked into Wallgreens and bought $20 of supplies – a pair of women’s socks that say “No Nonsense” on the toes, blister pads, Gatorade, water, two brownies, and the Streetwise Southern New England Map.
When he returned outside, the sky was dark and cloudy, but not raining. He plotted a course along Route 1 for New Haven. He planned to have a friend pick him up there when he arrived Sunday.
Of course, he’d known the hurricane was coming. He’d considered the storm overhyped. Sitting on the cot Sunday night, he still believes he was right. “I walked through it. It wasn’t that bad.”
The rain started when he was walking through Darien. His umbrella first turned inside out in Norwalk, which, with its nearly seven miles of Route 1, seemed like the longest stretch of the trip. It was in Norwalk that a car of teenagers pulled up beside him and he thought he might have a ride. Then the car drove away.
Eventually, he arrived in Westport. Crossing the bridge over the Saugatuck River, he gazed right at what he thought was the biggest parking lot he’d ever seen. Then he realized it was the Saugatuck River, swollen and about to overtake the bridge.
It was in Westport that he saw more police officers drive by without asking what he was doing than anywhere else. “I’m just really surprised that no one offered to help me,” he said Sunday. “I know people are really distrusting these days. But you think people are coming together, looking out for each other. No one even asked: Where are you going in the rain?”
So onwards he trudged, four miles into the heart of Fairfield. Nearing the end of the Post Road, he stopped inside a gas station to use the restroom. “Oh,” the attendant deadpanned. “How’s the weather out there?”
It was in Fairfield that Ballestas finally lost his bearings, even after tucking himself beneath the Filene’s Basement overhang on lower Black Rock Turnpike to consult his map. Instead of following Route 1 up Kings Highway East to North Avenue in Bridgeport, he headed down Commerce Drive, bound, perhaps fortuitously, for State Street.
Disorientated now, he stumbled into a gas station for directions. “Where am I?” he asked about 5 a.m. “Bridgeport,” the attendant said. Having never visited the Park City before, he inquired after the bus station. “Keep going straight on Fairfield Avenue,” the attendant said, as the wind and rain was picking up dramatically outside.
Shortly after, he found a police officer at yet another gas station and asked about the bus station. “You need shelter?” the cop replied. “Go straight two blocks and turn on Clinton Street.”
Waterlogged, weary and willing to halt his progress, Ballestas ended his 20-mile slog through the elements at the Bassick High emergency shelter. With no cots available, he accepted a blanket and collapsed in a heap on the hard, tiled floor. Hours later, when the storm had passed and the first big wave of evacuees (there were 450 of them here at one point) began returning home, Ballestas claimed a cot.
On Sunday evening, as most of the 110 evacuees left were eating pizza in the school’s cafeteria, Ballestas cleared his objects from the bed, spread out his blanket and prepared to sleep.
“I have a job interview in Hartford tomorrow with AT&T,” he said.