Monday, July 24, 2006

Stone Soup

Walk through this experience with me:

Your power is out. It's the second time this week. The first time, it was out for less than eight hours. But this time, you hear through the crackle of static on your battery-powered radio, state officials and the electric company are predicting it may be days, maybe even a week, before the power comes back on.

It's hot outside. Wicked hot. And, since you live in an apartment with windows just on one side, without AC it's already starting to seem stuffy in your home even with the windows open to the storm-fresh air, because the air can't circulate in a place with windows on only one side, and you can't use a fan. Because there's no electricity. And because you have so few windows, half of your home is also already dark. Even though it's noon, and the sun is starting to peek through the clouds outside.

But these are not your primary concerns.

No, your primary concern right now is the food in your fridge. The food you just bought, to replace the food you lost when the power went out a few days ago. Maybe it's just a few things, because you feared the power might go off again, but hey, you know, your baby needs fresh milk, and you wanted some cheese, too.

Or maybe it's a lot of food, because, like my neighbor upstairs, your mother and sister lost power in the last storm and never got it back. And now they're staying with you, and you have three households' worth of food crammed into your tiny fridge.

So you need to get ice to put in your fridge to keep that food cold if you're gonna save it. Lots of ice, to last maybe for days. Or you need to call around on your cell phone and try to find someone who has power and has a fridge with space in it so you can take the food there-- if you can get reception that is-- it seems perhaps one of these storms has knocked a transmission tower out, because everyone is having trouble getting a signal-- and then when you do connect, well, what do you know! The network is busy and you still can't get through, because everyone's electricity is out, and they can't use their home phones, so everyone is trying to use the cell phone network at once.

But even if you get through to your friend and your friend has power, you're still gonna need some ice. Ice for the cooler, to keep the food cold in the back of the car during a ride in the heat that you know will be long no matter how far you have to go, because there aren't any traffic lights working, and there are tree limbs and live wires down in the streets, and everyone's in this together here and for the most part they're all trying to be nice, but people are stressed out. It's hot and there's no electricity. So a good many more folks than usual are driving stupid around here, on top of it all.

But, ice? Where to get ice? Because, you see, in the short time your power was back on, you watched the news, and you heard that with so many homes and businesses lacking power, there's an ice shortage. People are following ice delivery trucks as they make their rounds, and dashing out to buy up all the ice as soon as it's delivered to one of the few stores that still has enough electricity to keep it frozen. You hear shell-shocked clerks on your crackly radio saying they sold out of 300 bags of ice in less than ten minutes.

But, you gotta have that ice; it's just the way it is. So you set out anyway, in your car, in the heat, in the traffic, hoping you'll get lucky. But as you leave you notice that your gas gauge is hovering next to empty.

Well, of course it is. Gas is three dollars a gallon, after all-- you'd been waiting to fill your tank, hoping that after the weather improved or people half a world away stopped shooting rockets at each others' babies for a minute, the prices might go down. And the first set of storm knocked out power to so many stations that there were long lines for gas at the stations near you that could still pump anyway. You didn't feel like waiting.

But now you're driving, in crazy stop-and-go, no rules gridlock traffic in the middle of the day, and you realize that the first four stations near your home all have their pumps shut down. No power. You drive through them anyway, to see if they have ice, but they don't, of course-- some have put hastily hand-scrawled signs in the windows reading NO ICE! When you walk into one that hasn't, the clerk points to the empty ice chest and laughs without humor, saying no one has ice anywhere.

You keep driving and pretty soon you see a station with a long line and you know it has power so you get in line. But while you're waiting, the station runs out of gas. The giddy station manager waves you away. You got there too late.

Finally, just when you think you're about to wind up on the side of the road in 95 degree heat with no gas, you find an open station that has enough for everyone. Now it's time to keep looking for ice, but there is none. None anywhere. Three quarters of the grocery and convenience stores you pass in your neighborhood are dark, and those that aren't are sold out of ice. As you check out the stores you realize that not only will you not be able to find ice to save your food unless a miracle happens, you also may not be able to buy new food once the food you have rots. Because the few stores still open are already sold out of almost everything cold.

Many of them are also sold out of batteries, flashlights, weather radios, charcoal, and bottled water. And you might need that bottled water. Because last time the power went out, your neighborhood wound up on a boil order.

But you have an electric stove. So you can't boil water, unless you can manage to build a fire in your backyard.

Some stores are running on generator power, and are only taking cash.

Which you don't have much of, because you usually use your debit card-- everyone does these days-- and it's going to be quite a chore to get more cash, because the nearby ATMs all seem to lack power.

This is the sort of situation the people in my apartment complex were faced with this weekend, when power went out across the complex for the second time. And many more people in blacked-out neighborhoods all over town faced similar difficulties.

A lot of people in my area left on Friday, after the storm, to spend the night in other parts of town that still had lights, fans, air conditioning, grocery stores, gas stations, banks, and pharmacies. I was one of those who left.

But some didn't. Among my neighbors, some had no place to go; their friends and relatives nearby had also lost power; they couldn't afford to stay in one of the very few hotels that still had power and available rooms. Others were wary of leaving their property unattended in a place with no power, worried that thieves might take advantage of the situation if our complex became an unlighted ghost town.

When my family and I returned on Saturday afternoon to check on our home, see if the power was back, and, if it wasn't, try to decide what to do next, this is what I saw:

People were outside, in numbers I'd never seen outside before, in clusters, sitting in shade in lawn chairs and picnic tables that had been pulled to the coolest spots under the leafiest trees.

People with portable grills had brought them out near the tables and chairs. People with charcoal had filled the portable grills and a few stationery grills owned by the complex, and people with matches and lighter fluid had lit them. People with meat that was still good had brought it to cook. People with chips, pretzels, already-popped popcorn, and bottled drinks had brought them out for everyone to share.

People with flashlights and candles were sharing their lights with people who didn't have any. People with working battery-operated radios had brought them out so everyone could listen. Young people fanned elderly people with paper fans. Everyone chatted animatedly, sharing news about where power had already come back on, what the weather forecast was for tomorrow, where someone had been able to get cheap gas, or a bag of ice.

Children ran together, laughing, in the shade, sharing their non-electronic toys and spraying each other with water.

My entire apartment complex had come out of their dark homes and pooled what supplies they had left to share as a group, and the result looked like AN ENORMOUS BLOCK PARTY.

Watching my neighbors help one another, I felt irrationally guilty for having left to stay with relatives the night before.

I have never felt so proud to live in this neighborhood, ever.

From now on, whenever I find myself in a moment of extreme frustration with humanity, I think I'll call up my memory of this past Saturday afternoon.


Amanda said...

what a cool story!

Debbie said...

Oh, Jae.


how do you always have the power to draw out my well-supressed waterworks?


p.s. please tell me that you're all okay, for now, and if not, please give me a p.o. box or SOMETHING so I can send you a fricking CARE PACKAGE the next time something like this should happen.


Jaelithe said...

Oh, we're okay! Seriously! Power is on at my place again. Power is coming on elsewhere more quickly than the electric company had predicted.

And we would have lived, even if the power hadn't come back on, and even if we hadn't been able to get gas in order to get out of town-- I had bottled water stored in my crazily overpacked linen closet in case of emergencies, and I had flashlights, and nonperishable food in my pantry.

And now my husband takes my disaster preparation mindset much more seriously ;) So there will be no more rolling of the eyes the next time I insist on buying something like a portable first aid kit or a camp stove. Heh.

Andrea said...

That's awesome. i'm so glad to hear this story after so many in the news about looting and fighting over ice and bottled water. i'm so glad things are getting back to normal quicker than the power company predicted.

Lisa said...

Great story. I'd heard that in some areas it turned into a block party. Cool to know your area was one of them.

Lisa said...

BUt happy power is back on and life is starting to get back to normal for you too!

Anonymous said...

what country is that again you live in??? :)

Posts like these make me wait impatiently for that book that you must be planning on writing ... no ???

Block Party ... which I could have seen that and taken pictures .. but I bet my digi cam would have been out of juice. Facing all this knowing that you have a toddler to tend to who wants his water or milk at any odd time .. jeeesh ... anyways .. GREAT POST ... (but where is that recipe for stone soup now?)

Ruth Dynamite said...

Very very heartwarming.

I can only wish the same for all of us in similar circumstances.

Jaelithe said...

Ah, we Americans aren't nearly as selfish, greedy or mean as our government, Peter :)

Anonymous said...

That's why you should live in my neck of the woods, where the people INSIST on either generators or massive ice chests because they will not allow their Natty Lite to get warm should the power go out.

Raquita said...

I'm glad you are okay and I'm gld to hear your powers back on - I didn't get your invite untill after our power - and your apparently was back on. okay so really we should like throw a blogger party, so we can meet more than one person at a time...

Hello Betty said...

A few years back... our entire province/state was without power...for half a day... the power went out in the middle of rush hour... it took me two hours to get home that day ... it usualy takes me 20 minutes

Mom101 said...

This is amazing. It reminds me so much of the big blackout two summers ago, when all of NYC headed out to the rooftops and fire escapes shrugging, fuck it, and drinking all the beer out of their quickly warming fridges.

Glad for the happy ending. Ice I presume came along at some point?