Posted Monday, December 29th, 2003
Shut the Lights.
I still remember where I was when the lights went out.
I was sitting in my living room, dressed in black jeans and a tank top, wearing big, clunky platform shoes.
I had been staring dreamily out the window at everything and nothing, thinking about the work I hadn’t gotten done yet.
It was an afternoon early September, and the first chill was in the air that day.
I sat in the dark for a moment, waiting for them to blink back on.
They always blink back on, usually within a few moments. There was no storm, no lightning to take out lines or towers, flip switches or overload breakers.
Always they flip back on when I’m mid-step, or dangling precariously off the edge of the counter, reaching for the emergency flashlight.
So, I sat. And I waited.
And the lights did not shine.
Eventually, I got up and walked down out into the hallway of my apartment building. Everything was completely dark. There were no windows or doors open, to shed even the slightest light.
I slowly made my way down three flights of stairs, carefully.
I missed the last step, and fell onto the landing, twisting my ankle.
Limping out into sun slanting toward the west, I looked around, blinking. There were others staring about, rubbing their eyes, clutching the hands of their children.
The man from upstairs was sitting on the front steps to the building. He grunted a hello to me.
He was wearing a white t-shirt, with a pocket. He was sweating, and he kept rubbing his forehead with his arm.
“Guess they musta had some sorta breakdown at the plant,” he says, jerking his head toward the right.
I followed the motion of his head, and nodded, slowly, as if I knew exactly the power plant he was speaking of.
He bobbed his head up and down once, and then reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a soft pack of Camel’s.
He shook the pack, and offered it to me. I smiled and shook my head no.
He shrugged and took one out, coughing as he lit it.
I said to him then: “Well, see ya ‘round,” and I wandered down the street, half-limping.
There were cars everywhere beeping and honking their horns. The traffic lights were out, and no one was paying attention to the cops trying to direct traffic.
I stopped and asked one of the cops how much of the grid was down, and he said “Whole city, I guess. Don’t know.”
I walked to the corner store and got a cold soda, before returning to my apartment.
Raven, my sneaky black cat, greeted me up on entering.
She wrapped herself around my legs as I attempted to make my way through the apartment.
“Yeah, it's all fine for you, love.” I said to her.
“You can see in the dark.”
She meowed in response.
I wanted to flip on the TV and find out how many people were in the dark.
I wanted to switch on a radio and listen to the news.
I wanted to get onto the internet and find out what the hell was going on.
Even if I had batteries, my radio didn’t even take them.
Even if my I used my laptop, my cable modem still wouldn’t work, because it uses juice to power it.
I reached for a book and curled up on the floor to read it in the fading light of the dying sun.
When I woke the next morning, the power was still out.
How did I know? The noise.
Or lack of it, rather.
There was no humming. No buzzing, clicking, beeping, no normal daytime electronic sounds.
The battery on my cell phone was dead.
All around, LCD screens, gone blank. Staring at me like dead eyes of electronic corpses.
A picture had fallen off the wall sometime while I slept.
“Probably from the bass coming out of the neighbor’s pad” I thought, before I even realized that he probably didn’t have the power to run his home entertainment and annoyance system.
The drywall where the screw had been was stripped, so I went to the tool drawer, and searched in the dim light for the battery powered screwdriver.
It whirred to life with a “weeeee weeeee weeeeee” sound, as the screw started to turn uselessly against the plaster coating, finally catching, and biting into the wall.
“weeeeeeee weeeeeeeeeee weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” slowing to a grinding halt.
The screw just barely penetrated the drywall.
I twisted the screw in bit by bit. Slowly, leaning with all my weight against it for leverage.
By the time it was in, I was sweating, and aggravated.
I sat down, right then.
I sat down on the floor and cried.
Maybe it was the strain of not having power for half the day yesterday and all night. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten yet.
Or maybe it was a premonition.
Two days later, the power still hadn’t come back. The news filtered to us the old fashioned way, through newspapers.
There were crowds three people thick crowded around the newspaper machines to read the headlines.
If one person bought a paper, others would grab the handle of the machine before it closed and reach inside to get their own.
Their white hands, grasping for ink that came off, and smeared on their faces.
The ink was the old type that smeared if you touched it. They had fired up the old printing press downtown, running on steam, to get the hand typed pages to duplicate.
There had been some sort of massive shutdown of the entire power grid. In the entire country.
It was impossible to tell where it began. Some said Chicago. Some blamed Canada. Still others thought that the government had shut it all down to keep the press from learning the truth about a secret military project in Nevada. Some said it was nature punishing us.
Whatever caused it, the authorities were having trouble fixing it.
Lines everywhere were fried. Entire power plants had exploded. The explosion that rocked the plant at Niagara Falls had damaged the falls and the facility to the point that it couldn’t be used at all.
Even if we had the power to use, we had no lines with which to transfer it.
We wondered how we could live without it.
And so we lived in the dark.
Two weeks into the darkness, the streets of our town became ghostly.
The gas pumps took power to pump the gas, and cars don’t go without gas.
Four lane highways were filled with bicycles, kids on skateboards, and people on skates.
The sporting good shops had long since been looted of anything with wheels. The looting was not just confined to transportation.
The grocery stores had gaping holes in their glass smiles. Shelves once filled with cleverly priced and perfectly positioned items were on the floor, along with scattered and rotting fruit and vegetables.
What hadn’t been eaten was left on the floor, trampled.
The food supply was quickly running out.
Someone said that the President was talking about sending the National Guard out to each city, with a truck full of non perishables, that they had been rationing to send to Africa for human aid.
Now we needed it.
I sat in my dark apartment, with my hungry cat, and wondered if they would have enough gas. I wondered how long it would take.
I hoped it would be soon.
No one was supposed to report to work. Most of our jobs, including mine were electronic anyway.
What is the point in going into a building with no lights? No computer to type into, no network to scan, no activity.
I laughed to myself as I pictured developers gathered around the light of a single candle, chiseling code into huge stone tablets with screwdrivers.
News was passed along to us via kids on bikes that had been on downtown and had overheard people talking, or from reading the printed news.
It's funny. We never knew how much we lived on technology until it all went away.
I heard noises in the night. Trashcans clattering over, shots being fired.
The looters were still looting.
Only they were looting houses. Looking for stashes of food, drugs, alcohol, whatever they can find.
In my closet, I found an old .22 that my dad gave me when I first moved out of his house.
Next to it was a box of ammunition.
I fell asleep with it on the pillow next to me. Just in case.
It had been a month.
We still had no power. We found big metal trashcans or cauldrons for fires and fashioned ways to hang pots on them out of metal pieces we dug out of construction piles.
We cooked rice and beans and Top Ramen noodles on our apartment patios. We must have looked very much like we normally did on a weekend afternoon, barbequing.
Some people went out into the deserts and forests shot animals, dragging them back and roasting them to share with neighbors.
There was no way to preserve them, so they had to be eaten up right away.
We used the coals from the fires in smaller metal buckets to warm our houses, sauna style. Thankfully, the winter wasn’t very cold.
Children ran through the streets, chasing each other with sticks and stones, their high tech, noisy toys discarded when their lights stopped flashing.
I met a lot more people in those days.
We would gather on the steps of the apartment complex, or in the street for big barbeques or just to watch the sun set and talk.
Before the lights went out, I hadn’t known any of my neighbors. The only one I even recognized was the man upstairs, because I had seen him coming out of his apartment once, and I was curious how a man of his stature made as much noise as an elephant.
There was Lily, who lived downstairs from me and Shannon who lived across the hall from her. They were best friends, had been since High School.
Jason was the guy across the hall from me, and George lived with his wife Sally on the first floor.
The other apartments were empty.
Maybe people had been on vacation when it happened. Maybe they had been visiting relatives in some far off state.
Maybe they decided to stay there.
We wondered if we should check inside their apartments for more food.
We all became good friends, and shared what we had with each other, or bartered for things we didn’t have.
We sat around; we talked about George and Sally’s kids, and we wondered if the whole world was having the problem we were.
We decided they must be, because otherwise, they would give us food, and gas, and help us with our power predicament.
Slowly, businesses were trying to return to normal. In whatever way they could.
The printing press, of course had been the first to go back up.
Shannon’s mom had opened a candle shop down the way, in the place of her old bath and garden store.
One of her friends knew how to make candles, and they had a ton of wax that they had purchased before the blackout.
They started a recycling program, and you could bring your candle stubs to them when they wouldn’t burn anymore, and they’d melt them into the big pot and give you a ten percent discount.
There were people who leased out their hunting skills. Ex-military folks who had been trained to kill, taught normal civilians like me how to track and kill a deer.
The farmers kept on going like nothing ever happened. The ones that had been the poorest before had been looked down upon for not upgrading their farms to have automated, electronic irrigation systems.
They still used a horse to plow their field, and they still counted on the rain to water it.
They took their horses, and their carts, and they set up shop on the corners of once-busy intersections. They traded, and bartered, and entertained offers for their horses from the other farmers with smiling eyes and twitching lips.
Carpenters took up their trade again, discarding their power drills and nail guns for standard hammers and screwdrivers.
They patched holes in windows with two by fours, and did their best to keep people’s houses safe and secure.
By the fourth month, I think we were starting to get used to it.
We all had jobs again, only they were of a different sort. I was working in the candle shop, doing deliveries and picking up wax from those who had it.
I wore my roller blades, and whizzed through the streets with a backpack full of wax and wicks.
They paid me with candles and bread and sometimes Laura brought me soup that she had cooked.
It was full of vegetables, and thick with meat broth. It was a real treat.
Four months out, and the news headlines had changed. They no longer proclaimed that the lights would be back on any minute. They no longer held that hint of hope.
Ever so often there would be a mention of how authorities were doing their best. But for the most part, the news was not the power.
They instead turned local, and covered reports of looting, fighting, disease and death.
People were interested in those around them. No longer did they put their heads down into their newspaper on the way to work. They walked along, talking to others, paying attention to the world around them.
For the first time in a long time, we all noticed the sky, almost nightly.
We talked about the moon, we guessed at what planets we were staring at when they were close to use.
We noticed the world around and looked out for each other, a little more. We watched out for looters and mentioned them to others if we had seen them. We all wanted to feel safe, and connected.
It must have been a year or two that the lights were out.
Really, we had stopped paying attention to dates, times. We lost track.
One morning, I woke up, and there was noise everywhere. Blenders, refrigerators, alarm clocks, CD players, whatever had been left on that fateful day.
I remember my first thought.
“How can we go back? How can we put our heads down again, and go inside tall, brightly lit buildings and type things on screens? How can we ignore what’s around us to chase dollar signs again?”
“How can we live with power?”
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Wednesday, January 14th, 2004 at 9:49 AM
Posted by Jennifer Wieland on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2004 at 12:04 AM
Great story. It sucked me in.