in Kingston for the power outage of 2003
Thursday, August 14 2003
I spent a good part of the day finishing up the ethernet installation I'd begun yesterday. The most dramatic work was on the segment connecting the house to the garage. Here I buried the cable, digging a narrow eight-inch-deep trench with a maddox. The sun beat down hot on my back and I had to stop for two breaks that involved a water hose.
Three hours later after I was done with that installation and moved on to my next gig, which had nothing at all to do with computers or even the flow of electricity. This was a cowboy plumbing gig, at the same house near Accord where I tidied up a chaotic basement electrical closet several weeks ago. A toilet, a very fancy one inscribed with the signature of its French designer, wasn't working correctly, and it was my job to go in an find out what was wrong and fix the problem. I actually like the slight career-shift that has led me to become a general-purpose troubleshooter. As I was driving in my cluttered old pickup truck to the nearby Williams Hardware store (located behind an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere along Kyserike Road), I had a feeling of solving people's problems and doing good in the world, in an almost James Bond kind of way. You know, Bond, James Bond, Double Oh Seven. That guy.
The problem was in the toilet's flapper valve, a three dollar part. As I worked to replace it, I kept a six pack of Red Stripe beer in the freezer. I was already on my second one. It was one of those kind of days.
The house where I was doing this work is for sale and seems to have trouble selling for the asking price of $399,000. I can see why; it is in a remote location, though it's in a semi-suburban neighborhood surrounded by much cheaper houses, most of them populated by the sort of people who put plastic ducks in their yards. The house itself has lots of expensive finishing details (marble countertops, designer toilets, etc.) but its basic structure seems to have been constructed on the cheap (the opposite situation from my house). This is immediately apparent as you enter the house. The front door is on the south side of the house, a tall gabled façade covered with vinyl clapboards. The thing that's wrong with this façade is that it entirely lacks windows. There is not a single south-facing window in the entire house. The only southern light the house gets is through the front door! Not putting a south-facing window on a house in the Catskills is like a Chinese restaurant running out of rice. It's serious house-siting malpractice.
I got home at around four in the afternoon, and not long after that the power went out. But it didn't just die like it normally does when it goes out. It slowly faded away to nothing. The first evidence of the failing power was when the computer in the first floor office spontaneously rebooted. When it came back up, it could find no keyboard on the system. Then it completely died, with a weird clicking sound coming out of the speakers regularly every half-second or so. I went upstairs to my laboratory and saw that the overhead lights were still glowing a dull orange. We must have been having some sort of brown-out. A few more minutes passed and then even that was gone.
It was unusual to have a power outage in the middle of the day in good weather. Normally we'd have to run and get flashlights and candles, but now the only handicaps were a lack of internet and teevee.
By now Gretchen was snacking on taco shells dipped in hummus. Taco shells are only good if you heat them, so, in keeping with the 19th Century theme of the afternoon, I burned a bunch of cardboard in the woodstove and toasted them on the stove's top surface. For some reason the raging fire did little to increase the discomfort of the room. Perhaps it really is the humidity and not the heat.
After at least an hour of napping, I woke up to find that the power was still out. I had some phone calls to make, but, since all our phones are cordless and require electrical power, I had to make them with Gretchen's cell phone. Nobody was answering, and I wasn't getting anyone's machine, not in Saugerties, and not in New Paltz. It was as if the power outage was widespread. Was this the end of the world?
By now Gretchen was freaking out about a WNBA game she thought she'd miss if the power didn't come back on within an hour. She called her folks and made them promise to tape it.
I went out to the car and listened to the radio. WDST in Woodstock was running on generators, and WKZE in Sharon, Connecticut was still alive, but the local public radio station was dead. As for stations run by Clear Channel, etc., what good are they in times of crisis? Centrally-located robots can do none of the things done by WDST's real-life DJ, who claimed to be working by candlelight and the glow of the mixing board, which was being powered by generator. The news was that a massive outage had knocked out power to some ten million people throughout the Northeast and Ontario.
Gretchen didn't need to worry about missing the game tonight; it was supposed to happen at Madison Square Garden, but there was no power there either.
Not really knowing what else to do, Gretchen and I went on a drive into Kingston. All the traffic lights were dead, though police were only directing traffic at the most critical intersections. The Kingston Trailways station looked like a refugee camp, with hordes of people sitting around with their backpacks and duffle bags while buses accumulated in the parking lot. This was all the excitement we were supposed to have gotten out of Y2K, but in the daylight in summer!
We negotiated our way through the dead traffic signals of Uptown, passing a few restaurants along the way. Most of the mom and pop places appeared to be dark but nonetheless open. But the Hurley Mountain Inn, the Stewarts, and all the franchise gas stations and restaurants were closed, probably in full anti-looting lockdown. You can always tell who your friends are by how they behave in a blackout.
The Broadway Diner was open, so we went in and found a seat. Our waitress told us that there was no hot food available, so Gretchen ordered a cæsar salad and a dreary little uncooked swiss cheese sandwich. I ordered the bagel with lox and cream cheese, and somehow the cook managed to toast the bagel on the grill (probably because it was gas-fired and not controlled by an embedded Windows controller). One of the diner's customers had a radio and we occasionally caught whiffs of news. The power outage, we learned, was supposedly related to a lightning strike up at Niagara Falls, but we were assured that electricity would be restored by dark.
As the light faded outside, candles were lit at our tables. It gave the diner an unusually romantic ambiance.
Outside, people were walking around with obvious adrenaline in their strides. In terms of sheer excitement, it's hard for modern entertainment to measure up to natural disasters, terrorism, and massive technological glitches. The upside of these random events is that there's really nothing the individual can do about them, and everybody's in the same boat. People might as well enjoy themselves and find a creative ways to have fun in the refreshingly anti-modern context. Some of those street thugs (both gangsta black and Nazi-skinhead white) looked like they were only a few malt liquor ounces short of running riot. Gretchen thought perhaps we should take advantage of the police preoccupation to illegally dispose of some of our garbage via reverse-dumpster-dive.
Gretchen also made several references to the palpable sense of nascent chaos on the street. Only - in her usual wordplay way - she kept pronouncing it "Chah - Ohs." At first I thought she was saying "Chat-os[is]" and I assumed she was referring to the old guy who was talking too much and being overly helpful with his flashlight to the sexy young bent-over waitress cleaning up the Nutrasweet she'd spilled. He seemed to be suffering from a disease that made him pathologically extroverted and chatty despite a severe speech impediment. As for the suffix "ose", well, in addition to signifying a sugar, it could have been a truncated form of "osis."
Kingston was dark for the entirety of our drive home, but as we rolled into Hurley power seemed to be up in a few places. Back at our house, the place was all lit up by whatever lights had been on this afternoon. Gretchen ran directly to the teevee, not yet aware that her WNBA game had been canceled.
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