June 29, 2014
At 3:19 this morning, the power went off. I had fallen asleep with the bedside lamp on and a Robert Parker ‘Spenser’ mystery on my chest. (Robert Parker is dead, yet ‘Spenser’ lives—go figure.) No power meant no white noise from my box fan, which meant the outside frog chorus about which I write so lovingly was reality, and reality shrieked and I attempted to translate the shrieks and it turns out the frogs were taking my existential, personal problems and mockingly performing them in the meadow. And I woke up, crazy tired and about to get crazy hot.
I lay on the sweaty sheets and meditated unsuccessfully. I slept fitfully, more or less killing time until the magic hour of six, when the Clifton Inn would be open for breakfast or the milk store’s coffee (50 cents if you bring your own travel mug) would be brewing. I’m so in a routine now, the milk store clerk will open half an hour early if she sees me hovering near the locked door.
The car was trapped in the garage, so I walked up Clifton Terrace and discovered that there was no power in any direction. I turned east. The café was closed; not even the staff was standing by. The milk store was dark. All the houses were dark. A dead raccoon skull on the side of the highway laughed at me.
My neighbor Irene H. has a gas-powered generator, so she knew from the news about the car that had crashed into a power line and caused this inconvenience, and her house was cool and inviting. “Come for coffee.” (Her charming, New Jersey accent sounds the words, “Com for cawffee.”) Bless Irene. Her freshly brewed coffee brought me back to the living.
There was no air conditioning when I was a boy. (My love affair with box fans began then; my out of town friends keep box fans, for my visits.) My Grandma Olive’s farm had no electricity, no running water. We all bathed in a wash tub in the kitchen, kids last. My sister and I had to sleep together in a massive feather bed, our bodies sinking so deep we couldn’t see one another. How is it we survived?
“Unlimited” power brought us television. I remember my father lugging in our very first, clunky set. The first black and white electronic image I ever saw was George Reeves playing “Superman.” Then Superman committed suicide—this nearly wrecked me; Superman was all I believed in—and the worldwide confusion over the melding of fantasy and reality was born, and Johnny Carson was our TV friend and Ajax was the foaming cleaner and Budweiser was the king of beers.
Cutting the power can’t be that complicated. A runaway car hit a power line this morning and left thousands of people power-less. Imagine ten runaway cars and ten power lines. A squirrel can gnaw through a power line, electrocuting the rodent and shutting off our air conditioning. Imagine ten gnawing squirrels and ten power lines. Imagine a smart engineer inventing a Rube Goldberg contraption utilizing a magnetic force or disrupting electrons, and shutting down the world.
A terrorist could bring this country to its knees by figuring a way to cut off the power, say for two months. Half of Americans would be dead from helplessness by then, most of them trapped in heat-holding cities. The guns would come out and the gunfights would begin. Gasoline couldn’t be pumped. We’d be screwed.
None of this would have happened, in the 50’s because we were just beginning to become greed monsters, violaters of the Commandment, “Thou shall not covet.” We lived with little or no electricity, without air conditioning; we owned a car if we were lucky; we cooked food; we gardened. Times were better, right? (Not counting those pesky Negroes howling for their rights.)
So many older people post on Facebook pictures of nostalgic items, potato peelers and cork screws and wooden rolling pins and the like. “Remember this? From the good old days?” Was anyone looking up back then, to our houses’ ceilings blue with cigarette smoke, to the coal-scoured, washed-out blue skies, through the lead exhaust from our cars and the belching chemicals from our unregulated factories?
A stranger came to town back then. Its name was Cancer. If we’re not nostalgic, we’re remembering our loved ones who died of cancer.
(Remember the day after 9/11? Planes were grounded across the entire country, for days. The sky took no time at all to turn a robin’s egg blue never before seen in history. With history came smoke. The blue I saw when I was a kid staring up at a pop fly ball, was fettered by smoke and fumes and exhaust.)
The elderly would survive a major power crisis. We’ve been there; it was life, not a crisis. The Smart Phone generation would whine, comfort themselves with electronic games and thumb sucking and onanism, get thirsty, weep in despair, slowly starve when the 7-11’s malfunctioned, and become blood donors to the insatiable survivalists, the guzzlers, the predators among us. The first wave already hit the shore, the nut jobs who shoot schools and malls.
What a slender thread is life.
How easy it would be to unravel that thread.