How can I explain this paradigm shift? I was going along, living my life, within a certain comforting flow of events and circumstances. Ups and downs, to be sure, but overall a sense that everything would be ok. Then suddenly – and it came at me with no warning – this major change. I was no longer sure… of anything. Maybe it was the economic downturn and general malaise and dissatisfaction; the overseas violence and uprisings. Or perhaps it was the odd and increasingly frequent natural disasters. A seemingly endless maudlin parade of surprises. A new reality operating at a completely different frequency that I didn’t understand. At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, I got out of sync. And here we are. Welcome to the new normal.
So it was really nothing out of the ordinary when, on this seemingly benign autumn weekend, a significant portion of the Northeastern U.S. would get a small taste of what everyday life is like for a quarter of the world’s population.
Sometimes it isn’t enough to watch stories of social upheaval, endless wars and famine, blatant economic inequality and environmental catastrophe on distant shores. Sometimes it isn’t even enough to see it over in the next town. To begin to get a grasp of how bad things really are, you need to have the sort of weekend I did. As much of Connecticut is within the “upper third” of that 99%, I must point out that we’re not talking about 20 mile hikes to the nearest clean water supply. As stated by a comrade in a 50+ person queue at the only open and fully powered Starbucks for miles, this was Apocalypse Lite. We waited for our lattes and watched as people and laptops crammed themselves into every table and floor space, cell phones and other devices plugged into every outlet, and speculated on their new ad campaign – “Has disaster struck? Starbucks has you covered!”
Festival of Frights
It was late morning on Saturday when the snow began to fall, several hours before the forecast prediction. My father tried to convince me to drive back to Boston immediately. Lucky for him, I refused. Late afternoon and already getting dark, I was on my laptop at the kitchen table, when suddenly everything shut down. What followed was a mad scramble for flashlights and candles. My parents were comically unprepared for an emergency. The only candles in the house were those thin ones for Hanukkah, though miraculously I unearthed a menorah from the back of a closet which probably hadn’t been used since the 1970s, if at all. They have a fireplace, but no wood. There’s four beds, three of which need to be plugged in, and the fourth which, when the temperature falls below 60, hardens to a concrete slab. The most plentiful food items available: ice cream, sardines, and pancake mix.
A swirling haze of events and impressions
October 28-31. the storm and its aftermath. cracking tree branches throughout the night like continuous gunfire. morning breaks, and with it, snow and devastation. all is eerily still for a while, as people take stock. no heat, no electricity, no phones. mid-afternoon and no plows in sight anywhere. five complete strangers are suddenly outside shoveling our walk and driveway; turns out they’re concerned neighbors. the first of many random acts of kindness. an early morning chat with a fire chief at his station while he lets me charge my phone. 50 people and 20 laptops stuffed inside a tiny Starbucks in one of the few shopping centers in many miles with power. a mad scramble for supplies – fire-starters, briquettes, hardwood charcoal; anything remotely flammable. cans of beans and vegetables; crappy candles left behind by prior vultures. helpful conversations struck up by complete strangers that yield crucial information. a kind woman goes out of her way to deliver a bag of wood chips. not a single generator to be had in all of Connecticut. a creeping feeling of fear and helplessness. spotty cell phone service adds to the sense of isolation.
a second cold night on a frozen sponge of a bed afforded me a few hours of fitful sleep. daybreak and uncertainty. how long would it last? we’re all cold and miserable; my mom’s physical condition makes it impossible to stay, and also impossible to get to a shelter. debate, discussion, and finally, a plan. through tree- and power line-strewn streets and bewildered, snarled traffic trying to negotiate jammed intersections with no street lights. 100-car lines snaking around the few open gas stations. a near fist fight with an old man in a silver Lexus.
October 31, Halloween. we arrive at Hartford hospital around 2pm; it ends up being a 10-hour wait until mom’s officially admitted for the night. after two interviews, she’s moved first into the hallway, then a small room, in the triage area. more waiting, and then another hallway, another small room, in the actual emergency department. meanwhile in the waiting room, a constant stream of ragged souls seeking shelter. frightened sick people share space with snoring vagrants. those not asleep in chairs and on couches are reading, eating, on computers, charging phones. there’s an Au Bon Pain open until midnight and internet access. bliss.
a mystical, sleep-deprived encounter with a good looking young man in shackles, guarded by a uniformed and armed policeman, just outside my mom’s room at the ER. he has a wild look in his eyes that matches my own. we exchange furtive glances; our eyes lock briefly before I mentally shake myself and pull out of the fog. there’s a middle-of-the-night trip to a gas station in downtown Hartford that’s like a scene from Mad Max – cars strewn in every direction, trying to jam their way in; hip-hop pounding from open windows. It’s edgy and aggressive, fueled by confusion, uncertainty, fear and bravado. An apocalyptic party at fever pitch.
West Hartford officially postpones halloween, though I crossed paths with enough haunted spirits that day to last me a lifetime. at around 3am, we pull in to our shelter for the night (heartfelt thanks to our friends and family, Tina and Tony).
November 1. awoken by trucks and wood chippers, but at least I awoke relatively rested and not shivering. back at the hospital, precariously perched between two prickly places: how to avoid my mother’s wrath and ricocheting mood swings, while stalling for time with the hospital staff to keep her in a warm bed with hot meals?
November 4, back in Boston. six days after the storm hit, 75% of West Hartford (and several other towns) still without power. downed phone lines, dodgy cell phone access, tempers frayed, accusations flying. Connecticut Light & Power is accused of lying and dirty dealing. their estimation: 99% restoration by 11:59 pm Sunday; West Hartford fire chief’s response: no way. mom is finally kicked out of Hartford hospital; miraculously they find another place for her.
November 6. inexplicably, power comes back on at my parents’ house, much to my dad’s immense relief. it makes no sense, as 60% of the town is still dark. it doesn’t matter; we’ll take it.
CL&P vows to have 100% power restored by 11:59pm tomorrow (11/9), 11 days after the storm. I have a feeling they’ll be discussing this for a little while.
What I Learned
- Menorah candles burn a lot longer and a lot brighter than you’d think.
- Wood chips are not the same thing as wood, even though they both come from trees.
- Ice cream cones and pancake mix are not helpful food items in the event of a power outage.
- Cleanup crews in suburban towns have no idea how to cut up a large tree.
- Starbucks’ checkout counter is a heck of a lot more efficient at servicing their customers than your average hospital emergency room.
- Not paying contractors for the last catastrophe is not the best way to win their loyalty and support for the new catastrophe.