Afraid of the Dark

Discovering Our Powerlessness Without Electricity

We were at the third gas station before we knew we were screwed .

“No gas-no power!” a red-faced woman with a thick Newfoundland accent shouted as we pulled the car up to the pumps. Her hands sprayed sweat as she waved her cell phone wildly. “No power anywhere!”

My companion-an acquaintance on a hot day’s business trip to Montreal and back?blinked. She had driven 250 miles with me, a native Montrealer, as her navigator and, as the gas gauge jiggled at a quarter of a tank, she clearly needed direction. We had 110 miles left to go. How would we get home?

“We’re hooped!” the Newfoundlander wailed. She leaned against her dirty red pickup and sighed. The highway-side gas station’s parking lot was filling with transports, cars, and Winnebagos. “At least we’re hooped together.”

Lights out
The car radio blared as we hit road. Blackout. Fifty million affected. Still, we drove. My companion couldn’t stop: she had a box of expensive techno-wizardry from work in the back seat and a cat in a sealed (normally air-conditioned) apartment back home. If we stopped, both could melt . She fretted about the gas tank though. I wondered about everything else.

Consider this: electricity runs everything. No electricity means no lights, no water, no food, no gas, and no information. And, as millions deduced when phones died and cell phones jammed, sometimes no electricity means no calls to mom, sweetheart, or 911.No electricity, nowadays, literally means no power .

It can’t even be bought. After all, who carries cash anymore?

Western discomfort
Oddly, as we passed roadside restaurants, their dining rooms closed but parking lots packed, I thought of one man: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), that rowdy renegade of film’s Escape from New York fame. In a pathetic albeit enjoyable sequel, Escape from L.A. , Snake opts to shut down the world and return all its inhabitants to Stone-Age living. As the film ends, the only light on earth is the glow of Snake’s lit cigarette.

For a flash, I felt caught in Snake’s decision. Could I live without electricity? How would any of us survive? My thoughts were comfortably Western; the good people of Africa certainly don’t fret when their air-conditioners crap out. For most of the world, electricity is sporadic if it is at all.

But for us 50 million left in the dark last week, electricity is a given. We have no idea how to cope without it. What’s worse, we have designed a society that can’t cope without it. Isn’t that scary?

Temporary calm
We weren’t scared but relieved when we arrived home, cruising on fumes. In front of my apartment building, tenants gathered and picnicked on warming cheese. We were hooped together and, for now, calm. But what would happen once the cheese ran out?