Monday, July 24, 2006

CON(n)ED

If you’re reading this at home or in your apartment, I want you to do something. Kiss your TV set. Kiss your CD player. If you have a fan and/or air conditioner, kiss it. Whatever kind of lighting you have, kiss that, too. Do not attempt intercourse with any outlets, nor insert any wand-style electrical devices unless they are made explicitly for this purpose. But you get the gist: embrace any and all things electrical.

Why? Because I live in Astoria, Queens, and I just spent the past five days without any electrical power. Those words don’t quite register if you’re not familiar with the area, or what it means not to have electrical power for more than a few hours at a shot. The area of Queens that had power outrages followed by complete blackouts entails over 100,000 people in a very tight, enclosed urban area. We’re talking Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside and parts of Long Island City. Temperatures in this area, at the start of the blackout, where in the high 90s those first few days of the blackout, and in the high 80s the rest of the week – all with high humidity, a few torrential downpours and thunderstorms.

Here’s a picture of what I, and just about everybody else, has looked like in this time period. I know – it’s the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. But I know exactly how that guys feels now, stooped over, wearing a jaunty cloth peasant cap, carrying a bundle of sticks on his back.

IT SUCKED!

Understand that I know it gets worse, that I know people in Third World countries live like this all the time. Use the concept of life being worse for someone who was rich losing money and becoming poor, as opposed to someone who always was poor. I live in a major city in America where the expectation is that a power outage of any sort will last only a few hours. A few years ago, the entire city of New York lost power one summer night (child’s play compared to the last few days in Queens) and had it fully up-and-running again within 12 hours. This time, we’ve had an area of Queens that represents a very small, single-digit percentage of land area in New York City without power for days on end. From what I’ve seen of the neighborhood, some of it still does not have power today (seventh day for some folks), and I’m over-joyed and thankful that my block, for whatever reason, does appear to have it again.

If you’re young and healthy, you’re asking what’s the big deal. If you’re older, as many Astorians are, namely old men or women living alone in their homes, you’re basically isolated with no way out. If you’re on any medication that requires refrigeration, like insulin, you’re fucked. Ditto if you have respiratory problems, mobility issues, an electricity-based water heating system (i.e., no hot water, possibly no water at all), or any number of issues that conveniently never occur when the power is on. You have a refrigerator filled with rotting food and are most likely depending on a long walk to a Red Cross truck by the subway train that has been dropping off fruit, sandwiches, water and ice, which you strap on to your cart and roll back to your dark hovel. The area around the truck is like a film clip from an African village where the UNICEF truck just rolls in stacked with food/water – a lot of angry, frustrated people fumbling for position. It’s some pretty foul shit to see happening in your neighborhood.

The worst part is the past week has been one big mind fuck. It started with that first day, which for me was Tuesday, and the power slowly browning out that night. Everything just sort of went halfway on, and over the course of about two hours, faded to black. The next day, I made it into Manhattan – the subway trains were unaffected, as they run on a separate power source from the neighborhoods they run through. Life was normal in Manhattan. Well, whatever that’s worth. I picked up a paper … to read virtually nothing about the then two-day-old blackout in Astoria. There was a footnote to a short article about heat/power problems in New York City in general, a small paragraph stating that 350 Con Ed customers in Astoria were without power.

And right there, I knew something was deeply off. The day before I had walked from above Ditmars Boulevard down to Broadway, about half a mile, to find that everyone in that section of Queens was without power. 350 customers?! My ass. I think 100,000 people is a conservative estimate, although that’s what I’ve been reading in various news sources.

Luckily, I had work the rest of the week which brought me into Manhattan. And there was a deep disconnect between the normality that was Manhattan, and the borderline riot world of Astoria that I would leave in the morning and return to at night. How or why the neighborhood hasn’t slipped over the edge and into random acts of pillaging and violence is a tribute to the people who live here. Again, a big deal was made how this didn’t happen in New York a few years back with that summer power outage. And that was 12 hours as opposed to just about a week. Hats off to the people of Astoria for not just keeping their cool throughout this, but for not reacting like a bunch of savages and turning the place into a war zone. I can goof on this place all I want, but the reality is there are enough sane people here, greatly outnumbering the lame-ass street bozos I often deal with, who prevent bad shit like that from going down. Much like any neighborhood I’ve ever lived in here in New York, it’s the people you don’t see so much in a neighborhood, the ones who are too busy to be annoying street trash, who keep it going.

As the week went on, a few stores, especially the supermarket on Ditmars and 37th, rented out gas generators, which cranked away in front of each establishment, and this probably went a long way to keeping the neighborhood halfway sane. Most stores went dark and stayed locked up the entire week. No idea how much lost revenue this would account for, but a vast majority of stores have simply been closed for nigh on a week.

At night, the neighborhood went pitch black. Some limited street lights from Con Ed rigs, but houses were darkened, and there was an eerie, all-encompassing silence, save for the jerk-offs across the street who have a perpetually crying baby which I normally don’t hear thanks to my fan and TV set. It wasn't that cute “let’s pull up lawn chairs and hang out” vibe from that earlier all-NYC blackout. This was some deep shit with no end in sight, and not too many people have felt like socializing.

I killed as much time as I could in Manhattan during the day, came home around sundown, lit up my stove with a match, ate some noodles or soup, read a book by flashlight until about 9:30, then went to bed. Had to throw out a bunch of meat, fruit, yogurt and such that started reeking after day two. Realized that non-cooled freon smells like rotting vegetables – the smell of it sitting in my useless refrigerator was almost as bad as the rapidly-spoiling food. I basically sweated it out in my apartment, reading, listening to the sound of nothing, the occasionally passing car or dingus on the street, but silence and darkness for the most part. Go to bed early, because there’s simply nothing to do, and those first few nights, sweat the sheets, which now smell like mangy ass, although I beat the stink back a little with some Febreeze. Thank God my landlord has a gas-powered water heating system, otherwise the smell would have gone straight from moldy ass to outright shit. It’s been like living in a Pink Floyd album, one of those mildly depressed Roger Waters ballads from The Wall, where you hear disjointed sound effects, a wailing child in the distance, a slamming car door, the sound of shuffling feet, and minor chords played dolefully on the piano.

Next morning, get up, shower, shit and shave by flashlight, get the hell out of my apartment, out of Astoria and into Manhattan, where it finally started registering in the newspapers that something was way off in Astoria. It was hard to explain to people at work that I was going home at night to a radically different world that was no fun at all. And it really is depressing to have no power for that long. Never experienced something like this before, but you get these draw-out moments of deep despair, sometimes rage, that really become like mild psychotic episodes. I’m a reasonably sane person, but I can see how you get a bunch of people together going through the same shit, you could easily have a riot on your hands.

All week long, my sweaty clothes piled up in the laundry basket. By Thursday, I’m thinking, if this thing doesn’t blow over by Sunday, and even if it does on Sunday, I’m not going to have clean laundry come next week, be it work-out or work clothes, as the laundromat will be mobbed. And I mean stinking, sweaty summer laundry piled up.

But I noticed something Thursday night. All week long, I made it a point to take a very long walk an hour before sundown, usually down to Astoria Park on the East River, and back. Again, mainly to get out of the apartment. But I did notice that down closer to the park, there were certain blocks that did appear to have power, however limited it may have been. I stopped in at a few delis for Gatorade, which was on the warm side, but these places clearly had some low-level refrigeration going. I didn’t ask if it was gas-generator supplied or not. I didn’t care.

Sure enough, on one of those blocks was a laundromat with an open door. I walked in on Friday night, and there was this old guy in there all by himself. I asked if he was open, he said sure, we got power, we’re open. I asked where everyone was, and he said I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense. This was the only laundromat I had seen open for a few square miles. I asked if he’d be open tomorrow morning. Sure, he said, come on back, I’ll be here.

Well, next morning, I got up, put all my shitty laundry into a soft-shell suitcase, strapped the load on my back, and did my best imitation of the old hobo on the cover of Led Zep IV. I walked 15 street blocks and two avenue blocks with that thing on my back, and sure enough, that great old bastard was there to greet me at 7:00. I knew you’d come back, he said. Thank God you’re open, was all I could say. Again, I got there early because I was certain the place would be mobbed. It wasn’t. I left around 8:30, and it got a little more crowded, but far from a mob scene. I didn’t quite get it. But leaving, I thanked the old guy again, and his response was, ah, go on, just doing what I do every day. But believe me, that guy was a fucking saint. I wouldn’t be surprised to go back there next week and find a vacant lot where a laundromat used to be 50 years ago … a celestial laundromat sent just for me!

One thing I should note about the walk – every two blocks, there were a pair of cops walking the beat, along with a traffic cop in each intersection. Which made me feel pretty good, a shame we can’t have beat cops around all the time. But round about Thursday night, when the media started jumping on the story, that’s when a heavy police presence came in, with vans of cops driving all over the neighborhood dropping off guys for their assignments. I understand the fire departments were kept pretty busy, too, with strange little blackout-induced fires along with the predictable manhole electrical fires as Con Ed crews went to work.

Those bastards showed up around the same time as the cops. Until then … I was walking the streets, thinking, where in the fuck is Con Ed? I might have seen five trucks before Thursday – after which time, there was practically a truck on every corner. It made no sense. What was more important than a total blackout in an urban area encompassing over 100,000 people, thousands of small business, dozens of factories, Rikers prison and a large sewage treatment plant? It was unbelievable how long they took to show up. And when they did … I was lucky to have power after six days.

I didn't know what they’re doing, and I don’t want to know what they did. Whatever it was, it must have been hellish. Reports of exploding manhole covers and such. I saw this happen once a few years ago … a massive explosion followed by the unbelievable sight of a manhole cover flipping 20 feet in the air like a tossed coin, flames blasting out of the hole, the manhole cover hits the street and rolls around like a giant quarter, finally shaking to a stop. You don’t forget a sight like that too soon!

I’d been seeing these guys the past few days, and actually heard one of them Saturday around 5:00 pm tell a neighbor that the power would be back on “real soon.” Well, this put me in a worse frame of mind then before, when six, then seven, then eight rolled around, and there was still no power. I went to bed around 11:00. I was woken around 12:45 am Sunday by the sound of a generator and what could have been a concrete saw. Loud as hell, right outside my window. Once the sound let off, I heard this, in loud, gruff Queens accents:

“What’s the reading on that meter, you fucking moron?”

“88.75. Too low. We better put in 30 more feet of cable, you fucking moron.”

“Got it. I’ll let the guys down on Ditmars know to send more cable up, you fucking moron.”

After each time someone said “you fucking moron,” every other guy, of which there must have been five or six, would laugh uproariously. Eventually, one of the Con Ed crew asked, “Why are you guys calling each other ‘fucking morons’?”

It turns out that one of my neighbors, a cranky old Italian, had heard them working, ran out of her house and called them a bunch of “fucking morons” at the top of her lungs. I know who they were talking about, this wacky old Astoria bat who looks like a midget Ernest Borgnine with size 44D tits pointing magnetic south. Just one of those total nuts who lives around here and makes her presence known. I sort of dread talking to her on the street, because I know I’ll never be able to get rid of her. Generally speaking, any time a woman has more facial hair than I do, that's real bad news.

While I didn’t appreciate how loud these guys were, I was glad as hell they were dealing with electrical shit right next to the house, meaning that the end was probably near. And I could also appreciate the camaraderie, as it meant they had a sense of humor about their lot in life. These guys were simply the rank and file, engaged in a very shitty job, crawling down rat- and sewage-infested holes in the street to untangle yards of fried electric cable and replace it. I wouldn’t call them heroes – they were simply doing their jobs – but by no means would I ever call them fucking morons either. It wasn’t their fault that upper management had dropped the ball on this whole scenario. (Please remember this next time there's a crisis and you get the urge to fuck with the rank and file trying to right the situation. They're not having fun either!)

I sort of dozed off to the pounding of pneumatic drills, which are actually very relaxing when they’re the only sound for miles, and woke up with a start around 4:15 am – to the sound and feel of my fan blowing wind on my body, meaning the power had just come back on. I was in heaven. It was like Christmas morning, the best I had felt all week. Sure enough, it’s been on ever since.

And sure enough, a walk through the neighborhood Sunday afternoon let me know most of the neighborhood is still without power and suffering. A whole lot of complaining, too. I don’t like complaining – it’s a waste of time – but I sure can tolerate it at a time like this. When I was at the laundromat, there was another old guy there, carrying on like a busted chain saw. Blah, blah, blah – those guys in ties sure screwed this one up – blah, blah, blah – don’t care about the little guys like us – blah, blah, blah – don’t need us until there’s a war going on, etc. He was basically painting the truth with a broad brush, but saying it once would have sufficed, and he went on a good half hour, retreading the same thoughts in the same words. Afterwards, I felt like soulfully wailing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah! Little pink houses for you and me!" I noticed this incessant whining a lot in the past few days, and I guess there’s just a comfort in some people to constantly complain and have other people nod their heads in silent agreement. It makes no difference to me. If things suck, I’d rather just deal with them.

What have I learned from all this? That Con Ed is a stereotypically evil corporation who first tried to downplay the truth, dragged ass in terms of dealing with a serious, life-threatening issue and since then, hasn’t done enough to compensate or even assure their customers. It’s borderline evil how they’ve handled this crisis. I’m thinking reaction time more than anything. Why weren’t there all these work crews on the street on Tuesday, when it became obvious that the system was either down or well on its way down for this entire area? What were they waiting for … the power to come back on all by itself?

I’ve also learned what I knew from 9/11, or the last power outage, which, as noted earlier, was a walk in the park compared to this one. And that’s the simple fact that when you get placed in a shit situation, the best you can do is try to maintain some sense of normalcy and move forward the best you can. Shit, I cleaned my apartment on Wednesday night in the dark – dusting and the bathroom. Why not? I got tired of reading by flashlight, realized I could do this without electricity, and got to it. Ditto cleaning out the yard and sidewalk yesterday. You just have to make yourself useful when everything else shuts down. Besides, it was way too hot to masturbate.

It gets worse than what we've been through, but it sure as hell gets a lot better, too. All I know is if you get placed in the same shit situation, in 90-degree weather, with a total runaround in terms of the powers that be speaking any kind of truth, you’re going to be deeply pissed off, and hopefully in a position where you can fend for yourself. What I’ve really learned is the value of electricity, and, people, I’m never going to take that for granted again! If you haven't hugged your fuse box today, think about it.

2 comments:

Drooch said...

Excellent look inside a situation that none of us would want to experience. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is ConEd's failure to properly maintain and replace its aging infrastructure, things like this will become more common. One lesson we should all take from it is to be prepared. On that score, I'm surprised you didn't score some extra batteries for your mp3 player, so you'd have some music at least to go with your book and flashlight!

Jordan Hoffman said...

I lucked out. We never had total power loss, just reduction for a few days. Ann saw some idiots yelling at the workers -- there were some guys eating their lunch in the back of a truck and some dumbasses were shouting "Quit eating and get to work!!!" I steered clear of the shenanigans as best I could (I'm 1 block from Steinway and Steinway had major fires underground and was roped off for days) but I was walking once I was face to face with a cadre of Con Ed workers. I looked 'em in the eye and said "Guys, I know you can do it! We're rooting for you!" I expected them to just shrug it off as a joke, but they all seemed deeply touched by what I said and thanked me. It was then I realized that dozens of people had probably been yelling at them all day as if it was all THEY'RE fault. Shit, if I had any cold beer, I'd give them one. But I didn't, 'cause the fridge was off.