Politics

11.05.12

Lights Out in Westchester, New York

Seven days after Hurricane Sandy hit, hundreds of homes just north of New York City are still without power. Malcolm Jones writes—in gloves—from one of them.

I am typing with gloves on, the kind that don’t have fingertips.

Every night I go to bed with more clothes on. The first night it I added socks, the next I left my shirt on. Soon I will be sleeping fully clothed and wearing a cap like the narrator of The Night Before Christmas. All day long I go about the house in a sweater, a scarf, and a wool cap. My daughter says I look French. Like a French thief, her boyfriend says.

At around sundown tonight, our house in northern Westchester County will have been without power, landline, and Internet service for seven days. This is starting to suck.

We have a small generator, thanks to the foresight of my wife, who scored one before the storm hit. It is strong enough to power the computers and charge the mobile devices. Unfortunately, gas cans are in short supply, so on Sunday before the storm hits I bring gas home in a five-gallon bucket with a tight lid. Still, the car reeks of gas. Two days later I find a gas station selling one-gallon cans for $13 a piece. I buy two and consider myself lucky. Then gas stations begin running out of fuel. We hear rumors of fistfights and altercations at the pumps. Is it mere coincidence or urban mythmaking that the miscreant line jumpers are always said to be driving Mercedes? It all sounds like the middle-class version of Mad Max.

A day or so after Sandy hits, it starts turning seriously colder. My intrepid wife scores a kerosene heater. Firing it up, I wonder if this is the kind of heater always blamed in those stories where a family of five gets incinerated on Christmas Eve. I decide I don't care. We are warm.

Old habits die hard. You go in a dark room and flick the light switch for days after the power is gone. If this is the bathroom and you are in a hurry, you're screwed unless you can find the candles and matches that are ... somewhere.

New routines emerge. We get up early because the more we can do in the daylight, the better. After a night spent fumbling for matches, candles, and flashlights in the dark, we organize everything as much as we can before darkness falls again. I refill the generator and the heater. We search for more fuel to power the generator to recharge phones that either get no service or shabby connections that conk out in the middle of calls. We spend our days finding more batteries and candles and fuel. My wife comes back from a trip to Target with many overpriced candles, including a pair whose circumference makes them look like logs. They are each adorned with a rhinestone pendant. Gosh they're pretty. We light them anyway and pray to Dolly Parton.

Simply running in place takes all day and all our energy.

When I can get Internet service, I obsessively monitor the local news blogs for updates on Con Ed's progress restoring service. As of Sunday night, approximately 75,000 homes in Westchester still have no power. In my village, 3,629 customers have had power restored, and 939 of us are are still in the dark. The power company announces that it hopes to have full power restored by Nov. 11.

My wife comes home from a foraging mission and reports seeing homemade signs in the area that say, "Con Ed Sucks." We agree that this is not a good strategy for getting the company to come to your home.

The dog seems unaffected by it all, but the usually silent cat—when he opens his mouth to meow, nothing much comes out—is suddenly a fearsome presence, looking for food everywhere, jumping on the table and into our laps, biting our fingers if we have food. He knows something is up.

By the weekend all the gas stations are barricading their empty pumps. On the bright side, my daughter points out, the car no longer stinks of gasoline.

Daylight savings arrives, depriving us of an hour of daylight at the end of day, meaning we run the generator earlier to have lights.

It is amazing how easy it is to go medieval in the space of a week. News travels house to house, until fact and rumor are indistinguishable. No one believes half of what they hear from any official source, assuming they have any means of receiving news. And bad news, no matter the source, is the most believable. If someone told me plague-carrying rats had invaded the riverfront, I would not discount it out of hand.

Staring at the candle on my desk, I drift into a reverie about the centuries when people organized their days around this simple object, crowding together not just for warmth  but for mere light, because unless you were the king, you made these things last as long as possible. And really, this way of life is not that antique in this country. People in the Plains states did not get electrification until the 30s.

Now everything is wired—until it isn't, and the heartsinking lesson to be learned from this disaster is that catastrophe breeds catastrophe in this top-heavy, tech-happy world of ours: remove one element and it's like a reality-show version of Jenga.

I hear people talking of rage and depression. I am neither particularly angry or down, although my temper frays easier by the day, and little accidents do suddenly seem like the end of the world. I open a box of matches upside down and half of them fall to the floor. Apocalypse!

There's a house right down the street with a fallen tree cleaving its roof.

Speaking of apocalypse, some say the world will end in fire, and some in ice. After this week, I would vote for some middle ground characterized by an endless series of little indignities, where shelves deplete one at a time, where hoarding and foraging exhaust our energies, and we walk through slush in leaky shoes.

The one thing I am inoculated against is self pity. There's a house right down the street with a fallen tree cleaving its roof. Who am I—with lights and a little heat and a sound house—to complain in the face of such a sight, not to mention the thousands of others who lost their homes and those who lost their lives? If typing with gloves on and worrying about gas for the generator are my worst worries, I'm a pretty lucky camper.

Still, it would be nice to know the expiration date on this calamity. I hear the gas stations are back in business. The garbage crews were around this morning collecting the remains of dead refrigerators. But the temperature is dropping, another storm—a mere winter storm this time—is on the way, and I am figuring that unless something positive—like power—happens in the next 24 hours, we are confronting another ugly reality: a trip to the laudromat.

This is really starting to suck.