On finding light in the darkness
“Hi, I’m an electronic refugee,” I say to the woman at the community center in a town seven miles south of where I live. “Is there a place I can plug in?” She guides me to a table where space remains at a chair and, more importantly, on a power strip. That’s why I can write this story.
This is Day Two of what may come to be known as the Great Blackout of Northern California. I am one of approximately 600,000 residents of the state who, in what the New York Times coyly describes as “an act taken out of an abundance of caution in the interest of safety,” on the part of Pacific Gas & Electric, have been consigned to the dark.
PG&E’s proactivity appears maddeningly arbitrary. The community hall where I am reconnecting with the 21st century is in one of the scattered areas that remain inexplicably empowered. And yet this village in the Napa Valley is no less vulnerable to potential wildfire than my small town farther north.
Emergency text alerts direct PG&E customers to its website, where there is a handy map that can reveal whether their particular address is subject to a power outage. Without a whiff of irony, these texts burble brightly into the otherwise dim houses of those who don’t need a computer to know they can’t turn on their computers.
There’s a lot of grumbling and head-shaking going on, and few of us are in a mood to appreciate PG&E’s late-to-the-game concern for our safety. It would have been nice if they’d done a better job of maintenance in the first place, in which case the devastation of the catastrophic wildfires of two years ago may well have been avoided.
Schools have shut down for the remainder of the week. Restaurants, most stores, and movie theaters remain dark and empty. The dry cleaners and the single laundromat in town are shuttered.
It’s the height of harvest season here in wine country, but with hotels unable to accommodate the tourists that would normally flood the region this weekend — let alone the dilemma of wineries whose vineyard workers can’t find childcare — the economic fallout of the Great Outage has yet to be determined. It won’t be peanuts, that’s for sure.
Still, amid the outage outrage, there is shared camaraderie. “How’s life in the 19th Century?” we ask each other as we shop for ice and canned goods at one of the two stores in town where generators roar in the loading docks. Neighbors check on each other. Kids ride bikes and play outside who would otherwise be in school if they weren’t glued to screens.
Thirty-six hours in, I’ve stopped reflexively hitting light switches when I enter a dim room. My smartwatch, its charge exhausted, sits dumbly on my counter. It has lost the power to nag me about steps taken or calories burned.
My husband and I find workarounds for the essentials, such as making coffee. Our gas stove means we can still do pour-overs. We have an emergency backup battery that allows us to replenish the iPad upon which we’ve downloaded some of our favorite TV shows. We’re not faced with playing endless rounds of Scrabble.
Other things, like laundry, will have to wait. For now, simple candlelit suppers and extra time to read a good book or take long walks with the dog are perks of a situation we may as well accept.
After all, this may only be the first of many blackouts. Welcome to the new normal.