Feeling powerless when the lights go out

NYSEG lineman at 5 a.m. (photo by Violet Snow)

It’s happened a lot lately. Maybe it’s raining and windy, maybe not. The power goes out. You feel helpless, having no idea what caused it, where the problem is, when it will be fixed. You wander around the house, appalled by how dependent we are on a vast network of wires. You flip light switches without thinking. You sit down at the computer, forgetting you can’t check the weather or look up the lyrics to that Talking Heads song stuck in your brain. You start to make toast. You go back to look at your nonexistent email. What’s going on? you wonder. Maybe it’s the end of the world. Then without warning, the power comes back on, and you completely stop thinking about electricity.

My relationship to power outages changed on Thursday, September 9 when it was, in fact, raining pretty hard. The crack of a falling tree woke me at 2 a.m., and the house quivered slightly. I got up to look around and discovered the house was intact. However, the power was out. It was hard to get back to sleep, as I pictured the creek flooding up the driveway (again), the next tree smashing through the roof. I tried to regain a sense of security by praying, and eventually, in the midst of paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer, I fell back asleep.

At 5 a.m., men’s voices woke me. Maybe the people camping across the street were getting flooded, and I should offer help. Reluctantly, I rolled out of bed. The living room was starkly bright, lit by a floodlight from a bucket truck at the foot of the driveway. High in the air, a man with a headlamp was working on the utility pole. Relief and gratitude — not because I was desperate for the power to come back on before dawn in the balmy September weather, but because I was seeing evidence of care, intelligence, service, comfort after the fear. 

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A chainsaw resounded briefly, no doubt attacking the fallen tree. I put on a jacket and rain boots and went outside. A tall, muscular man was shouting advice up to the bucket. He told me the tree had landed on the wires between my house and my neighbor’s house, tearing them loose. “It’ll be a while,” he warned.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m just glad you’re here.” I asked how the power company (NYSEG, for me, since I live in Phoenicia) finds out there’s an outage. 

“Someone calls and lets us know.”

“Someone whose power is out?”

“Right, someone with a landline and a push-button phone.” Unlike most of us, who now have cordless phones and/or service over the internet, dependent on electricity to function. “That person tells us where the outage is.”

“And then you drive around looking for the problem?”

“Right. We know where our lines go, so it’s usually not that hard to find. Usually it’s a tree that came down. The ash trees, especially.”

Last spring, the town highway crew came along our road with their own newly acquired bucket truck, taking down ash trees that had succumbed to infestation by the emerald ash borer. I watched the dismantling of trees for an hour, as the highway crew tried to prevent exactly what occurred on Thursday. (In this case, however, the tree was a basswood.)

At 7:10 a.m., I was typing on my (luckily charged up the night before) computer when I heard a shout: “Okay, Tim, go ahead.” There was a click, and the refrigerator started humming. I went out to express my gratitude. The man who’d been up in the bucket was a short, thin, wiry fellow. He looked like an intellectual.

I suspect I will feel differently next time the electricity goes out. I’ll still wander around the house marveling at how helpless civilization has made us. But I’ll have more trust in restoration, a sense of connection to the whole formerly anonymous process.

In my next life, I’d like to be either a musician or someone in a bucket truck.

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