Do you know what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom?
A hot shower and a hairdryer.
I exaggerate, of course. But not really. I know that we like to think of ourselves as highly evolved (or children of God, if that’s how you like to swing), but it’s such a thin sheen, this civility we pride ourselves for possessing over the rest of the mammals.
Remove one of those tenuous threads that connect us to that higher plateau and watch how quickly it all unravels.
We lost our electricity on Friday night, thanks to a jaw-droppingly violent storm known as a “Derecho.” It swept through the area with winds strong enough to snap healthy trees into shards of kindling and rip power lines completely free from their poles. And the rain! The idiom “sheets of rain” would not be hyperbolic in this case. Rain poured down as if dumped from a giant basin, with no delineation of size or shape…just a solid wall of water through which we found ourselves driving. VERY SLOWLY.
It was stunning and frightening and utterly humbling.
And then we reached our neighborhood and the unsurprising though frustrating reality of complete darkness.
This was our reality for almost four days.
Several years ago, New York was hit by a blackout so severe that former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson described us as ” a superpower with a third world electricity grid.” This statement is perfectly applicable to the state of the electricity grid as operated by the Potomac Electric Power Company, known as PEPCO. Although, it’s not really “operated” by PEPCO anymore, which is probably a major part of the problem. PEPCO sold their energy generating assets in 2000. They said that it would benefit customers by giving us lower rates. It was also supposed to open up free-market competition.
Yeah, not so much.
What actually happened has been a decade-plus devolution in service and reliability from PEPCO to the point that if you sneeze too hard near a substation, thousands go without power for days. Granted, Friday night’s storm was fierce. However, PEPCO’s response was the same as every one of their responses to massive days-long power failures (which seem to occur at least biannually anymore): no human customer service; spotty updates to their automated response system that always lack any concrete commitment to timelines; slow decisions to reach out to nearby power companies for help in restoration efforts; and, when finally they do commit to a deadline, it’s offensively distant.
Case in point: We lost power on Friday, June 29. Sunday, July 1, PEPCO finally committed to the “promise” that 90 percent of the people without power would have full restoration by 11 p.m. on Friday, July 6.
This is customer service? Did I mention that temperatures have been in the mid-90s to low 100s since the power went out? And there’s no sign of relief all week?
This is how civility’s sheen sloughs away: Under the oppressive pressing persistence of heat and humidity that leave patience in shreds and tempers inflamed. Major intersections become free-for-alls as people abandon lawfulness and common courtesy. You think this area’s traffic sucks and blows as it is on a normal day? Try making it down a major roadway when every stoplight is dead and there are no police officers available to direct traffic. Mad Max would be left in tears by sweaty, enraged D.C. area commuters unfettered by the superfluity of traffic rules and simple human decency.
Then there were the lines at the gas stations that still had power. I wasn’t alive during the 1973 oil crisis, but I’ve seen photos of lines of cars snaking down roads, around blocks, waiting to get to a pump. Believe it or not, this was the scene this past weekend at the few stations that still had power. You’d have thought that we’d gone weeks without access to gas, the way people were behaving. Horns blaring, tempers flaring…I honestly question and fear what would happen in an actual gas shortage. Good thing I like to walk as much as I do.
By Sunday evening, our third-world power grid problems sparked a first-world worry regarding…our wine fridge. We’d just gotten back from a very prosperous adventure (about which I had planned on telling you all prior to PEPCO SUCKS 2012!!!11!!) that left our wine fridge fully stocked with some amazing new discoveries.
Discoveries that were now beginning to warm up.
Have you ever heard the phrase “like looking for a needle in a haystack”? That, denizens, might have been easier than looking for a bag of ice in a blackout. I drove around for almost an hour in search of ice. The closest I came were random shards and cubes abandoned at the bottoms of empty ice bins and one incredibly questionable offer from a gas station attendant who looked almost exactly like Borat’s producer Azamat Bagatov, for me to “come back in few hours and I will have for you two bags of ice.”
Thankfully, I found a 7-Eleven with a full ice case, the wine was promptly cooled down, and I even got to enjoy a glass of non-tepid tap water that evening.
Monday morning brought with it another round of frustration: My office building had no power. No electricity at work, no electricity at home, I suddenly found myself in full nomadic form, netbook in tow, standing outside the local Barnes and Noble bookstore with two goals in mind: free wi-fi and a giant cup of coffee. Possibly two. At the same time.
Caffeine withdrawal is an ugly thing to witness, denizens.
Thankfully, the B&N staff understood the desperation that rolled off us all in waves (as well as a bit of funk, I’m sure; cold showers are great for cooling off but you cannot convince me that they are suitable for successful hygiene). The Starbucks cafe was ready with hot coffee and the promise of quiet tables and no pressure when we camped out well past the point when our cups were drained and nothing remained of our muffins beyond crumbs and blueberry-stained napkins. Actually, B&N was a lovely oasis of civility in an otherwise calamitous experience. The staff were kind, the store was quiet and cool, the wi-fi never faltered, and I ended up leaving with the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft for $20.
Now, I sit here in the cool comfort of our house, listening to the appeasing sounds of our mist-thin civility once more humming around me. I suppose I should be thankful to PEPCO for restoring our electricity well before their estimate. However, I can’t help but chafe at the thought that they set the bar so impossibly low that I can’t really find it in myself to thank them for anything. Yes, I appreciate the workers who are out there, busting their asses in this heat to fix what went wrong; but I can’t forgive the arrogance of the upper management who not only act as though they are above answering to their customers for remarkably poor service but actually have the audacity to want to discuss the possibility of imminent price increases.
Right. Perhaps I should approach such an increase with the same reliability and responsiveness that they approach these regular power failures…