Blogging From a Position of Power

Except for the scatter of strewn limbs still visible in almost every neighborhood, Columbus seems to be back to normal.  To me, the official milestone ending the blackout and all the insanity it caused came tonight: I ate dinner at the Blue Danube Restaurant.  It sat locked and dark beginning late Friday afternoon (along with many other businesses on that part of N. High St.).  I am not friends personally with any of the owners or wait staff, but I felt for the people who didn’t collect a paycheck all week, and I shudder at the thought of how much food they had to throw out.

The other simultaneous crisis in Columbus was the COTA bus strike.  It began at 3 a.m. on Monday, July 2. I was all ready for it.  I set my alarm considerably earlier than I usually do.  When it went off, I jumped out of bed like a shot, and damn near strangled myself on the hose of my CPAP machine.  Usually I ride in total oblivion of the time, so I wasn’t sure how much time to allow myself for the ride downtown.  I can walk from downtown to Baja Clintonville in about 90 minutes, so I allocated two hours for the bike ride.

My work day starts at 8 a.m., and it was a little after 6 when I left the house.  According to the U.S. Naval Observatory‘s Website, the sun rose at 6:08 on Monday morning.  I didn’t think to glance at my watch before my departure, but I do know it was light enough to see things without the aid of street lights.  (After Friday night, the street lights being off weren’t a good enough indication.)  I dodged and weaved around debris and fallen branches (and fallen trees!) as I headed south on Indianola.  That morning, I saw a huge tree still blocked E. Norwich Ave.  (Two young women who lived near the Indianola Church of Christ–which is at the corner of Indianola and Norwich–had written TREE BLOCKING STREET!! with chalk in big letters in the intersection, but I’m not sure whether anyone could see it.)  At Lane, I turned west and then went down High St. the rest of the way.  There was no way to tell who was affected by the lack of power and who wasn’t, although I remember seeing no delivery trucks anywhere on the route, and if you’re on High St. early on a weekday morning, there are usually trucks making deliveries to the restaurants, convenience stores, and bars.)

Once I arrived at the William Green Building, I saw that I had been overly cautious.  It took me only 38 minutes to get from Olde North to downtown, which meant I had an hour before work officially began.  Fortunately, I was able to find a berth for the trike in the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation garage, in a storeroom with a bike rack.  I ate a leisurely breakfast in the Nationwide cafeteria, and read until 7:55, and then headed into work.

After some false hopes that management and labor had settled the strike, I learned that there would be no bus service on Tuesday.  This time, I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping a little later, and leaving a little after 7.  I would still arrive early, but not as ridiculously early as I had on Monday.  And it was the ride home that I was dreading.

The worst part of COTA’s strike was that there would be no bus service for Red, White, and Boom.  I had no plans to attend it.  (I am the same way about patriotic holidays, especially the Fourth of July, that Ebeneezer Scrooge was about Christmas.)  My first thought was this would mean fewer people downtown for the fireworks, and thus less of a madhouse of an exodus once the festivities ended.  But I also worried that many people would come down anyway, and count on their skills to navigate their way home drunk.

On the Fourth itself, I rode around, occasionally stopping in fast food restaurants to use their Wi-Fi service.  Several times since Friday night, I had tried in vain to get online, or turn on the TV.  I didn’t realize how ridiculous the Wi-Fi situation was until I realized I had to call Steph in Florida, ask her to get on Channel 10’s  Website, and find out whether COTA was still on strike.  (She left me a voice mail message later that evening, telling me they had settled, and the buses would be rolling come morning.)

This news brought about mixed emotions in me.  I was glad to be riding the bus again, especially if it was air conditioned, but the two trips to and from downtown by bike had been fun.  A sign that you’re getting older is that sloth becomes your favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Sloth won out: If I took the bus, that meant I could sleep an additional hour.  So, on Thursday the fifth, I was at the bus stop looking up Summit St. waiting for the bus to come.

The whole area from Adams Ave. to High St. was still blacked out on Thursday evening, but this was an evening for paradoxes and contradiction.  As I was walking home, I saw a procession of seven or eight AEP trucks going north on Indianola.  Then, I walked past the Maynard Ave. United Methodist Church, and the sign on its door puzzled me:

Paradoxically, the next evening, with most of Columbus’ lights restored, the church was completely without power.

The sign reminded me of a neighbor in Marietta who said that he had once seen pouring rain on one side of a house, and sunshine on the other.  I thought this was a tall tale about how massive the house was, but I have seen rain on one side of a street and not the other, so I now believe he was telling the truth.

I live only a block or so from Maynard Ave. UMC, so I wondered whether I’d still have lights.  I was pleasantly surprised to see my porch light burning, and I was further surprised when I came in and saw that the green light on my cable box was no longer blinking, as it had been since the derecho first happened.  I grabbed the remote control and clicked it, and sure enough there was sound and a picture, rather than the black screen that I was used to seeing.  I clicked on the laptop and, while it was a little balky, soon enough I had access.

On Thursday, I came back from the Independence Day holiday and found that my workload was on the “famine” end, so I left at 11:30, and went to the OSU Library.  This was where I had one of those “face-palm” revelations.  (When I learned this, I almost reenacted the old “Wow!  I coulda had a V8!” ads from the 1980s.)  For years, I had debated whether or not to become a Friend of the Ohio State University Libraries, mainly so I could borrow.  As it turns out, as an employee of the State of Ohio, and the proud holder of a library card from the State Library of Ohio, I have been able–since 2004!–to borrow from the OSU Library!

I spent Friday evening with my Marietta High School classmate Robin, her husband Doug, and their son, as they were visiting Robin’s mother in Columbus.  We all ate dinner downtown, and then went to a double feature at the Ohio Theater, part of the CAPA Summer Series.  It was the first time in the last year or two I’d gone to the Summer Series–the last had been when I took Susie and her friend Sydney to “Cartoon Capers.”  (I first went to the Ohio Theater in the spring of 1980, when I took a young woman to see Vincent Price narrate King David.)

Even if I had been alone, there is no way I would have missed last night at the Ohio Theater.  Fritz the Nite Owl was hosting a double feature–two movies for $4, not bad!–of Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).  I missed the sarcastic comments and movie trivia that sandwiched the commercial breaks (there were no commercial breaks, unlike his shows at Studio 35 and The Grandview), but I enjoyed both pictures.  I had never seen Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and had not seen Dracula’s Daughter since I was 12 or 13.

So, life seems to have returned to normal.  Olympic Swim Club was open, which was a godsend as the day got hotter.  I biked up there in the early evening.  I can’t swim a stroke, but I luxuriated in the water, immersed myself several times, and tried all the while not to think of Altered States (1980).

I got dried off and dressed, and then headed to the Blue Danube.  It was good to see lights on and people sitting at the booths and bar.  I said to my waitress, “This is good to see!”  She felt the same way, undoubtedly because she lost wages during the time there was no electricity.
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I am the 33%

Baffling title, I know.  However, I am in a distinct and coveted minority right now.  I am part of the one third of people here in Columbus who have electricity.  The “rush hour storm” (my name for it; don’t know if anyone’s officially given it a title) of Friday night knocked out electricity when hurricane-force winds blew down power lines.  Looking at this morning’s Columbus Dispatch online, the best guess is that 345 thousand people in Central Ohio are without electricity, and about one million Ohioans total are without power.

While I have electricity, I do not have Internet.  I am “in the field” right now, typing this entry at the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.  I am without Internet and TV at home, and I realize that this may continue for awhile.  American Electric Power is saying it may be until Saturday before all of Central Ohio has lights, so I’m sure WOW Internet and Cable is not going to bust its chops to make sure people get to see America’s Got Talent.

My work day ended at 5 p.m. Friday, and around 4:40, I looked out to see that people were driving with their lights on, the street lights had come on, and the sky was getting dark.  (The latter never concerns me, because the windows in the William Green Building are so tinted that I often think it’s darker outside than it really is.)

At 5, I walked outside and was hit by the wind.  Newspaper pages and leaves skittered across the sidewalk, and then I saw an orange barrel rolling across High St.  The air felt warm and wet.  I hurried across High St. to catch my bus north.

During the northbound trip up N. 4th St., my fellow passengers and I escaped the worst of the hurricane-velocity winds that were pummeling Columbus at that time.  We saw trash cans rolling out into the street, strewing their contents behind them in a trail as they went.  We started seeing tree limbs lying on cars and on sidewalks.  Most ominously, we saw totally darkened houses.  Even at 5 p.m., three hours before sundown, everyone was driving with their headlights turned on.

I got off the bus and began walking the block toward my house.  Other houses on my street had lights on, so I was hopeful.  As I was leaving the bus, I saw several people running en masse north on N. 4th St., so I glanced in that direction and saw a thin cloud of black smoke in the sky.  As I looked up the alley, I saw there was a fire, and both rubberneckers and fire trucks were headed that way.

So, I hurried home and clicked on the living room light (just to make sure I had electricity; I did), and grabbed the camera.  (I write this one paragraph after saying something about rubberneckers, I know!).  I went up the alley, where the fire was still raging but looked easily controlled by the firefighters I saw there.  A garage behind a house on N. 4th was on fire, and the flames had even managed to catch the upper branches of a nearby tree on fire.  I thought that lightning had hit the garage, but a firefighter told me that the wind had blown a branch from a tree.  The branch had fallen on a power line, and both power line and branch landed on the roof of the garage.  The power arced, and the sparks set the garage on fire.  I shot about nine minutes of footage, most of it featuring the fire at the beginning, but the last few minutes showed more of people milling around in the alley.

I cursed WOW Internet and Cable when I was unable to get an Internet connection.  I turned on the TV, and at first they displayed a message saying there had been an interruption of service, and cable would be restored momentarily.  This message soon disappeared–they realized it would be a long time from “momentarily,” so the TV has displayed a blank screen ever since.

Not until after dark did I realize the extent of the power failure.  Once the sun set, I wandered around Baja Clintonville and the area around High St.  Houses just a block or two west of mine were dark.  I could see flashlights and candles in the windows.  Many people were sitting on their porches.  I could not see many of them, except maybe when they were holding lit cigarettes.  Some people made a party out of it, others sat and talked quietly.

A house at the corner of Indianola and East Maynard Avenues.  Falling branches destroyed his chimney and much of his roof.

But it was High St. that was truly the revelation.  Street lights were out, traffic lights were out, and the street was quiet, except for the sound of cars on the road.  My beloved Blue Danube was shuttered up, locked, and darkened, unheard of for Friday night.  The convenience store and Tobacco For Less across the street were empty and deserted.  Dick’s Den was open, with candles on the tables and in the windows, but I knew the allure of drinking room temperature beer could only last so long.

I used to have a record produced by CBS News called I Can Hear It Now: The ’60s, narrated by Walter Cronkite.  He mentioned the Great Power Blackout of 1965, and described it as “when the transistor radio, the candle, and the art of conversation enjoyed a one-day renaissance.”  That blackout affected 30 million persons in New York City, upstate New York, Massachusetts, Canada, and Pennsylvania, but the lights were back on the next day.  Candles were definitely making a comeback in Columbus Friday night.

I stopped in at Kafé Kerouac, lit by candles in the front room, with the performance/book room left totally dark.  The business was cash only, of course.  I stayed and nursed a warming can of Sprite, and sat at a table with a half-finished chess game and a deserted game of Connect Four.  I didn’t stay long.  No electricity meant no lights, and it also meant no air conditioning, and with all the people crammed into Kafé Kerouac’s comparatively small, underventilated space, the place soon smelled like the inside of a Dumpster.

Sirens have almost become white noise since Friday night, but it seems these are mostly rescue runs, not police out responding to opportunistic crimes.  People have been very courteous at intersections, treating them like four-way stops.  I have not heard about any looting or gratuitous property destruction.

By last night, the thrill seemed to be gone, and the fun has gone out of this blackout.  While I was out and about last night, I saw many people sitting on the porches of darkened houses, but the mood was much more desultory, and there was a feeling that this has gone on long enough.  I was out on a fool’s errand last night.  Fritz the Nite Owl was supposed to host Horror Express (starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) last night at 11:30.  Without Internet access, I could not log onto Fritz’ Facebook page, and Studio 35 is usually pretty lax about changing its outgoing message on voice mail.  So I hiked the two miles or so to Studio 35 to see if the movie would still happen.  I made most of my way minus streetlights.  (I had briefly considered riding the trike up Indianola, but between the lack of street lights and the abundance of felled limbs and other debris, I am glad I vetoed the idea.)  The Weber Market was totally blacked out, and so, I saw was Studio 35.  The movie was cancelled, as was the 9:15 showing of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (divine intervention?).

The adventure continues tomorrow.  COTA is going out on strike, so I am either walking or triking the 3½ miles to and from work.  I need the exercise too much to be bitter.