It’s nighttime and the power’s still out, although right now I’m in another part of town where the lights are as bright as usual. I’m sitting in a coffee shop loaded with people, many of them—like me—busy keyboarding away at their computers and charging their cellphones.
So it’s easy to pretend that all’s well, and that I just happened to decide tonight to write this essay amidst a lot of unaccustomed company.
But the truth is that in an hour or so I’ll unplug my laptop, get into my car, and drive home. Just a few blocks away the streets will suddenly darken, even the traffic signals will go off, and the cars will slow down and practice the quaint courtesies of stopping at busy corners to let each other pass.
When I arrive home, there will only be the full moon and a few stars to light my way, plus a flashlight once my car lights have been turned off. And I will marvel once again, as I did last time the power went out for days, at how dark the night is, and how bright the moon. Then I’ll go inside to featureless rooms, with only the flashlight (or the odd candle) to guide me. Neither illuminates much, but it will be enough.
How many electrical aids I usually rely on at night! Without them, I’m not only without light and heat, but I’m also without entertainment, except what’s provided by my mind. I can talk to friends, but only on my cell phone, and I need to make sure I charge it during the day so it won’t run out of juice at night. I can listen to my iPod—but again, musn’t waste the charge. TV is out, of course, as is my usual companion, the internet. Friends huddle in their own homes, which seem more far away than ever. A hot shower is an unimaginable luxury, a cold one too shivery to contemplate.
And even this precarious existence depends on two things: batteries, and the existence of a world outside that hasn’t lost its power. I can still go to a grocery store and get supplies, and even go to a place like this one where I’m sitting right now, having bought hot food and plugged in my computer. At night, the things that now keep me company—several flashlights, a transistor radio, the little travel clock I bought a while back from Brookstone’s (the one that makes all sorts of sounds like crickets chirping or the ocean roar)—are all powered by batteries, of which I have a huge but not inexhaustible supply.
And I know that in a day or two the power will come back on again. If it doesn’t happen by tomorrow, I probably will journey an hour or two to stay with a friend or relative, and then return when all’s well. There is really nothing to worry about. But every power failure drives home—in a way that is impossible to ignore—how very far we’ve come from being able to rely on our own resources to survive.