When I get to the gas station down the street on Sunday, the day before Halloween—having snagged the last generator at Sam’s Club, because it snowed in October, I no longer live in a First World country, and my house is without electricity—the pumps appear to be working but the credit card reader isn’t.

“Lousy piece of shit!”

“Exactly what I said,” I hear from the guy on the other side of the gas island.

I only need a few gallons to fill my newly purchased gas cans. I rummage around in my pockets and I’ve got just enough cash to manage.

The guy in front of me on line inside is buying lottery tickets. Of course he is.

Those machines work; some networks are more resilient than others.

This is how civilization sputters to an end, Lady Luck winks at you but only takes cash. When I was a kid, in the 60s and 70s, the wack jobs and loons were hoarding ammunition in their basements, along with water, grain and South African Krugerrands, because you were going to need gold, come the nuclear apocalypse. Fiat currency wasn’t going to be enough in the ashes, the survivalists told us.

The Soviets didn’t do us in, of course. But between climate change and the unfettered and deregulated market for everything including utilities—which no longer have to fritter away money on such frippery as maintenance or reserve repair-capacity—we’re doing an impressively efficient job on ourselves lately.

I pay, pump, go home, set up the generator on my driveway, crank it to life, dig the electric drill and a small bouquet of bits out of the (self-inflicted) disaster area that is my basement, and begin boring a hole in my kitchen wall: mount an outlet on the inside and run an extension cord to my refrigerator as the first order of business.

Save the food.

From Sunday into Monday—into Tuesday, into Wednesday—we adjust to wearing LED headlamps, run orange extension cords further into the house, charge our batteries, our phones, our tempers. I add gas, change oil, monitor power usage.

My house is almost a hundred years old. Our boiler is original equipment—of the variety referred to in the Northeast as an Asbestos Snowman, cast-iron, rotund and solid, sheathed in a toxic jacket that should be okay if you don’t try anything disruptive, like remediation—it burned coal, then oil, now gas, needs no pump, produces steam heat, keeps us warm without a power source other than the gas line. The oldest thing in the house still works. The newer stuff, not so much.

Days into the outage, my wife, my daughter, and I keep reaching for switches that won’t turn anything on:

I’ll just. . . oh wait!

For reasons I don’t understand (doesn’t the thing have capacitive discharge ignition, doesn’t it need an electric spark from somewhere?) the hot water heater, also gas, keeps working as well.

We take hot showers in the dark.

I feel a little nervous about the sputter and hum of the generator on our driveway—though I hear others elsewhere on our dark street. I chained it to the thick pine supports of our carport when I set it up; neighborly behavior is a nice idea, but taking it for granted feels a little naive.

Perhaps I should be stockpiling ammunition, as well.

The wack jobs and the loons? They were just early by a decade or two and looking outward when they should have looked inward: We’re all survivalists now. I’m just fighting to keep my family living in the last half of the 19th century rather than the first.

We have met the enemy. . . and he is us.

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DONALD N. S. UNGER teaches in the Program in Writing & Humanistic Studies at MIT. His book, Men Can: The Changing Image & Reality of Fatherhood in America, was published by Temple University Press in 2010. www.men-can.com

2 responses to “The Snow This Time, The Fire 
Next Time”

  1. I love this. When Irene hit and took out part of my village (the bridge just opened on Friday…) we didn’t lose power or internet, but felt on the brink. We listened to the police scanner (over the internet that didn’t go down, thank you. We’re not survivalists enough to invest in Uniden box…) and that sense of living on the edge, that edgy tetchy amped-up and freaked-out feeling was, well, intense. But you got it, you get it. Thank you. It made me want to invest in a generator though we haven’t yet managed that and now that the disaster has receded at least for us, doubt we will. Till next time. Hell, had we lost power we’d have been screwed. We had no potable water for 3 weeks.

    Thanks and welcome to the apocalypse.

  2. dwoz says:

    ah…now that’s something interesting.

    How little we understand our distribution networks. On the inside.

    So when there’s trouble on them, we toss them out and build ad hoc NEW networks alongside the dark ones.

    For future reference: There’s an easy way to manage the generator, without making holes in your house.

    Find your outside power receptacle.

    Make two special cables, each only 6 inches long. NO LONGER. these special cables have a male plug on both ends. You can go down to the hardware store, buy four male end plugs, and two 6 inch pieces of nice thick power cable. Assemble the four plugs onto the ends of the two wires.

    When the power goes out and it’s generator time, THROW THE MAIN HOUSE BREAKER OFF.

    Then plug one of your special cables into the generator, and run an extension cord to an outside electric receptacle. plug it in.

    You now have energized one half of your household wiring.

    Find a second plug, that is NOT working. Plug the second extension cord into it.

    You have now energized the second half of your household wiring.

    No holes. No drilling. No crazy network of extension cords throughout the house.

    DO NOT FORGET TO THROW THE MAIN BREAKER OFF. That’s an important part.

    Oh, an do take note…don’t cross over the wires in your little patch cables…brass to brass, nickel to nickel. green to ground. very important.

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