Five years ago, a portion of North America was plunged into the largest blackout in the continent's history. I was in the heart of downtown Toronto — the largest city in Canada and the 31st largest city in the world — at the time. I was 17 years old. I did not know the city well.
This is what happened to me.
I spent the summer between high school and university interning at a non-profit journalism organization for "young people." August was half-over, the internship was drawing to a close and I was gearing up for the beginning of my post-secondary educational career. During lulls, I frequented the university's website for incoming first-year students, scanning it for advice on everything from getting used to wildly different schedules to how to avoid registration lineups. Strangely, it is here that our story begins.
I needed my ID card. The website suggested heading down to campus well before the official registration period at the end of the month in order to avoid delays. This seemed like a good plan, so with the kind permission of my internship supervisor I left a few minutes early and headed on down to school. I normally would not have had any idea where I was going, but the administration had the foresight to put signs everywhere. I posed for my (terrible) photo, provided my signature for the card using an electronic tablet and left the building some time after 4 p.m. ET marveling at just how easy that had been.
By the time I hit the closest major intersection — less than a minute later — the streetlights weren't working. Thinking it a fluke, I headed over to the closest subway station (perhaps another 20 seconds, if that, away). The doors had been shut. Somewhere nearby, a random woman yelled out something about a power failure. I tried to call home to the suburbs to no avail; sometimes a recorded message said something about a signal being unavailable, other times the phone line just sounded dead. A total stranger wielding a handful of loose change approached, clearly having seen me just try to use my phone, and offered to "buy a call" from me.
"I can't get a signal," I told him apologetically.
"If you try for long enough you can get one," he persisted. My battery was almost dead and I needed to call home. I told him so. I kept walking. I felt bad, but what was I to do? I tried again. I don't remember how long it took before something connected and the phone started ringing.
"I know," my sister said when I told her the power was out and the subway wasn't running. "It's out here, too." The GO Trains (the rail system run by the government of Ontario that connects the southwest's major cities), she went on, were running. I said I would walk to Toronto's GO hub, Union Station, and call back when I knew when I could get onto a train.
I consulted the city map posted on the bus shelter as to where I was and where I was going. I headed south.
Rather, I headed what I thought was south. It turned out the map I'd consulted was correct, but backwards because it was posted on the north side of the street. It was my own fault, really, and I didn't know the city that well. But I walked multiple blocks north before, seeing no sign of a train station, I finally asked someone for directions.
Along the way — in both directions — I saw people helping each other out and civilians cheerfully directing traffic in the absence of functioning streetlights. I heard no shortage of conspiracy theories about the cause of it all, particularly after passing a battery-powered radio broadcasting the news that the entire eastern seaboard had gone dark. Some people tepidly questioned whether it could be the unthinkable, the memories of another day that started normally still fresh in our minds.
I was tired and sore by the time I finally arrived at Union, thinking I was home free. The trains would be packed, usually an inconvenience, but I was more than willing to deal. The station was functional, though shrouded in darkness; trains were running and people lined up to have their tickets stamped manually. (I chose to try the automated ticket validator before joining a lineup. It paid off: the machine worked.)
I bounded up to the platform, relieved to be going home, and boarded the westbound train. It all passed without incident for less than 10 minutes, until we arrived near one of the stations along the route and the backup power supply for the electrical switches failed. We sat there, motionless, for half an hour.
Amazingly, people took this in stride. Strangers sat and talked about everything from where they were when the power went out to how much perishable food they had to consume as quickly as possible once they managed to get home. When my cell phone battery finally died, a woman sitting nearby lent me hers. All told, it took me nearly four hours to get home.
Like most other people, we had a barbecue and ate as much ice cream as we could before it melted. For the first time in my life, I saw the stars in the city. Before going to bed that night, I turned on the radio again and heard the deejay encourage anyone who saw any gas station hiking their prices in an attempt to take advantage of the desperate to call in so they could warn others.
I went to bed that night thinking that people aren't so bad after all.
Hours later, I was awakened by screams outside my window. The only discernible phrases were "Wake up, please, wake up!" followed by a different voice asking whether someone needed an ambulance. Seeing nothing but darkness outside the window, I went back to bed. The next morning, I learned that someone had been murdered — not directly outside the house but further down the street — and I had to explain what I'd heard to a police officer.
It was a bizarre day, one that showed me humanity at its best and at its not-so-good. Today, news networks are focusing on the fifth anniversary of the blackout, complete with the requisite shots of various familiar skylines plunged into darkness and interviews with people recounting where they were and what they were doing at the time. Meanwhile, a family is coping with the fifth anniversary of their son's senseless death.
As for me, it's hard for me to not remember being 17 and about to start university even in the midst of these more important events. There is some strange balance in the fact that the fifth anniversary of the blackout — the day I picked up my student card — is the day I picked up the keys to my first real apartment. It's funny how things work out.