Being an account of one twenty-something punk rocker
with a white collar
programming job's experiences during the Great Blackout of '03
. (August 15, 2003
(people names have been changed, place names have not)
I was at work when it all began. One of the interesting things was the slow way in which the magnitude of the thing dawned on us. I was sitting at my desk angrily clicking on a widget in a program I had written that wasn't doing what it was supposed to. Boredom and frustration had combined to the point where vengefully clicking on the program until it crashed seemed like a perfectly sensible way to deal with a piece of buggy software. I had been clicking for about thirty seconds when the power went out. For half a second I thought I had blown a fuse in the office with all my clicking. I know enough about computers to know that that was a patently ridiculous idea, but also enough to know that sometimes the truth when it comes to computers is patently ridiculous.
A phone call to the other office upstairs confirmed that the entire building was down. Clearly not my fault. After a few minutes, the emergency lights came on. I wandered upstairs and talked the lady in the cafeteria into giving me a free coffee since it was going to be cold before long anyway and then went outside and sat in the grass. Slowly, all of my co-workers emerged from the darkened building and joined me in the grass.
A quick glance down the street informed us that the entire block was without power. I sat and sipped my coffee as my co-workers pulled out their cell phones and started calling family and friends. Slowly the reports came in as they called people further and further afield.
"Power's out at Yonge and Eglinton."
"Lights out at Bloor and Lansdowne too."
Well, I thought. I guess that means ____.dhs.org is down. I'll have to reboot it when I get home and it will bitch at me about being shut down unexpectedly. Servers never like that.
"Just talked to my kids in Scarborough. No power there either."
"They're on emergency power at the airport."
My eyebrows raised at that one. A city wide blackout was pretty big news. I mean, there had been sporadic power trouble in the city earlier in the summer, but the blackouts were never bigger than a block or two and usually only lasted a couple of minutes.
"My friend says that the power's out in Niagra Falls, too."
Alright, I thought, people are making things up now. Are Toronto and Niagra even on the same grid? We get most of our power from Darlington Nuclear and they must get most of theirs from the Niagra Hydro Dam.
With my coffee finished and myself growing tired of listening to people nattering into cell phones, I climbed on my bike and rode the four blocks to Vixen's work, weaving between cars confused by the failed streetlights.
I walked in the door of the hippie organic sprout and seed store she works at and saw her working the front counter by candlelight.
"We gonna get out of here and go get some wine?" I asked.
"Nope. We're staying open our usual hours," she said, "Hippies thrive under natural light. Besides they just said over the radio that the Liquor Stores are all closed. A bit of a weird public service announcement."
For the first time I noticed that the voice rattling on and on in the background was coming from a battery powered AM radio.
"Well," I said, "it looks like everything's getting a little weird. Crazy how big this thing is, eh?"
"Yeah, I know. I mean, New York!"
It took me a few seconds to find my voice: "New York?"
When she informed me that nearly a quarter of the continent was without power, I was out the door in a flash. From the first payphone I could find which still worked (one of the old ones without the LED screen) I called Random. I got his parents' answering machine.
"Random," I told the machine, "it's Franko. Today's the day we've been waiting for. It's the end of the world. I'll get the machetes, bow and arrow and canned food. You get the gasoline and water filters. I'll meet you at Ossington later tonight. Trust no one."
When I got home, my flatmates (who, excepting Vixen, are unemployed) were already sitting out on the porch smoking pot and listening to the radio.
"What's the news?" I called out crazy-eyed as I locked my bike to the fence, "Are there riots? Have they declared martial law? This is the greatest day of my life!"
"No," Mark said, "everyone's keeping calm. They're saying this happened once before in '65 and the power was back on in forty-eight hours."
"Excellent!" I cried, "The longer we're the only ones who know the truth, the bigger our advantage. Let me know when the looting starts. While the cops are locking up the fools who are grabbing TVs we'll be smashing in the window of the army surplus store. When the new civilisation rises from the ashes of the old, we shall be riding the Phoenix!"
"You're insane." Amy declared, "chill out, have a toke. Stop trying to spread panic."
"Panic? I'm not panicked! I'm ecstatic! This is the best thing that has ever happened. If this was terrorism, those are the coolest fucking terrorists to ever live. Why-- Oh my god, of course! Drugs!"
Amy again: "You want some?"
"What? You know me better than that. When was the last time you saw me smoke ANYTHING? No! What we need is cocaine. Cocaine and methamphetamine to get us through the long days ahead. Amy! call your dealer."
Now I should point out that Amy absolutely loves helping people get drugs, so this request was enough to make her ignore the fact that I was still obviously insane. She pulled out her cell phone and asked me: "How much coke do you want?"
"How much? As much as I can get! How much money do I have? Three hundred dollars. I want three hundred dollars worth. What is that, six grams?"
"Fucked if I know, Franko. I've never bought blow in my life. Do you actually have three hundred in cash on you."
"Cash? Oh fuck! The bank machines are down! Wait! The banks have back up generators, maybe BMO is still open. We need to get out all of our cash and turn it into goods before it ceases to have value! Quick, to the bank!"
At this point I was heading wildly down the street in the direction of the bank. Mark and Amy ran to catch up with me. I guess that they realized I was making a certain crazy sort of sense.
When we got to the bank it was locked up tight. Despairing, I looked in my wallet at the paltry twenty five dollars I had on me in cash. Twenty five dollars doesn't by enough cocaine to even be worth mentioning. In the middle of the intersection Brian (the homeless wino who lives in the alley next to the liquor store) was gamely directing traffic. It was then that Amy said: "Hey look! Il Bun Ji is open and everything's on for a quarter price!"
We wandered inside and sat down in one of the traditional, paper-walled booths with the floor level tables. If I wasn't going to be able to get cocaine, two orders of avocado maki seemed like a pretty good investment of $3.50. Good sushi would be hard to come by in the new world order. As we sat, sipped green tea and ate sushi by candlelight, Mark announced that he was going to write a book called "Sushi for the Apocalypse."
This seemed like a good idea and made me realize that I was going to have to add a mechanical typewriter and a few cases of ink ribbons to my looting list.
When we got back home and the radio still wasn't saying anything about rioters or looters, I acknowledged that we might have to wait a day or two before doing our own looting. I certainly wasn't going to smash any store windows until I was absolutely certain the police had their hands full elsewhere. I had no intention of waiting out the apocalypse in a holding cell.
I decided around then that I might as well get drunk. Sadly, the LCBO was not only closed but attended by armed guards and I was fresh out of booze. I ran up the street to the laundromat and asked Victor, the owner (who I knew to be as much of an alcoholic as myself), if he had a spare bottle of wine he could sell me.
"Red or White?" he asked.
"It doesn't matter any more," I informed him.
He nodded and disappeared back inside. When he returned with a magnum of Californian white, I asked him how much he wanted for it.
"Just buy me a bottle of white when the power comes back on."
"No problem," I said, figuring that the power was never coming back on and I was up one bottle of white wine.
When I got back to the house, I found that our porch had attracted a few more of the regular trouble-makers: Aaron, Jerry, Marilyn & Diane.
I outlined my plan: we would get wasted tonight and celebrate the fall of Western Civilisation. Tomorrow, we would drive out to my parents place in H-wood where we wouldn't get caught in the crossfire when panic started to settle in the cities and where we could recruit Neil and a few of my other farmer friends who would be more than likely to join forces with us and bring shotguns, tractors and gasoline with them. Our chances were looking better by the minute. Somehow everyone agreed with me. I guess they thought that spending the blackout around a campfire out in the country didn't sound like such a bad idea.
And so we went and drank on the roof and watched the sunset. Then after it was good and dark and the stars were appearing above Toronto for the first time in decades, we went to Christie Pits park. We jumped the fence around the public pool and went skinny-dipping under the watchful eyes of Mars.
It was beautiful.
I awoke in the morning to find that my lights were on. I leaped out of bed, rushed down to the corner, found that the bank machine was working and emptied my account. Surely this wouldn't last.
When I got home, Mark and Amy were awake and laughing and saying things like: "See Franko, the world isn't ending after all" and "Everything's getting back to normal, but we can still go out to H-wood if you want."
They stopped laughing when the power went back out two hours later.
I laughed maniacally and talked about how great our new civilisation was going to be all the way out to H-wood. We stopped in Cobourg to pick up Johnny and Dick. I asked Johnny if we could get any crystal from Terrence(Cobourg's only dealer in chemicals). Johnny informed me that we couldn't because Terrence was in a holding cell at the police station. He had been busted three days earlier. I felt incredibly sorry for him, certain that he would starve to death in that cell in the weeks that followed. I briefly considered trying to bust him out, but we were only acquaintances really and there were going to be a lot of people in bad situations and I couldn't risk life and limb saving them all.
When we got to H-wood, we built a nice big fire under the stars, raided my parent's liquor supply (just like old times) and kept drinking. By the next day, the power had come back on and wasn't showing any signs of going off again. I finally conceded that maybe the world wasn't going to end after all and that while we were out in the country we might as well make the most of it.
We went into Canadian Tire and they sold us a paint-ball gun and a giant box of paint-balls even though we were clearly half drunk and up to no good. We then spent the rest of the day taking turns being the fearless hunter stalking human prey through the forests behind my parents' house. That night we spent another pleasant night around the campfire.
Sunday found us back in the city. And this morning I discovered that my crappy programming job was considered essential enough of a service for me to be required to go into work. I guess I have to stop by the LCBO and buy a magnum of Californian white on the way home.