Friday, January 19, 2007
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Friday, January 12, 4:40 p.m.
A typical Friday afternoon at the office: People are winding things up for the day. It is gray and rainy. We had sent the February issue of the magazine to press, via Internet. Everyone was winding down for the week and getting ready to go, when someone says, “It’s starting to get icy on the roads.” Everyone leaves almost immediately. This is a bit of a thing at our company. Five years ago, then-editor Amy Vincent had a horror story driving eight hours from south Springfield to her Ozark apartment during an ice storm. It’s a trip that should take about eight minutes. Our general manager has a sort of “never again” attitude when it comes to employees driving around in the middle of ice like that. So everyone leaves.
Friday, January 12, 5:15 p.m.
Mystery Jeff Houghton calls my cell while I’m on the road back to my Commercial Street loft. Jeff is a funny person who performs in The Skinny Improv and hosts an onstage chat show called “The Mystery Hour” on Saturday nights. I’m supposed to be a guest at tomorrow night’s show, at 10 p.m. Also scheduled for the show is an 8-year-old comedic genius.
Jeff pre-interviews me. We decide the funniest things I can talk about are when I lived in New York six years ago (around the same time Jeff was interning for David Letterman) and how I splashed my Starbucks mocha on myself that morning, just before I was scheduled to interview a local lawyer who was twice nominated to the Missouri Supreme Court. “Oh, mocha!” I say, describing the incident, because saying “oh, curse word” in a Skinny Improv context would be verboten. The Skinny is family-oriented comedy “for the masses.”
Friday, January 12, 5:30 p.m.
I get back to the loft and tidy up, throwing a ton of laundry into my hamper. I’ll wash my clothes tomorrow, I think. My friend Sean Lyman is due over to my place around 7:30ish because we’re going to a dinner party given by my neighbors, Andrew and Zoe. He is a philosophy grad, she’s an artist; they both work at our favorite martini bar/café/sandwich-and-apps-place, MudLounge, and they live in the loft across the wall from mine. That’s the building next door. Before Sean gets there, I zip over to the Brown Derby liquor store at Commercial Street and Grant Avenue. It’s a little slow, with just one other customer in there. I head to the wine shelf. There’s a Lulu B. pinot and some kind of Australian sparkling wine, better than what I expected to find at this no-frills Derby. It’s the kind of liquor store with a couple “Phone from Car” booths outside and prominent “magazine” racks inside.
Friday, January 12, 8 p.m.
Sean arrives at my house. I gather up bottles of wine and we head next door to Andrew and Zoe. A gaggle of guests tuck in to a vegetarian feast. Andrew and Zoe have made a vegetarian curry with fiery red curry paste and coconut milk. The ever-glamorous Megan Smith (ex-417 Magazine employee) brought spring rolls with Thai peanut sauce. As we all sit inside the top-floor loft, we hear the pitter-patter of rain on the roof. We know it’s supposed to be freezing rain but are blithe and bonny. After dinner, we watch three episodes of Arrested Development and laugh at the show's stupid rich people who don’t know how to deal with real problems.
Friday, January 12, 11:55 p.m.
I go downstairs, onto the street, where it’s cold and looks like ice is glittering amid the runoff water flowing over the street. I walk next door to my place. For the last time that weekend, I tap in my security code on my building’s front door. It beeps. I go upstairs, unlock my apartment, get ready for bed and start reading Solaris, an offbeat Polish sci-fi novel. It is barely Saturday morning, barely past midnight. And then brownout. And blackout. “Oh well,” I think to myself, “I’ll deal with this tomorrow.” After a long week full of overtime at the office, I leave my alarm off and plan to sleep in. I sleep well. Commercial Street has no big trees, so I don't hear the limb-cracking sounds that are beginning to frighten so many other people in Springfield.
Saturday, January 13, 11:13 a.m.
I wake up and start stirring. Just as I sit up in bed and notice my windows are iced over, my cell phone rings. I pick it up. It’s my friend Amos Bridges. He and his girlfriend, Carolyn Elder, live next door, in the same building as Andrew and Zoe. Amos works as a reporter at the Springfield News-Leader, and he gets especially excited about the news when things happen importantly and rapidly.
“We still have power, but Carolyn doesn’t have a cell phone,” Amos says in a quick-fire voice. “Can you go over there and make sure she stocks up on food?” He explains that Springfield was only in the first of three waves of icy precipitation and that the situation will get worse, with more people losing power. “You don’t have power? Turn on your faucets to drip so the pipes don’t freeze.”
I get up, brush my teeth, and leave the faucet dripping. Ditto in the shower and the kitchen sink. I look at the thermostat. After almost 12 hours without electricity, it’s still 67 degrees in my loft. I can handle this, I think. I could even handle two or three days of this. The only tricky part is making sure my cell phone stays powered up. I get dressed, find my winter gloves and a silly Ford Motors hat my dad gave me, then unplug my phone charger and put it in my coat pocket, forgetting that I have a car charger for just this sort of situation.
Next door, Carolyn seems surprised to hear from me when I push her buzzer, but after I go upstairs into her warm (tropical-warm) loft, I relay the message from Amos. We agree that I would scrape off my car and get it warmed up while she finishes getting ready for the day. I get to work scraping off the windshield. It’s cold and miserable, but in no time, I’m ready to go. Except I only have about a quarter tank of gas. And I wonder how much of the city has lost power.
I drive a few blocks down Commercial to Grant Avenue. On one side of the intersection, that same Brown Derby from last night is doing a brisk business. On the other side, the Price Cutter has lost power. People are walking in and out, but it doesn’t look good.
I drive back to our block on Commercial and buzz Carolyn’s door, just in time for her to emerge dressed in a snappy plaid jacket. “I had so much to do today before Amos called,” Carolyn says. She was thinking of getting her nails done and doing some work from home; I was thinking of doing laundry and reading novels and doing some work from home.
It's an Arctic adventure! We drive down Washington Avenue, a side street that connects Commercial Street to Division Street, and we come upon Paul Parker. He is City Council member Mary Collette’s husband. And it’s at this point that someone (not me) first says that the neighborhoods of Springfield look like “a war zone.” And in the week since I’ve heard "war zone" multiple times, most distressingly from a few people in the broadcast media. I think the phrase is absurd. It doesn’t look like a war zone in Springfield. This is not like the TV pictures of Baghdad. This looks like a natural disaster.
Tree limbs are down everywhere, and the Midtown neighborhood is a mess, including in Paul and Mary’s yard. It’s immediately clear that power won’t be back in Midtown for days. We chat with Paul, who is trying to tidy up some of the downed limbs, before making our way forward.
It isn’t exactly the beginning of Dawn of the Dead, but as we go deeper into the city's heart, we see that Springfield is messed up. Traffic lights are out all along Division Street (and stayed out until the following Thursday). We drive south to Chestnut Expressway and then south on National Avenue. The nearest good grocery store, the Dillon’s at St. Louis Street, is cold and closed, with an empty parking lot. We go further south on National Avenue and see a lamppost lying in the street. At the intersection with Sunshine Street, the signal is out and a police officer is directing traffic.
Finally, we head east on Sunshine Street. Toward a business corridor serving one of the most affluent parts of town. And we find a supermarket. Two of them. A matching pair, Price Cutter and Dillon’s, and they stare at each other from opposite sides of the street. And they are packed with shoppers belatedly stocking up on food.
Saturday, January 13, 12:30 p.m.
Carolyn and I set out to go shopping at the Dillon’s (where we both have discount cards, as its northerly outpost on St. Louis Street is the store closest to our lofts, where I shop most frequently by default). I am thinking the power might be off all weekend, or even until Monday or Tuesday. So I go looking for pre-packaged foods and things that do not require any cooking before you can eat them: Peanut butter, jelly, bread, deli meats (I figure I can refrigerate things in my car), cheese, crackers, chips, juice, canned tuna, some fruits and vegetables (I’m sure these will hold up in car-refrigeration in subfreezing temperatures outside). It’s not terribly long before I’m all shopped out, but it takes Carolyn a bit longer before she is. And I get the distinct sense that she doesn’t view the situation quite as seriously as I do. She chooses a lot of perishables and picks up packages of raw meat. I find myself hoping that her and Amos’s electricity stays on. At one point, we’re in the produce section, and lots of shelves are empty. Carolyn says, “You know, seeing the shelves empty is kind of neat. I guess for me, it’s a sign of renewal,” and I think to myself, more like a sign of food shortages, and Wow, I reeeeaaalllly hope her and Amos’s electricity stays on.
Saturday, January 13, 1:10 p.m.
I finish shopping about 15 minutes ahead of Carolyn, so to pass the time, I call Sean on my cell. It’s not until the next Wednesday that I hear from him again. Sean tells me that after the dinner party last night, he turned onto Bennett Street near his home, and an icy limb fell onto a power line, which snapped and sparked directly in front of his Honda Element.
Yee-haw, what a way to start the weekend. Sean is a big sturdy fellow, the kind of guy who always dwarfs his girlfriends, and he doesn’t look like he’d get afraid of very many things, but I can tell by his voice that the power line was maybe a little distressing. Just a whisker. At the end of the conversation, we laugh and Sean says he might drop by the next day if he gets bored. But he’s worried about his house, a prewar two-story place located in the dense city-thickets of Rountree neighborhood, on Springfield’s east-central side. A big mature tree in the backyard could fall on it, and its boughs are pregnant with ice. He says he’s planning to stay next door with his neighbors, John and Jenny, a couple who teach at Missouri State, like Sean.
Saturday, January 13, 1:35 p.m.
After loading my car up with groceries (a bit of a chore as I had a number of boxes and oddments in my trunk and back seat), Carolyn and I set out in search of gasoline (I’m running on a quarter tank) and head back to Commercial Street.
We try to take a shortcut through Rountree to avoid the slowed-down major intersections. Bad idea. There are trees all in the middle of the roads, on the lines and on the houses. At one point, we realize we blithely drove right under a nearly downed power line. We snake our way through the neighborhood, taking three times as long as usual. Then we find one of the few still-open gas stations on Chestnut Expressway. The credit-card reader won’t work, but I am able to pre-pay indoors and fill up. Whew. I am going to be glad I have gasoline before long.
Saturday, January 13, 2:15 p.m.
We are finally back in our neighborhood. Going to the grocery store and getting gas were now Lord of the Rings–level quests. After we get all our things unloaded, I make a couple of sandwiches and watch TV at Carolyn and Amos’s loft while munching on Dorito's. The Elder-Bridges Loft becomes Greg’s Warming Center No. 1 in the weekend to come. (I still owe them a very fancy dinner, at some point, "after the thaw.") Then I head back to my place around four, wanting a bit of quiet, and I could see Carolyn could use a nap. I sit at my armchair nearest the window, with a bed-blanket draped over me, and read more Solaris. I listen to a Guardian Unlimited podcast on my iPod (which is charged to full, huzzah) of a speech by very happy British author named Cressida something, who keeps talking about how her books are funny and scary at the same time. I think to myself that yes, I sort of need to hear this happy voice of this woman talking in a warm auditorium across the globe, it reminds me that we're all still connected and enveloped with all the protections of society's womb, that this ice-storm experience is funny and scary at the same time.
Saturday, January 13, 6 p.m.
I head back over to Carolyn and Amos’s place. She cooks dinner, and won’t let me help despite multiple requests to let me do something, but I do contribute a bottle of pinot noir. Later, Trint and Shan come by. They’re friends of mine I’ve known since I moved to Springfield four years ago. Their duplex just west of Missouri State is without power, so they’re hanging out in the Professional Massage Training Center, where Shan works (and where I get to take a shower the next day, thank you PMTC). It’s at this point of the evening when the power outage is still sort of fun, like going to camp or something from childhood. A bunch of us giggle and take digital photographs when we go out back of the building to look at the icicles and smoke cigarettes (I didn't take part in that second bit). It was the second of three dinner parties I joined that weekend, all in the same electrified building on East Commercial Street, all full of laughs, wine, well-prepared meats, gourmet salads and appetizers, followed by ping-pong or ice cream and then a walk back to my chilly loft, followed by lighting many candles, reading Solaris under six or more blankets.
Friday, January 19, 10:13 p.m.
Fast-forward a week. This is all still going on.
Gary called from Florida, where he and Joan were on a work conference, and he was trying to organize where employees would sleep in electrified places from there and we also talked about getting a GO Magazine published the following Wednesday.
I finally got fed up Monday morning. I had been staying in warm places during the day, sleeping under a million blankets at home at night. The loft was still 52 degrees, but I’m no pioneer. I packed up some clothes and got my laptop and other oddments and found more gasoline somehow, and motor oil, and Shan helped me open the hood to my Mercury Sable, which was frozen shut, and I drove to Branson.
Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of things.
• I've gone back to work. The power came on for most of Tuesday, and we were able to publish an edition of GO Magazine on the normal print schedule for Wednesday afternoon. We also tried to get our blog moving. It had lain dead since Friday afternoon.
• Been commuting from Branson and burning way, way too much gas.
• Had a busy day and a half helping orient a new employee, who came in from out of town in this mess. Stayed in Springfield late two nights.
• Been having the curious experience of having my dad ask “about when do you think you’ll be home tonight?” as I commute back and forth from Springfield. Mom and dad are putting me up in the commodious bedroom usually used by my 19-year-old sister Jenny. She is at Truman State, where I gather they have plenty of electricity. Her room has a queen bed, a TV, a couch and a coffee table and is really nice. For a couple days, the family WiFi was offline, but now it's back running and so I can post this dispatch, which I began Monday afternoon but abandoned when the Internet connection failed.
• Talked to my friend Bob. He flew back in from Santa Barbara on Tuesday. It was 75 degrees there. But his power is back on now so he's doing well.
• Talked to Sean. Missouri State cancelled class for the week, so on Monday he zipped to his parents’ house in Olathe, Kansas to weather out the week after his house was damaged by fallen limbs. John and Jenny, the friends he stayed with, got so fed up they went back to their families, who live in Indianapolis, Indiana.
• Hung out with my co-workers, whose stories are quite similar to mine, as so many of them live in Center City, where power is persistently offline owing to the mature trees. One staff writer, who lives near Sean, is staying at his parents’ house on the south side. So are two of his young-married-couple friends. His mom, he says, “loves having kids in the house again” and is making all kinds of breakfast and dinner for them. Last I knew, another staff writer was staying at a Red Cross shelter. His girlfriend is staying somewhere in Branson. A third staffer is camping out on a fourth staffer’s couch, in a smallish apartment where the fourth staffer lives. Somehow has never lost power all this time, despite a tree-ish Center City locale. A fifth staff editor says that before power came on Monday at his house, it was perhaps the worst day of his marriage. A sixth staffer, who lives in University Heights, only got through to CU's swamped phone line to report her power outage on Wednesday afternoon, despite trying since Saturday morning.
• I interviewed an important dignitary person for journalistic reasons whom I had to call, overseas, at 7:20 a.m. Wednesday morning because of a nine-hour time delay between Missouri and his location. I was told this fellow was hard to reach on his cell phone, but that persistence would pay off. But—borderline miracle—I called, it rang three times, and there came an accented “Yes” in response. I got the interview done while sitting at my parents’ kitchen table at get-ready-for-school time—not my preferred working conditions, but it’s important to remember to be thankful for things.
• I found myself expressing to friends that it's important to remember to be thankful for things. For example, miracle number two that I'm thankful for: My apartment is only 40 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Trint and Shan's place got that cold almost immediately last Saturday. Other people have pipes freezing and water damage. And I don't have ruined trees to feel sad about. And Jenny's room is nice. So I'v thought about ways to use the magazine medium that I'm "in charge of" as some kind of "content boss person" to help the recovery in the long term, when this has faded from TV and the paper, etc. We'll figure something out I'm sure.
• Thought about learning to be patient as a central spiritual lesson of human life. Because here's the clincher. Today, I was in a meeting when my cell rang. It said merely “417” on the caller ID, which meant that the call was coming not from 417 Magazine, but from inside the City of Springfield government offices. City direct dial numbers are suppressed from caller ID, at least on my cell, presumably so the public can’t be permitted to directly reach the City public officials whose salaries come from public funds that the public pays.
The call was from City Utilities. A very nice woman asked me if my power was back on “down there on East Commercial Street.”
While it’s never good to be angry at some nice person who is just trying to do her job, the nameless CU employee’s question made steam come out of my ears. Shouldn’t SHE tell ME if the power is back on? I’m not the utility, I’m just the customer. But I didn't yell. I tried to be unfailingly polite as I told her that I’d come straight to work this morning from out of town and hadn’t yet been able to check on my apartment today. I offered to check on the apartment and call back. She said the length of time on hold would be bothersome to me, so she “would keep my ticket open” and I might receive another call from CU to check on me.
It was a scene straight out of Kafka. Probably The Trial rather than The Castle, or that short story with the door that's impossible to pass and then perplexingly closes at the end. At lunch time, I went to Commercial Street. Sure enough, the loft was cold. But it was holding steady at 41 degrees. Still no worry of pipes freezing just yet, even if there might be six inches of snow this weekend.
I drove back south to Sunshine Street, where I spent 20 minutes getting to-go food from a Wendy’s restaurant swamped with a long line of customers and an absurd rank of drive-through cars. I ordered a fried chicken club sandwich, a small hot chili, a side salad with Caesar dressing and a Diet Coke. I wanted ridiculous, comforting, American fast food. I wanted to go back and eat said food in my warm office while I read e-media news dispatches that had been written in New York City, France and other points on the globe that are not southwest Missouri. I wanted to get away from all this for a bit, I wanted things to get back to normal.
Posted by Gregory Holman at 22:43
Topics: cold loft, Commercial Street, freezing, ice storm, kindness of the urban tribe, parents' house, patience, Springfield, thankfulness, unprecedented, worse than 1987
2 reader reactions:
I really enjoyed reading this, Greg. Matt and I, living as we do in "affluent south Springfield" are on Day 7 without power as well. It sucks. Anyway, we've got a warm plcae to stay and I'm really glad to hear that you do too. Take care!
9:33 AM CST
Gregory Holman said...
Yeah, I guess I live in "affluent north Springfield," considering I'm blessed to have a 980-square foot loft that's nicer than most of the houses people lived in when I was growing up in Branson in the '80s or '90s. Glad to hear you kids are okay.
3:03 PM CST
Monday, January 02, 2012