From 3:40 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, to varying times in the wee hours of Sept. 9, four million people, including me, in Southern California and parts of Arizona and Mexico were scrounging around in kitchen drawers looking for candles. A blackout, it was no big deal compared to other, bigger blackouts, tropical storms and wildfires in Texas. Traffic on surface streets was barely moving since the lights weren’t functioning, but people were assiduously polite and careful. Nothing on the car radio but two Mexican stations and the local generator-powered disaster station reassuring the 7th largest city in the country that all disaster-preparedness measures were in place and functional. Although if we were dependent on life-support systems anywhere but in a hospital, we should call a number and somebody would come around with batteries or a generator. Stuck in traffic, I worried about those people trapped in 90-degree-hot apartments in wheelchairs with car-battery-operated lung ventilators, and how the emergency personnel would ever get to them in time without driving on sidewalks. I hoped they would drive on sidewalks.
And apparently they did, because nobody died. In fact, nobody did anything. All news reports the next day, after power was partially restored, indicated that in all of Southern California absolutely nothing happened. Nor was there any evidence of concern that anything untoward would happen. At midnight we went out to sit in a car and listen to the disaster station for updates. We heard the mayor urging parents not to leave candles burning in children’s bedrooms even though the children might demand candles. The mayor was tough, pointing out that being afraid of the dark is preferable to the dangers inherent in candles.
Somebody from the water department then took the mike and calmly mentioned that a couple of sewage-processing plants had crashed and were spilling raw sewage into the water supply in certain areas. Boiling tap water for twenty minutes before drinking was mandatory. Since almost all houses and apartment buildings in SoCal were and are built with electric kitchen appliances, and you can only have gas if you pay to customize your kitchen, I wondered how those with contaminated water were supposed to boil it.
San Diego has many, many high-rise hotels, apartment and office buildings. Hundreds of them. And in every single one, the elevators stopped dead at 3:40 on Thursday afternoon. The lights went out, the air-conditioning off. People were trapped on elevators everywhere, deftly calling 911 on cell phones and then waiting in airless darkness for rescue teams to fight their way through log-jammed traffic. And yet there are no stories.
All businesses immediately closed, colleges shut down, transportation ground to a halt. Cars ran out of gas and were abandoned on streets and freeways. In a city where nobody ever walks, the sidewalks were crowded. But by eight o’clock, when the last of the sun was gone, the place was a ghost town. Nobody on the streets but an occasional car, bright lights trying to penetrate a darkness solid as granite. San Diego sits on a terrain of hills and canyons, and a few solar yard lights could be seen twinkling on nearby hills. But they looked exactly like stars, with that sense of impossible distance and thus, irrelevance.
I knew the darkness was throbbing with stories. How could it be otherwise? Throw ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances. That’s the formula, right? So I was antsy all night, eager to hear about something that had happened. When morning came and with it enough power for radio and tv, and I was officially told that nothing had happened, it was like being slammed into a wall. By a lie.
None of us is unfamiliar with the tsunami of prevarication and informational pablum that oozes through our culture. Public figures and institutions lie incessantly about everything, and enormous numbers of people find it more convenient to accept the lies than to question them. What, after all, is the point, as long as we have some idea about what’s really going on?
Last week, flying from Houston to Baton Rouge on a little Continental commuter jet, I was told, along with the 35 or 40 other passengers, that we would not be able to land in Baton Rouge. A previous flight had experienced “mechanical problems” and was stalled on the airport’s only usable runway. We would have to land in Jackson, Mississippi. Halfway to Jackson, the plane made a graceful turn and we were told that we’d be landing in Lafayette, LA, instead. Okay, whatever, these things happen.
Except that once on the ground in Lafayette, we all got on cell phones and learned that the stalled flight’s “mechanical problem” had involved jammed gear and a crash landing! With no right-side landing gear, the plane had skidded across the runway on the front and left wheels, the (presumably empty) fuselage and the right wing, now in shreds. No one was hurt; the pilot must have known what he or she was doing. But I was imagining what that must have been like, the flight crew repeating those “fasten your set belt low and tight, then lean over and cover your head with your arms” crash instructions, and knowing the plane was actually going to crash. And then that first bump, the spoilers kicking in to hold the plane on the ground as the braking began, followed by the frightening tip to the right, the scream of metal scraping tarmac, a firestorm of sparks and flying rivets. That’s a story. Just imagining it is a story. And diminishing it to a vague and boring “mechanical problem” obliterates the story!
There is an assumption that we are pampered, hysterical children who must be protected from anything that is not Disneyland. In lieu of that assumption, we are venal, litigious whiners who will sue our own furniture for stubbing our toes if we can get a free tv tray out of the deal. We must at all times be reassured that nothing has happened, is happening or ever will happen. That way we will neither engage in earsplitting wails nor file lawsuits. But the unforeseen secondary effect of this near-empty information flow is the creation of a vacuum where once a swarm of stories flourished. I don’t sit around imagining plane crashes, but if the plane before mine on a runway does crash, then by virtue of my proximity to it, I have an intellectual, emotional and spiritual right to an awareness that it has happened. What I do with that awareness is up to me, as long as I don’t infringe on the awarenesses of others.
But that’s not the way it’s done, and so I’ll never hear any of the stories born in my darkened, silent city. Did a bad boy in a bad neighborhood loot a pitch-dark dollar store and come away with a flimsy plastic colander and enough green apple-scented dish soap to last a decade? How about the nun on a sweltering elevator who, rather than faint, pulled off her medieval head covering and never put it back on? Or the two old guys who’d lived in the same apartment building for thirty years without ever seeing each other, realizing as they stood outside in the dark for some air because the windows wouldn’t open, that they’ve both always dreamed of moving to Montana and opening a diner? And that they’re going to! And ah, the boy and girl who’ve spent time together for weeks, texting other people on their cell phones, but now their cell phones are dead and they have no choice but to talk to each other. What did they see, what did they learn?
Those of us old enough to remember phones without dials have a sufficient backlog of stories to survive indefinitely, and can cannibalize them at will to create new ones. But the current practice of obliterating stories in the interest of suffocating reaction to them cannot but produce a peculiar, and monstrously boring, population. If anybody wants to start a campaign demanding our right to stories, let me know. I’ll join!