AT 4:47 p.m. one recent Sunday the power went out on Hollins Street. It wouldn't have been so bad, but I had just wakened from a nap and was about to pit my grey cells against the fiend who edits the New York Times crossword puzzle. I had to go outside and sit on the "stoop" to challenge my brain, since the only light came from the swiftly setting sun. Our row house was morbidly dark, as row houses generally are, but with the comfort of BG&E, we often forget those things.
I had heard the "pop" in the alley and knew that a transformer had gone off just like a fuse in the basement, but with larger consequence. (Once, years ago, I worked for BG&E and knew that, at best, it would be an hour and a half before the outage was repaired.) But then 5 o'clock came: real darkness. It was time for candles (and the kids' flashlights that never really work).
Now our house is old (1864), but in its day it was quite modern. We have gas fixtures hanging off the walls in odd places, quaint and useless, but candles must have been the norm for lighting here long ago.
Candlelight changes things.
Little kids are not allowed candles to go upstairs to their rooms; a grown-up must follow. People cluster together when there is little light, and are forced to speak rather than read or "vid out." Spaces grow larger, more forbidding, no matter how familiar, and the darkness itself fosters a kind of togetherness that we seem to lose in this megawatt century.
Another wonderful aspect (if you can call this a moment full of wonder) is that the telephones didn't work either. Our only contact with the world outside became our neighbors - suddenly outside, chatting with each other, and almost enjoying the emergency that brought us together. Sitting on the steps, trading stories, drinking glasses of wine, having a cigarette or two, we seemed almost, in that dusk, like what I imagine our old-time Victorian antecedents must have lived like. Perhaps it was the wine, but I almost heard the clip-clopping of horse hooves over the Belgian blocks hidden beneath the macadam on our quiet street.
A strange sort of peacefulness began to grow. The yuppies who live a few houses up were expecting a gazillion people for dinner: "Well, maybe we'll just grill something," they said. Our dear neighbor across the street said, "Oh, bring your girls over to our house (where there was light) and they can do their homework there." Tenants in the apartment house a few doors away, all ready to do battle with the landlord about some inequities, laughed with the owners about there being a greater villain in the utility company.
In the darkness, the people lightened up.
Then quite suddenly, at 6:45, the power came back on. Light hTC was everywhere. Dishwashers kicked in, burglar alarms were suddenly re-armed, and the refrigerators began humming once more.
Neighbors reluctantly left their stoops. My children went off to blow out candles and set digital clocks. The phone rang in our house, and the yuppies up the street gave up the grill for the microwave. There was no more clip-clopping through my brain. Suddenly we were back in 1990.
It was a little sad, actually, but I tried to ignore the emotion and went back to the crossword puzzle feeling just a little bit wiser.
Lance Gifford writes from Baltimore.