When the D.C. area got about six inches of snow in January, I lost power. That’s nothing new. My neighborhood is on a weak part of the already-notoriously-dilapidated grid of the regional utility, PEPCO. I lose power when the wind blows. Sometimes, I lose power for no apparent reason at all. This time it was out for 30 hours.
I launched into my disaster recovery plan. I called my sister. She was out of power, too. Time for Plan B. I spent the morning shoveling out my driveway, then hit the road.
We already live in an electricity-addicted society. But for us home workers, the loss of power directly impacts our livelihood. Not only does the house go cold and the food in the fridge go bad, we can’t work without computer, phone and Internet access. And when we don’t work, we don’t get paid. So as soon as houses go dark, we swarm businesses and public places like bees to blossoms, searching for sweet juice.
My first stop was the neighborhood Starbucks. A hand-scrawled sign on the door told me they had lost their power, too. The next stop was the nearby Panera’s. As I suspected, I had been too slow in shoveling out. Every table was occupied. Every electrical outlet, taken. I stood in line to buy a coffee, hoping that someone might leave in the interim. They did, but I wasn’t quick enough. Juggling my coffee, laptop and bulging paper files, I was like a lumbering elephant amidst a pack of Twitter-deprived teenage cheetahs. No contest.
Stop number three was the public library. Not only does it have lots of chairs and outlets, but the public square around the library has free WiFi. At least I could access the Internet. I pulled into the garage, then slogged over to the building to find a small group of similarly frustrated refugees huddled before the doors. Not only was the library dark, but the entire public square was powerless. I sloshed back to my car, demoralized.
But I forged on. Next stop: Barnes & Noble. It has a Starbucks inside, WiFi and two spacious floors full of chairs, tables and outlets. When I pulled into a full parking lot, I knew I had finally reached a watering hole. Inside, the store was packed. Every chair and table was taken, and around the perimeter on both levels, folks camped greedily on the floor around the outlets. I wandered around, searching for an open plug, when this woman caught my eye and pointed down at the floor next to her. I could hardly believe it. It was an eight-outlet power strip, and she was beckoning me over to use the last available one. Instead of eyeing me warily, this woman was smiling. I plopped down next to her, and plugged in. I felt like hugging this lady. She explained that I needed to thank the teenage girl sitting next to her. It was she who had agreed to unplug her single device (a cellphone, I believe) and allow this woman to plug in the power strip, thus multiplying the electricity for all. She was like Jesus with the loaves and the fishes.
I sat there for a couple of hours, answering e-mail and finishing a story that was due that day. I offered to buy the woman coffee, but she declined. She just seemed to enjoy being helpful.
As I drove home I thanked God for those good Samaritans. And I revised my disaster recovery plan: next time I go foraging for electricity, I will be armed with a power strip.
I pulled into my driveway and noticed a low droning sound coming from the house across the street. I got out of the car. I smelled propane. A generator. Addendum to disaster recovery plan: next time it snows, help others. Offer to shovel your neighbor’s driveway. And bring a very long extension cord.