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Observations during the power blackout

There are as many stories about how people fared during the power outage as there are people who were living/working/traveling in the affected areas. With no elevators, air conditioning, registers or computers, businesses were immediately shut down. Jammed phonelines and packed freeways kept families in the dark about each other’s whereabouts. Beyond the demand for patience, flexibility and blind faith, one’s ability to function came down to some very basic needs: A tank of gas, cash, plenty of ice, batteries and an available bathroom.
Patients dependent on oxygen tanks made their way to emergency rooms, while kids with flashlights played “Manhunt” way beyond bedtime. There were candlelit dinners of crackers and cheese, and no supper at all for bored workers stuck too far from home.
At a gas station mini-mart just off a major freeway, the stories had the common thread of inoperable pumps and a nervous kind of mild panic over what to do next. The specifics were different: While one person needed to get to Tijuana for business, another needed to get his family and a carload of luggage to their motel just two exits away, and while one had a baby at home waiting to be fed, another had an important and timely delivery to make in Riverside. But the fact remained that all of them were out of gas.
There were others, too —refuges from the freeway. They had taken this exit hoping to wait out the gas-guzzling crawl in a less stressful manner — by getting a car wash at Mobil, a snack at TGIF’s, a coffee at 7-11. All had CLOSED signs on their doors. Like a beacon at a rescue station, a gas station and a mini-mart seemed promising, especially with cars in the lot. It was like an island, with a sea of empty parking lots all around it. The activity was enough to draw the travelers in, just to be where other people were gathered. Car radios had little news to offer on the source or timeframe of the outage, and cell phones were still emitting busy signals or For Emergency Only texts. It seemed that being “in the same boat” with others was a particularly tangible comfort.
The young clerk running the mini-mart knew no more than her customers. Attempts to reach her boss had failed, and she was left in a dark, sweltering building to field questions and respond to the emergency situation.
At first she sold food and drinks, as long as her customers were able to pay the exact amount. It soon became too complicated for a lone person to handle with little light and no bookkeeping system, so she limited her sales to ice, batteries and water. When someone needed to use the restroom, she helped them find their way in the dark. For both locals trying to find necessary staples and weary commuters only half way home after battling traffic for hours, it was enough. That night, the mini-mart was a haven, with a calm and focused clerk able to assuage the growing anxieties. She gave directions, offered suggestions and defused tempers, all the while negotiating the essentials her market had to offer.
Strangers became temporary neighbors to each other; keeping the mood light, offering bits of news, sharing a candy bar or a bag of nuts. Any conversation at all was an especially precious lift from the boredom of waiting. The clerk finally got hold of her boss, and was told to close down. But before doing so, she bought a package of plastic cups and filled a clean bucket with ice to place outside the door.
It was down to the very basics, but by now the shared anxiety had turned to varying degrees of acceptance. Clean water and an emergency restroom were all that were needed to keep one’s cool. The darkness brought the stars into view and the night sounds kept pace with the distant sound of traffic. By the time texts were answered and phone calls started to get through, there was a certain business-as-usual composure, with the stranded travelers arranging their rescues as if ordering pizza.
There would have been a commonality to the details of these story endings, too.
How lucky to have made it to a gas station and how unlucky to find there was no gas.
How lucky to have had their basic needs taken care and how unlucky to have been stuck sweating in the miserable confines of a car. From what I observed that night, not being alone and experiencing the care people took with each other was the key to mastering a peaceful tolerance in a distressing situation.
How little it really takes.

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