Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Guys & Logs

They were doing Guys And Dolls that Spring, and rehearsal always went  over. That left Jeff late for Mathematics at least twice a week. Mr. Crabtree left the door open and didn't say a word, always letting him creep into the back of the room. Yet before the end of every class, Mr. Crabtree would draw a new logarithm on the blackboard and "randomly" select Jeff to come up and solve it. After three weeks, he finally stayed after class and asked, "Why do you keep making me do them?" "As an actor," his teacher said, "I thought you could handle a mono-log."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Lucky Four Leaf Clover

Waylon checked the security cams. Still nobody in the building. He’d beat them all here. Maybe it was his lucky day. He leaned both palms onto the lip of the briefcase. It bent, but the clasps refused to meet.

“Oh, come on.”

He yanked it open and pulled out the top stack of bearer bonds. Those could travel in his pockets – most people didn’t even know what they were. If anyone at the airport got nosy, he’d give them one. That’d shut them up.

Wadding the bonds and stuffing them in his pockets, Waylon circled the office. His screen blinked to alert him that reformatting had finished. He shoved the flashdrive into his breast pocket, then stepped to the opposing filing cabinet. The picture frame crackled under of his polished shoe.

“Cambodian. French. Brazilian.” He finished flicking through the second drawer. Nope, everything had gone to the shredder or his briefcase. But he’d had to check, because the guilty always forgot something, and damned if Waylon was going to become a member of the club of examples.

A bottle of lighter fluid waited in the third drawer. The reminder to light the trash can. He took it and made the last sweep of the room.

The rest of his desk? The monitor. Keyboard. Newton’s Cradle. He’d buy a new one. There was his wife’s photograph. He could buy a new one of those, too.

“Like you weren’t intending the same, Charlene,” he said, tapping the glass from the bottom of his shoe. “You’ll only be angry I beat you here.”

Then he saw a fleck of green on the windowsill. He approached, fingers sweeping over his briefcase. What was that? A flower? He didn’t keep plants in here.

It was a clover, and damned if it didn’t have four leaves. He touched it in disbelief. Whatever adhered it to the pane released and it fell across his palm. He held it by the stem, looking down on it and the ten stories below. He tensed his thumb and made the leaves twirl.

“My lucky day.”

He turned to toss it in his briefcase and missed the flash. The instant it left his fingers, Waylon’s window cracked. He dropped the clover, and life dropped him. He fell, one hand gracing for briefcase, the other at the sucking wound in his lung.

The four leaf clover landed on top of the bonds and deeds. It had been good luck - for the man who’d left it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

NYSEG Vs. Us Vs. NYSEG, Part 2 of 2

The canopy before new rains washed in.


At 8:00 AM the NYSEG was still promising power by 10:00 AM. Just two hours. It also informed that only 74 homes in the immediate area were without power, out of 3100 homes in all the Mechanicville Division “Most customers” were expected to have power back “sometime today.”

That was a pleasant surprise. Trucks must have come at night to fix so many lines. At least the ice was melting. It was between 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, cold enough to be uncomfortable, but warm enough to work easier.

10:00 passed with no lights flickering. At 11:00, I called and got an actual operator. She claimed we were supposed to have it back by now and should expect it "any time now." I bided my time clearing up the deck. All the frozen food I’d bagged out there had warmed and spoiled.

I called again at noon. An automated voice told me "5:00 PM."

Mom was still enthused by the news of so many in the area getting power. Her back had improved from two days of rest I convinced her to get out of here for a little while. We drove to get a fresh hot lunch somewhere, picked up some non-perishables, and hit the local fire department. They had no updates about what was delaying NYSEG so badly; the worst of the storm’s wreckage had been cleared. The man I spoke to was operating on NYSEG’s phone updates.

As we drove home, I saw my first NYSEG trucks. Their drivers were all parked on the sides of the road, none active in work. It was like they were shutting down before nightfall. When we returned to a cold home for the fourth night now, I nearly asked to circle back and ask the truckers what was going on. But at that point I was too sick to drive, and Mom was too tired.

We settled in and dialed up. NYSEG’s automated voice informed us that 2,600 homes were now without power. A far cry from the "most" of the 3,100 that were supposed to expect it that morning. We might expect power by 12:00 PM.

I didn’t believe it. We’d seen utility workers locking up their vehicles for the night. They weren’t going to work in the frost. But what options did we have? Risk on roads that were now going to freeze over and pay for a hotel, only to have the power here come back tonight or tomorrow? Even if they’d lied about their intentions to give us back power on Monday and Tuesday, how much longer could NYSEG possibly take?

One of my neighbors bombarded NYSEG with calls. She pushed through until she found an operator and learned that NYSEG thought nobody lived on our roads in the winter. How our winter electricity bills would have born this out, I don't know. My neighbor insisted that yes, people did live here. She was calling from here. We’d made claims of outages from these houses. The operator promised to do something about it.

 Neighbor's property from my lawn, two fallen trees clearly visible.

THURSDAY, March 10

They did something about it. The next morning the automated message reported that 584 people in our immediate vicinity were without power. Not 74 like yesterday. No explanation, just that we were 584 out of 1,700 remaining homes without power.

The revelation that they’d learned these households were actually important made the change more suspicious. When I drove to pick up more water at noon, I didn't see any new damage. The same lines that had been down two days ago were still lying there, including those on the major roads.

I got a better look at the damage on my road. One wire dangled four feet from the ground, leading into the lawn of my next door neighbor. Two trees had fallen, taking out the phone and power lines. Everything was splayed in the mud and remaining snow. You couldn't miss it.

Photo of the dangling wire.

Flashing yellow lights passed our house at noon. One of my neighbors ran out to catch the truck. I arrived in time to hear him relaying an anecdote; five miles away, on a road with power, my neighbor had seen four trucks parked working on a single dark house. The NYSEG guy had no explanation, but was personable. We explained the situation in plain view of the dangling wire and house with downed trees. The NYSEG guy called local units. Cherrypickers pulled up to the opposite end of our road.

Before he departed, I asked the NYSEG man, "Are they going to restore power right here?"

"Oh yeah," he said.

I pointed at the ground under our feet. I'm not a master of communication under the best of circumstances.

"Right here? You're not leaving until you do?"

"Oh yeah."

Mom watched them saw bad tree limbs from our steps. I let them work and went back to reading. They drove off without coming down the road. Mom had only seen cherrypickers and assumed power trucks would be on the way. An hour later, that seemed less likely.

We called NYSEG and were told to expect it back at 3:00 PM.

At 3:00, we'd now have power back by 11:00. But how could those guys have done the work at the end of our road, knowing what was wrong down here, and not have fixed it? If they weren’t allowed to, why hadn’t anyone dispatched for guys that could?

We decided to get out. We hit the library, ate a rare meal out, and saw The King's Speech at a second-run theatre. We killed time, unable to stay out as late as 11:00, but killing a few dark hours before we returned home.

There were at least a dozen trucks, all dark and parked for the night along the roads. Some sat under the street lights, which were back on. My chest swelled as we circled around the lake. There were house lights all around it. Homes at the bottom of our hill wet lit.

"Can it be?' Mom asked.

We turned onto our road. Our house was pitch black.

I swore my way to the phone. The automated system said power had been restored to this residence at 1:00 PM.

1:00 PM? 1:00 PM today?

At 3:00 PM, two hours after that, the system had recognized we didn't have power, and we'd logged again that we didn't. Somehow, someone had missed that all the way into 8:00 PM at night.

We called again in disbelief and kept hitting buttons until we reached an operator. That conversation went poorly. Rather than describe it, allow me to impart advice: if someone ever calls your company and says your system has been lying to them for five straight nights about when power would be restored, and that they would have found a way to get out of here if you'd told them Monday morning that power likely wouldn't be back for that long, do not ever respond, "Those were only estimates." Even if “Monday afternoon” sounded like an estimate on Monday morning, come Thursday night that news will not stop the caller from screaming from their freezing living room.

FRIDAY, March 11

Friday morning's message said we'd have power back by 10 PM and that all customers were expected to have power back. “10:00 PM” now sounded like code for “not today.”

I dragged myself into the car and scouted around the lake for any trucks. I would flag them down and talk to the men on the ground myself. If I had to, I'd beg them to follow me. Except the only two I could find were empty.

Actually, there was no road work ahead.

They were parked on the same stretch of road, flashing lights on and cones set up. They were empty and nobody was around. I rolled down my window and hollered to no response. At 7:50 AM, nobody was on the scene. When I doubled back at 8:20, the trucks were still unattended. There was a third further up the road, also with no driver.

Took photos of the empty cabs, in case anyone later claimed they were on site.

Maybe there was a good explanation. At the moment, I was furious, and that anger kicked through my already exhausted system. By the time I got back, I was shaking and had trouble keeping my head up. I slumped in front of the propane heater. Mom went out on her own shift.

She found some trucks and said the guys on the ground were not in communication with NYSEG. They were not feeding headquarters information and had no idea where NYSEG was creating its restoration estimates from. They wouldn't give names, and I wouldn't publish them if I had them for risk of retaliation against them. None of them had heard all power would be back today; they all expected to be back tomorrow.

One truck followed her back. Mom and I drove down as chaperones to make sure they saw all the downed wires. We circled the area and saw dozens of trucks, not all working on our hill, but at least in our area. Within another half hour, a crew rumbled down our road. They had no explanation for why Thursday's crew hadn't fixed things.

They worked diligently for the better part of an hour. We stirred when they started to leave. Power was not back. We actually got in the car and followed them to the intersection.

"Aren't we done there?" asked one guy.

"Yeah," said his partner.

"No you're not," I insisted. “It’s still dark back there.”

"Aren't we done there?" the guy asked again.

"Yeah," the partner said again. "Just needs to energize for an hour."

At which point, I laughed.

An hour and a half later, the water boiler roared to life. Lights flipped on downstairs, in the basement, and one in my room. A reminder that the power was back.

Everything had spoiled. Frozen chicken, beef, meatballs - what we hadn't cooked had gone off in the thaw. It had been cold enough to chill us, but five hours at a time, warm enough to ruin food. We began cleaning up strewn plates and packing propane gear. We relished in the returning electric heat. It was just in time for the forecast. Tomorrow, it was supposed to snow.

UPDATE: On March 18th I received a call from NYSEG. The operator wanted to apologize for the inconvenience and said the company was working on improving its responses and communications. This was a week after power was restored, but a day after I posted the story about it. They had read this and dug up my number to respond. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NYSEG Vs. Us Vs. NYSEG, Part 1 of 2

SUNDAY, March 6
Nobody anticipated how bad the storm would be. Sunday morning I heard we’d get heavy rain, turning into perhaps an inch of snow around midnight. After this winter, that didn’t sound bad. In hindsight, the local authorities and NYSEG likely thought the same.

The winds grew heavier after dark. I could hear branches snapping and torrential rain pelting my windows. The power went out for the first time at about 9:30. I sat in the dark for less than ten minutes before everything popped back on. When it went out for the second time, I shut down my computer and simply went to bed.

MONDAY, March 7
I woke to the sounds of chainsaws. The lights were still off. It was so cold that I put on several layers of clothing just to head downstairs. My neighbor Rick and four other men were buzzing fallen trees near the road outside my house. It turned out that the rains had loosened tree roots, then froze to the branches as the temperature dropped. Between the weight of the ice and the high winds, trees fell into the road and froze to the pavement. It had all ended as an ice storm, so that while our winter snows had melted, they froze back into craggy ice. Only the biggest truck could four-wheel its way up our road. I couldn't even walk it.

This birch was straight upright on Saturday.

We phoned NYSEG. Their automated system informed me that at least 7,600 homes in the “Mechanicville Division” were without power, including 944 in my immediate area. This was much worse than anyone had expected, but at least if so many people were reporting outages then NYSEG would now know to send extra crews. I was surprised when the recording said we’d have power back by that afternoon.

Two years ago I was stranded powerless in an ice storm here and it had been over three days before they got around to our hill. Maybe NYSEG had drawn up a more efficient plan to counter that.

With the chill coming through our walls, I got to work. I pulled out a propane stove to make coffee and cocoa. As the freezer thawed, I put new bags in the garbage cans and filled them with all our goods, then deposited them in the snow banks on our deck. When the living room hit meat locker temperatures, I dug out my old fat-pants and put those on over my existing layers.

When the power didn’t come back that afternoon, I called again. Now the system said 11:00 PM, which was still admirably fast. I got out candles and readied dinner. I made tacos on the propane stove by flashlight. Just like the pioneers, I joked.

I went to bed early, leaving one light switch on to alert when we got power back.

TUESDAY, March 8
Instead of electric lights, I woke up to the sun shining between my curtains. We didn't have power. I dialed with my gloves on and learned that there were at least 6800 without power that Tuesday morning, including 944 in my area. The lack of progress was odd. Why would they have expected us to have power back yesterday if they’d done so little that not one house was back online?

Our branch of roads has its share of problems. One neighbor at the end of my road has sleep apnea and relies on a machine to get through the night. On our adjoining road lives a woman who is dying of cancer. I have myriad health problems, including a neuromuscular syndrome that intensifies in pain with the more stress I endure. Soaking in a bath is one of the few effective ways to reduce my muscle spasms. Already my right hand was trembling. I can only imagine what being without power was like for my neighbors.

I called a local handyman for help with the road. The ice on the road was melted too low for his plow to scrape, but he brought a mixture of salt and sand. He shoveled the mixture over my driveway and up the road, moving a few inches at a time. As he tossed shovelfuls, he relayed his experience. The ice storm had knocked over trees and telephones polls, sheering some clean through. He described a local thoroughfare as looking "like a bomb went off." He'd only lost power for a night, but people in his network said the branch roads, like this one, might not see electricity for a week. I thanked him, paid and told him to stay warm, and headed for the phone.

Now the system said we'd have power back by 11:00 PM tonight. That didn't instill confidence. But Mom didn't want to leave the covers; her back hurt and it felt safer under the blankets. After assuring her I wouldn't be gone long, I went to test the roads.

Our area is full of woodlands, and every tree out there was encased in ice. They looked like bark bones under diamond skin. Many were dismembered, thousands of branches littering the roads. It got stranger when I crossed the flooded zones; it was cold enough for still water to freeze, but the ground tables had filled up on Sunday, leaving several areas overrun. Roads alternated between clean, tracks of ice, and flowing streams.

Geese discussing global warming in what is normally a field.

The Red Cross set up a warming station at the local high school. A police officer smirked at me as I came through the doors in all my layers and thermal hood, as though to say, "I know what you're here for." Everyone was cordial. They had bottled water, coffee and bagged snacks. The rep who helped me offered whatever I needed and even went to the back to scrounge leftover soup from their lunch. She recommended I return with my family tonight, since they were closing up tomorrow at 8 AM. I asked if that was when the power was expected. She got nervous and insisted that she didn't know anything.

I checked for news at the library. It was a worldly thing to do. Also, it was heated.

Reports conflicted. Some people were saying the crisis was already over - likely some of the thousand people who had it restored, or had never lost it. There were more estimates about when all the ice would melt than there were for NYSEG finishing the job.

I also browsed the national news, curious to see if we were being covered. The top story was that Obama was considering military intervention in Libya, which I immediately conceded was more prescient than this. Scrolling down I saw ensuing stories about Charlie Sheen and Mike Huckabee's opinion of Natalie Portman. Nothing about thousands of people without power in freezing weather.

Parking lot of the warming shelter.

The roads weren’t reliable enough to stay out too long, and my syndrome was picking up.  I passed three downed wires on the way, including one sparking in a large puddle. There were no NYSEG trucks on these roads. Not a single cherrypicker or electric utility van.

At 5:00 PM NYSEG’s automated voice estimated our area would see power by 10 AM Wednesday morning. We still had 944 people in our area without electricity, out of 4,900 homes. I slept in my jacket.

Click here to continue to Part 2.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Disrespect for Unhappiness

“Of course I'm going to make fun of you for being unhappy. You're always unhappy. Today it's the flu, tomorrow it's a boyfriend, next Thursday it's hating your job, two Thursdays from now it's not having a job since you quit, and three Thursdays from now we’ll be within spitting distance of a holiday that will find some way to depress you. I like you. Honestly do. It's why I'm letting you sleep on my sofa and use up so much of my toothpaste. But if unhappiness is always going to be in my living room, then I'm going to make fun of it. The things that're temporary, that I don't understand and am afraid of, can get some special handling. Not permanent fixtures. Death, taxes, my stepmother nagging and you bitching are constants, and constants do not receive constant seriousness. They must comply to the fundamental rule: if it's normal, then it gets dripped on, lost in the stack, and made fun of whenever I damn well please. You want me to take your sadness with greater gravity? Then make it rarer. Much, much rarer.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Contagious Condition

"One bite. One scratch. Some have contracted the disease just by breathing in the same room. A cultural culture. Whether it's body fluids or airborne, transformation takes hold within seconds. The hunger claims you at least three times a day, and the thirst is even more frequent. The infected move in packs, congregating to feed, amongst other things. One assumes they will hunt together when necessary, though at this stage in the world, food is so plentiful that they seldom have to fight for it. You can recognize them by their listless walk, the range of fatigues and concerns in their eyes, and their inclination towards any sort of gadget. Place an iPhone in the middle of the sidewalk and take cover; in less than an hour one of them will wander off with it. They will shamble around poking it like mindless zombies. They are not zombies, though. The life expectancy is longer, with many making it to ninety years. Also unlike zombies they will spend most of those years keenly nervous over things that will shorten their lives. Nothing they do will actually save them. The human condition is one hundred percent terminal."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Corners of this Little World" at 5x5

This week Angel Zapata launched 5x5, an e-zine dedicated to stories of five sentences in length, each only five words long. The issue includes work by Michael Solender, Laura Eno and Erin Cole. I’m flattered to be included, contributing “Corners of this Little World.”

The story’s too short to summarize. You can go read it in under a minute, or take in the entire issue in a few. The whole thing is free to read at this link.

Angel cribbed from my site’s bio, leaving me with a hilarious credit under the story.
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