We left our heroine...

...in a cold dark house on a lonely Friday night.

After watching my mother sleep slack-mouthed for a while, I huddled up to a collection of candles and started reading Into Thin Air, a personal account of the tragic Everest attemp in May of 1996. Mother could not believe I was going to read this book at this time. But, I found a kind of outlet in the book because people were helpless once they were on the mountain and the events started going against them. Also, some of the idiotic things people do on the top of the world is mind-boggling. Good book, by the way.

I was worried on Friday night. I watched more carefully for looters. Took a couple of tours of the neighbourhood. It was very spooky. There was a bit of wind, nothing dangerous, but enough to rub the icy limbs of the trees together. That high whiny noise gives me the willies. I stepped around wires, one street was nearly impassable, even for a pedestrian, for a block it was so littered with tree branches.

Friday night, well evening really, I went to the grocery store to get stuff that we could eat that didn't need cooking. I walked up to the end of my street and turned the corner. I almost burst into tears. Right there was my friend's van with a big tree all snuggled into it, the tree had hit the van so hard the van was wrapped around the tree. Starting but not odd if the tree was still standing, but to see a van wrapped UP around a tree trunk, the tree touching the ground on both sides of the van, shiver me timbers, maties. You could see the baby seat inside, the windows were popped and lying a few feet away from the van.

I trudged past, workmen trying to reconnect the house to the grid, giggling girls with cameras gaping and pointing, the old man from across the street scrambling into a taxi. I looked back and the block the other way was covered with another big tree trunk, work crews in yellow were busy with chainsaws. Across the street from my friend's van, in the old man's driveway, the top of the pigeon tree was lying broken. You could see the big cavities in these trees, where the birds and squirrels nested.

I walked by my friend Rose's bookstore, it was totally dark and her car was gone. I hoped that they had found a warm spot. I turned the next corner and was shocked once again.

Cars were everywhere, it was a totally different world. I felt like I was emerging from a cave, what's that movie, encino man? That's me. Stunned I walked up to the next intersection, the lights were out but there was normal traffic! The rule was lights out = four way stop and most people were adhering to it. I waited my turned and crossed. People were driving over power lines dodging huge tree branches (which had taken down the power lines) but with a nonchalance that was stunning. It was like a hallucination. I felt dizzy the whole thing was so weird. I'm sorry, I've struggled over a better word, but how do you describe something like that? How do you explain why you get queasy in a rollercoaster, or when you try to read while riding in the train? It's like those movies where a baby talks and a weird adult voice comes out.

At the next intersection, the lights were running. I crossed over and went into the grocery store. What a zoo! I swear every student from the university was in that store trying to buy EXACTLY THE SAME FOOD AS ME. Chips, the chip aisle was nearly empty of food and full of people, including stocking clerks. People were just taking the bags out of the boxes before the clerks could. One woman was taking them from the clerk's hands as he took them out of the boxes! I grabbed some bags, some popcorn for Mom, some peanuts, some cheesies (Mom loves popcorn and cheesies). Bread, fruit, chocolate. At the checkout, every lane was open and every lane was piled with people, mostly students laughing and getting ready to party!

As weird as the trip out was, it was that much again coming home. This is how fast the cleanup folks worked, and an indication of how quickly the damage continued to mount, the tree across the road was gone, completely. The road was CLEAR. I was amazed. As anyone who has watched a city crew work knows, a crew cannot clear away a large tree in less than, oh, half a day. This was a small crew as well. The work was done on my friend's house, they were gone. The excitement around their van had died down. I took a closer look and really did cry.

The sounds dimished quickly as I moved into the power-blighted area (I'm not sure if I'm using blighted correctly but my dictionaries are too heavy for me right now), as you move away from Princess Street (the main drag where all the activity seemed centered) it got eerie with quiet, and that noise (which I really can't describe) that warns you a branch is giving way. When you hear it, you can't help but stand like a deer on the highway. If you're quick, you can get a look around, but with the way things were you could hear that sound for blocks! It may sound like the tree right above you is about to shower you with wood, but then a limb from the top of a tree at the far end of the block drops suddenly.

You also learn to distinguish the sounds of the fall. Long silence, and you wait for the end. Sometimes you hear nothing, either the event was too far away, ended in nothing, or the limb snagged on the way down and didn't reach ground. The thunder when it crashes into a transformer, or a van. The crack and snap if it pulls a live wire apart.

One light moment was this: standing up in Mary's shrine room on Saturday morning, my mother pointed to a wire crossing the street, a phone or cable wire by its size, and the ice drips on it weren't hanging down, but were pointing up the street! As it bounced, we were watching as a branch hit a wire on the grid making all the wires up and down the street bounce and wave, it looked like the queen waving from a balcony.

When I got back with the food, my mother was awake arguing with the cat about who had priority on the couch. We munched down some junk food, drank water (thankyou for water, because country folk didn't even have that my brother was driving out to my dad's place with big camping containers full of tap water). We actually started talking, we had some conversations, some went nowhere and some became quite interesting. We were keeping the dog entertained with cookies, but by this time he was not interested in cookies any more! Truly! I've never seen a puppy just drop food out his mouth, hohum.

The poor puppy was wound up tighter than a cork. He missed his daily walks! But, the city had asked folks to stay indoors, saying it was dangerous. We had been heeding that advice! That's part of what was so shocking about my trip to the store! I heard one store keeper on the radio saying that his power was up, he didn't see any emergency, he wasn't going to shut down just because some people had lost power! 80 PERCENT OF THE CITY WAS WITHOUT POWER. 80 PERCENT! Not a couple of neighbourhoods, rather, it was a couple of neighbourhoods that HAD power.

I heard a student interviewed down at City Park (a big park near the waterfront that is FULL of BIG OLD trees.) He'd come down to see the damage, he'd heard it was awesome and he wanted to see it, but he hadn't heard that the city was begging people to stay home, stay out of the park, it is still dangerous! As they were talking, you could hear the crack and fall of limbs. They're saying it'll take fifty years for the park to recover.

It may take me that long as well. Next installment: We Move Out.

© copyright, 1998, WandaJane Phillips
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