Power

California is still very dark and very loud

Turns out selfishness has a sound.
Power

California is still very dark and very loud

Turns out selfishness has a sound.

The little mountain town where I live in Northern California, as well as much of the region, has been without power on and off for two and three-day stretches for the last couple of weeks. It’s the result of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) turning off the power partly because the warm, dry winds present indeed create a fire hazard but also, it must be said, to cover their own asses, as PG&E’s negligence about trimming foliage around their lines has caused several fires already resulting in expensive lawsuits. The worst part of it all is that these climate-change driven winds are unusual in Northern California at this time of year, where wind is generally accompanied by rain. Will these new warm autumn winds become part of our climate, we wonder, how will we have schools, hospitals, restaurants and supermarkets if PG&E turns off our power any time it wants, we wonder, will we have to move elsewhere, we wonder.

My boyfriend and I have been lucky, because his parents are off the grid and have solar. But after spending most of last week at their place, we decided to come back to our own house in town for the weekend. We knew that we would lose electricity at some point Saturday, again, because there were going to be high winds, again. But we figured we’d have electricity that night, and a few hours the next day. We would have water, we would have heat, how bad could it be, unless of course there was a fire, like the one that had already been burning in Sonoma since Wednesday night. To get some perspective, we are about 120 miles from that fire, and not in immediate danger from it. But it was terrible to know people were suffering close by, and also terrible to know that we could be evacuated at any time as well.

I spent Saturday cleaning the house because the only thing worse than a house with no lights is a dirty house with no lights. That night, we had just started playing the Jane Austen-themed role playing game Good Society when the lights went out. We lit candles. I had taken a Xanax, thinking this would be a good idea. It was, and then, it wasn’t. I had a lot of trouble keeping up. I kept asking questions like “what is Matilda’s the village busybody’s secret desire again” and “wait can you read your letter to the vicar again, you either absolutely cannot fathom your life without the Earl’s daughter by your side or you think she is the devil’s own trollope, which is it please.” Also, candlelight gets a lot of good press, all deserved, but it turns out there’s no substitute for electrical lights when it comes to actually being able to see things. The game was fun but I would like to try it again with the benefit of improved vision and the ability to remember things that happened more than a minute ago.

I understand that people have needs that make gas-powered generator use necessary. But to listen to them and smell them non-stop when you’re concerned that the world is ending confirms your concern is appropriate.

Sunday I woke up early. Everything seemed to be lightly shaking. I looked out the window; sometimes cars or trucks stop outside our house and idle there for a bit, as the drivers look at their phones or eat or whatever, preparing to get on the freeway. Perhaps 4000 trucks had decided to do this all at once.

There were no trucks.

“Generators,” Tor said. “They were on last night too but you were wasted so you probably weren’t paying attention.”

I lay there for a few minutes, feeling a bit like someone had just died.

A generator is a gas-powered portable engine, a little personal power plant. They are useful in power outages for emergencies like charging medical equipment or preventing food spoilage. They emit a constant, low-grade dull noise and they smell like gas, obviously. I understand that people have needs that make gas-powered generator use necessary. But to listen to them and smell them non-stop when you’re concerned that the world is ending confirms your concern is appropriate.

One of our neighborhood generators made its rumbly little home across the street, at the house that was being fixed up by a house flipper, who, three years in, has made so little discernible progress towards flippability that I had wondered if the property was in a different space-time continuum. I don’t know, maybe my notion that if you hammer enough nails into enough sawed boards eventually a structure emerges is too literal. The other generator was next door, at a house owned by people I’ve never talked to, and the third was up the street, a few houses away. It was a generator symphony, and we had front row seats.

There is nothing in the world I hate more than constant low-grade noise. There is the way it renders me unable to think and on the edge of screaming, and then there is the rage I feel for the people who produce it, and the shame of, why do I even bother telling people how much it bothers me and hearing them reply “I just ignore it,” as if I hadn’t thought this, as if I wouldn’t love being able to.

“What the fuck is wrong with these generator people?” I asked Tor, after we’d been up for two hours, and the generators were still on. “‘Oh, no,’” I said, imagining their line of thinking, “‘How will I ever go 48 hours without using every single thing I own? Wait, I know, I’m just gonna turn on this really loud thing that will let me keep using my iPad, microwave, dryer, smoothie machine, and all my lights, even though the sun is out, as always. Hmmm let’s think about this here — there are three people living in my house. Then there are 25 or 30 people who can hear this thing. But you know what, when I do the math on that, what I come up with is that I am one of those three people who gets to use this loud thing to power all my stuff and not one of those people who can just hear the loud thing. Sounds like a no brainer to me.’”

Tor suggested that maybe we didn’t know why those people were using generators, like maybe one of them had to charge a medical device. I said that it was unlikely that one of these seemingly young and healthy people I saw walking around all the time unconstrained by medical devices had a medical device, but it was of course possible. He also said something that I have also heard about 40000 times which is that “most people weren’t as annoyed by noises as I was.” I said, “Oh I’m sorry I didn’t hear you there are 1400 giant machines going outside oh wait maybe I could just go talk to them and see if there’s any chance they’ll ever be turning them off oh wait I can’t do that I’ve never spoken to any of these people because no one in this town ever fucking talks to anybody unless they’ve known them for 10,000 years so I guess I’ll just have to sit there and listen to them for the rest of my life. Also if I do go ask anyone ‘could you maybe turn that thing off for one hour so I can think straight?’ they will tell me ‘I have a right to run my generators’ or maybe they will just give me the true deluxe passive aggressive NorCal special and say “Hey, what are you gonna do?” as if the generator just turned on itself, which I will of course appreciate for its wonderful regional flair.”

I know we’re all going die someday and that’s fine, but the sound of the generators made me feel like we were all already dead.

We could either stay home and listen to generators, or we could go out and get some kind of battery-powered light. The freeway between our house and KMart was quiet, the air sparkled with disgustingly irrepressible fall crispness, the sky unending blue, save for a plume of smoke from a nearby fire which seemed to be under control and was too minor to do anything more than slightly increase my general feelings of dread. As Tor drove, I watched the smoke and I thought about the first time, some 20 years ago now, when I woke up to my 30th consecutive day of California blue sky and thought, “You again?” I tried to come up with reasons to feel sympathy for the generator runners. Who knew what they needed the electricity for, or what kind of anxiety it gave them to not have it that was similar to the kind of anxiety the noise gave me?

Mostly I just wanted to bash their generators to bits with their own television while they watched, though, what good would it have done? We’d passed the part in the story where things were getting harder and harder and the services we depended on were no longer dependable. Now we were at the part where people could either say, “Hey, let’s take a look around us at our community and try to protect and care for each other, because as we can see no one else gives a shit,” or where people said “I am going to do what I can to maintain my own comfort and happiness and not think about that impacts others.” Of course we’re already there, our economy is based on the latter sentiment, duh. Climate change is just making this relationship more visible and more intense. It wasn’t just the noise of the generators that upset me. They produced the sound of selfishness, of fuck you, I’m going to get mine, I don’t care how you get yours. I know we’re all going die someday and that’s fine, but the sound of the generators made me feel like we were all already dead.

KMart wasn’t open, and announced this state of affairs with a sign written in Magic Marker on a bright pink poster board. “See you when the lights come on.” As we drove away, I said “Bye KMart, see you then,” in a wistful tone, as if KMart were a sweet toddler rather than a shitty store filled with shitty stuff manufactured and sold by grossly underpaid people, whose profits all went to some asshole who went to Yale.

Back at home, two out of the three generators were still going strong. I blocked them out by listening to my audiobook of The Golden Bowl, wherein the main character paid a visit to another character in order to “put a reason into his restlessness.” Reason into restlessness, what a concept, thank you, Henry James, for your contribution to the eternal fight against just giving up. In James’ honor, I would go down to the basement and put all the thrift store clothes into a bag.

While I was down there, I saw a black backpack I didn’t recognize. Then I remembered: A friend of ours, a messianic Christian, had been sure the Rapture was going to happen this year, on May 4th. His plan was to ascend into heaven, but for his heathen friends who would be stuck on the embattled earth he had kindly driven all over Northern California one weekend in April leaving bug-out bags. We had looked through it quickly, laughed and thrown it in the basement, but now, I went through it again.

Sure enough, in addition to water bottles, a water purifier, mylar blankets, a fold-up shovel (yikes) and a rope (Titan WarriorCord, to be precise), it contained a solar and battery-powered light.

The very good light

The very good light

It is actually a really good light. If we can get two more of them, and I can just wear earplugs all the time, when I am not wearing noise-cancelling headphones playing The Golden Bowl, which I do not understand at all, even without Xanax, maybe I will get through this portion of the downhill slope. I wonder, what will the next terrible side effect of these power outages be? When I next dig through the bug-out bag, what level of desperation will I be in, and what previously hilarious item will come in real handy, or save my life?

So Monday the power came on, but since it was going to go off again, we packed up perishables, computers, socks, T-shirts, and underwear and headed once again to our solar-powered home away from home.

When the power came back on Wednesday my first stop in town was the bookstore, where I had an order to pick up. I ran into a woman I knew and right away we started talking about generators. She told me that the day before, her generally meek and friendly Christian neighbor had been standing wild-eyed in the middle of her street crying and swearing, begging her other neighbor to turn off his generator. “She hadn’t slept in 48 hours,” the woman told me. “My husband just stood there in the middle of the street and held her.” Did the guy turn off the generator? “Yes,” she said. “He finally did.”

Sarah Miller is a writer living in Nevada City, CA.