The Greatest Blackout in North American History
From Vol. 2, No. 4
Though I was brutally tired from an all-night Greyhound bus trip back from northern Ontario, I had agreed to spend the day with my aunt Suzy, and a near-blinding headache coupled with a design deadline was not going to stop me. After two hours of sleep, I submitted my work to the client and hauled ass down to the Hudson Bay Company at Queen and Yonge to meet Suzy. She’d said in an earlier phone call that she wanted to hang out in the Beaches, so when I emerged from the subway and found her, we got straight onto the Queen streetcar and headed east.
When we got there, our first goal was lunch. There’s this joke about northwestern Ontario – my aunt is from Thunder Bay – about ketchup being the most exotic spice. In our family this is sadly true, so I suggested a nice safe restaurant where she could get a nice safe salad. We sat on the patio and watched Thursday afternoon roll by… a fair bit of action for a weekday, but still not insane like the weekend always gets out there. The day was sunny and fairly hot, but not unbearable… a pretty good day to be near the lake. I liked that my new freelance life gave me the chance to do this.
Afterwards we wandered through Kew Gardens and along the waterfront, then back up to Queen. My new freelance life has left me fairly broke, so it was only window-shopping for me, just a good backdrop for visiting my aunt.
When we’d done the boardwalk and done the street, I suggested we go back to my place, where she was staying for the night before going back to her friend’s in Hamilton. We had plans to barbecue and hang out in my itty-bitty backyard, and my aunt wanted to check her email. We rode the streetcar to Yonge, took the subway north and then at Bloor, west to Dufferin, where we emerged to take the bus north for a few blocks.
The Dufferin bus is a bit grotty at the best of times so I was thankful it wasn’t CNE season yet. I watched down Dufferin to see what kind of bus we’d get… it’s a crap shoot as half are the posh, new, air-conditioned type and the other half are old and sweltering. Ugh. An old-and-sweltery bus pulled up and we crammed ourselves onto it. As I held the pole I could feel a rivulet of sweat trickle down the middle of my back and sneak into the waistband of my shorts. Then another. The heat, the day of walking in the sun, and the lack of sleep from the night before were taking their toll. I was pretty surprised I’d made it this far and was still making intelligent conversation with Suzy. Maybe I wasn’t and the intelligent conversation I thought I was having was waking delirium. The only thing keeping me awake at this point was the erratic relationship our driver was having with the gas and brake pedals. Dufferin drivers are maniacs. You get where you’re going fast.
Soon after, I unlocked the front door to our house, which Suzy had not yet seen. I was looking forward to the air conditioning, which was roaring away in the front yard.
“Welcome to our nice coooool house!” I said to her, with a wave of my arms. She had no sooner admired the living room when the fire alarm gave a little chirp and everything went silent.
“Oh. That’s weird,” I said. “I wonder if Kelly [our basement tenant] blew a fuse or something. I bet she’ll phone any minute.”
She didn’t. She wasn’t even home. I wondered if the AC had somehow done it… my computer wasn’t on… I went through the mental electric checklist in my head. Nothing added up. We had hardly anything going and our AC was set to kick on only when the inside temperature reached 27°C, far from excessive.
I brushed it aside, figuring it would come back when it came back, and went ahead with my aunt’s house tour: the dining room, the kitchen (“Ooooh, gas!” “We love the gas.” “Is this ceramic tile?” “Yep. It’s heated in the winter. Well, when there’s electricity, anyway… ha ha.” “Nice pot lights.” “Thanks! Too bad I can’t show you their full effects.” “Ah well.”), the master bedroom, the spare bedroom/library, the bathroom, the office. Email checking would have to wait because, even though my laptop had juice, my high speed modem needed power.
At one point my cell phone rang, but then died before I could answer it. It was shortly after 5:00 so I figured it was my husband Chris, who was supposed to be enjoying an evening tooling around the Toronto harbour with his office on a large boat equipped with lots of alcohol. Then the land line rang. I tried to answer the first one within reach — the cordless — but all I got there was “No Connection to Base” on its display. Aaauurgh. I raced upstairs, but not fast enough to beat the voicemail. It didn’t ring again. I brought one of the old-school phones down from upstairs, cursing the cordless phone and its adapter plugged into the wall.
I thought the power would have come back on by now, but it continued to not do so.
Our neighbours two doors over were out in their backyard being as shrill and disruptive as always, so I went out and asked them if their power was out. They said yes, and I was relieved (not my fault!). Then they said something about hearing it was all of Toronto, and maybe all of Ontario and into the States. “Really?” I asked without believing them. “That’s pretty serious then.”
Just then there was a knock at our front door, I could tell by the silhouette in the glass that it was Kelly. “Her apartment will be black as pitch,” I said to my aunt.
We invited Kelly in, and I furnished her and my aunt with still-cold beer from the recently deceased fridge. The three of us sat on the deck that made up the entirety our backyard and chatted while listening to snippets from other people’s radios. My Italian neighbours were listening to an English station for a change. Good thing, because we didn’t have a battery-operated radio. It seemed my neighbours were right, as I slowly got a bigger picture from the radio news updates. Huge blackout. New York was out (Poor New York! They must be freaking.). Domino effect on the grid, starting from Cleveland, Niagara Falls, Ohio… every few minutes a different origin point and a different reason.
Kelly and my aunt talked about Vancouver, since Kelly had grown up and recently moved from there and my uncle had lived there for a few years in his 20s. I finally got a phone call from Chris that I made it in time to answer. The alcohol-soaked boat party was still set to go, apparently. I wished him a good night. He had just wanted to make sure I wasn’t stuck in the subway. I assured him we were fine, he said a proxy hello to my aunt, and we hung up. Kelly left soon after to go to a friend’s; I gave her both our flashlights because I wasn’t sure how good the batteries in either of them were.
“What will you do for lights?” she asked.
“We have candles and bike lights,” I said. “We’ll be fine. Up here we get more ambient light anyway.”
Suzy and I barbecued veggie burgers. The smell of barbecue was everywhere as people all over the neighbourhood abandoned plans to cook on their electric stoves. Afterwards, to keep myself awake, I suggested we go for a walk to see what was up in the neighbourhood. I was secretly hoping our local gelato shop would be giving stuff away.
On St. Clair at first glance, you couldn’t really tell anything was wrong. A lot of places were closed, but they would have been closed anyway because it was evening. There were still people in the bars, all sitting out on the patios to get the evening light, and plenty of people out walking, kids riding bikes, because there was nothing to do at home. The first obvious sign that the electricity was out was the abandoned streetcar near Lansdowne Avenue. Dark, empty streetcars in the middle of streets look eerie to me.
“Have you ever seen the movie Last Night?” I asked Suzy.
“That streetcar reminds me of part of it. It’s a movie about the end of the world, or really, about the last few hours of the world as spent by a few different people in Toronto. There’s a part where this woman in denial would not get off the streetcar, just sat there. People were trying to tip it and stuff but it was too heavy.”
No one was trying to do anything to this one, or even paying much attention to it. The younger guys in my neighbourhood were probably grateful for the lapse of TTC service, since it meant they could speed their modified cars up and down St. Clair more efficiently than usual. Which is exactly what they were doing. Heavy bass pumped from open windows. It was a great night for a cruise, especially since cars were now the only thing with light, air conditioning and music, if you didn’t count the house a couple blocks from us with the ultra-loud generator.
We walked over behind the rec centre to Earlscourt Park to escape the street noise for a bit and crossed the running track to where the land drops off, affording us a view of Caledonia Park Road and the west end. A big column of smoke attracted our attentions south, where we could see the flames of a fire. If I didn’t already know the outage was more widespread I probably would have blamed that fire. Other than that, nothing was amiss. It wasn’t dark enough yet to see the effects of the power failure. In fact, we were having one of those beautiful orange sunsets.
On the way back, we stopped in at my favourite convenience store, run by a friendly older Korean couple who keep the freezer full of premium ice cream. It was one of the only places open, so the narrow space by the cash was full. The husband was running up sales on a calculator while the wife was escorting customers up and down the aisles with a flashlight, shining it wherever you would point your gaze. She helped my aunt select a bag of chips while I dipped into the chest freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked, being careful to select my victim through the glass first and not keep the freezer door open any longer than necessary. No one knew how long this outage would last, and the radio had said it could be 48 hours.
Walking back to my house I noticed the excited vibe, mostly from the tons of neighbourhood kids running around. They carried their families’ flashlights importantly around their dark houses and yards. Candles started to appear on porches and more people than usual were sitting out in front of their houses. I lit some candles, served up two bowls of dangerously soft ice cream and Suzy and I sat in the nylon camp chairs on our porch, watching it get dark. My guess was that very few of the kids on my street — a working-class Italian and Portuguese area — had had much experience with camping and this would be the darkest they’d ever seen things, even considering the car headlights that frequently passed. As the evening progressed, you could hear the incredible buzz of conversation on the street, a few radios, but you could hardly see anyone. Some enterprising kids a few doors down on the opposite side of the street were selling candles, calling out into the night lemonade-stand style for people to buy them.
My aunt phoned my uncle back up in Thunder Bay, where they were unaffected by the outage. Thunder Bay is on the Manitoba grid, it’s just far enough west. My parents in Sault Ste. Marie were out. That really drove home how widespread this was. I didn’t know when Chris’ office party on the lake would end, but arranged tea lights one on each front stair for a sort of runway effect for when he returned. Looking up, I could see stars. I always missed the stars since moving away from northern Ontario, and now here they were. I watched them until I was almost dizzy. You could even see the lighter band in the sky that denotes the Milky Way (though some of my friends who’ve grown up down here weren’t even aware of what the Milky Way looks like in the sky and though it was clouds or haze, I learned later). I located Casseopaeia, the lady in the chair (but what I always called simply “The ‘W’”) because that was where we were always told to look as kids for the August meteor shower. I didn’t see any meteors. Had I not had company I might have stayed out there enjoying the rarity of this night sky from a Toronto vantage point, but I thought it would have been rude, so I went back up to the porch.
There’s only so long I can sit with someone else on a porch before it gets sort of boring. We’ve really forgotten how to appreciate quiet time where we’re not doing anything. It seems we always want to DO something… watch TV, play on the computer, or even play cards or read or bake cookies. Well, that’s not entirely true. I can sit by myself for hours. When there someone with me though, particularly someone who is my guest, I feel compelled to think of things to show them a good time. I was a bit at a loss. Suzy didn’t mind though, or didn’t seem to, that we couldn’t do anything. And I didn’t mind. So we sat, sort of bored but sort of enjoying the boredom, because the feeling of not doing anything – of not even being able to do anything – is so rare nowadays.
“Candles! Get yer candles!!” They were still at it. I couldn’t see them so I never did figure out for sure which house it was.
Similar to camping, I found I got tired a lot earlier than I usually do, and 10 pm felt like 11:30. I blew out the tea lights I’d lit for Chris on the porch as it became clear he wouldn’t be home before I crashed for the night. Indoors, I had other candles lit – a 3-wick monster that filled the whole living room with vanilla aroma, a few other tower candles, some votives in the bathroom in ice-cube-like holders, and a pumpkin-pie scented one in the room where my aunt was to sleep. My mom is a Partylite rep, so I’ve always had plenty of candles on hand, and tons of matches. We said our goodnights and blew out almost all the candles – I left one very safe votive burning downstairs for Chris, and one on the floor on his side of the bed. He came in shortly before midnight, waking me only slightly.
“Did you see the trail of tea lights I tried to leave for you on the porch?” I asked groggily.
“Yes,” he sort of chuckled.
“You should have seen them lit. It was nice on the stairs.”
And then we both fell asleep.
I woke a couple times in the night, each time remembering suddenly that there was no power, and clambering in the dark for my alarm clock to check if it was back on. Then I’d see – or rather, feel around for – the blank face not glowing faintly green, and not showing me the time (however wrong it would have been) and I’d sink back into sleep.
The next morning I listened for the hum of electricity, but it wasn’t there. I’d set the alarm on my Palm Vx – the only battery-operated alarm device I could find – for 7 am because I was supposed to have a meeting at 9:30 with a client. After that, my aunt and I had planned to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Tom Thompson exhibit. With no electricity, I wondered how much of that would be happening.
Chris got out of bed with more purpose than you’d expect for someone who’d been out partying the night before, and I was perplexed until he came back with my old portable cassette player. I’d forgotten the thing had a digital radio too. And live batteries inside it. We laid in bed listening to the CBC news. The only thing in the news was the blackout.
With a gas stove, we were actually further ahead than a lot of people that morning, doubly so because we make our coffee by boiling water brewing it in a French press. I put the water on to boil and set about preparing the press when I realized we couldn’t grind the beans. Crap. Fleeting visions of assaulting them a few at a time with the mortar and pestle ran through my head, but that would have been ridiculous. Then Chris remembered the espresso, which was pre-ground. I was doubtful we’d get a good cup of coffee out of it, but it was the only thing we had at the moment. It wasn’t actually that bad.
Next up was breakfast. We barbecued bagels. That worked better than expected too.
When it was late enough that I figured I wouldn’t be rousing anyone from sleep, I tried phoning around to see what the status of the 9:30 meeting was. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I thought they didn’t have their cell phones on, but later realized the whole cellular network was down. And of course there was no one in the office at 8:30 am. I took it as a free pass to loaf for the day. I mean, how could they possibly hold a stupid meeting about a website after all this chaos? Parts of the city were turned back on, yes, but so much wasn’t.
My aunt got a hold of her friend in Hamilton. They had power, so she decided to go back early. We walked her up to St. Clair to catch a cab downtown. She was going to go to Union Station and hop a train back to Hamilton.
“Will the trains be running?” I wondered. But then we figured even if they weren’t, GO would probably be running buses.
St. Clair had power! Our neighbourhood veggie vendor had half his lights on and wasn’t using his air conditioner, like we’d all been asked to do by Ernie Eves (mind you, Eves had called on Ontarians not to go to work if they weren’t essential, so I guess half-power was the least they could do). It seems in Toronto, everyone deems themselves essential. Many of the shops were open. Even running their air conditioners, a huge no-no. Every second news story was about conservation, how the full supply of power wasn’t available and it would take a few days to ramp up the grid to capacity, and to please turn off everything you didn’t need, etc. And here were these people running air conditioners. It wasn’t even that hot yet.
The traffic lights were still down even though the street had power, so each intersection had someone in the middle directing cars. These people were all volunteers, most with no official traffic-directing experience, and yet people in cars were being very courteous and patient. Later I learned this went on all over the city and lasted for two days in places where the traffic lights were messed up. They all wore reflective vests. I wondered where they got them.
They’d also mentioned on the radio that Toronto reservoirs only held a couple days’ worth of water, and to conserve that too, so we didn’t shower right away. It got hotter, and we spent the day sort of oozing around the house stewing in our own filth. Well, not really. I exaggerate. But I felt pretty grimy. The kicker is, I live in a neighbourhood where the residents love to hose down their driveways every day, and the call for water conservation wasn’t stopping them. I was heartened to see the group of guys across the street from me who usually huddle around the open hood of some beautifully-modified car or another, tell one of our neighbours politely that he shouldn’t be doing that with the water, and the guy quickly putting his hose away and saying thanks.
Later we heard on the radio (Chris used one ear bud and I sat beside him using the other) that water conservation meant not watering lawns, driveways, washing cars and the like, so we had a quick shower. I realized I needed a refill of my pill prescription because I was set to start a new pack that I didn’t have. I knew I shouldn’t have procrastinated picking them up.
Since Transit was such a mess and the traffic lights on St. Clair still weren’t working, I decided to walk down to the Shoppers Drug, which takes about a half hour. Chris decided to come too, just to see what was up outside of our neighbourhood. We had just had another barbecued dinner when we set off. St. Clair was again packed with people out being social. By this time most of the power in Toronto was back on. The whole way down the street, it looked completely back to normal. Bars and restaurants were full. Air conditioners were roaring full blast as if we’d never had an outage. Then we noticed the big line-up at the Beer Store, out the door and down the sidewalk for almost a half a block. That was the only unusual thing about the street life, and it struck us as funny. Throw a crisis at Canadians and as soon as they have the opportunity they stock up on beer. Not that it really felt much like a crisis… more like a novelty punctuated with strange inconveniences and recognition of how easy we have things most of the time.
The guy behind the pharmacy counter at Shoppers apologetically told me their computer was down so they had no way of calling up my prescription information. I would have to either show a receipt or an old package of my pills for them to give me a renewal.
What a pain in the ass. We walked all the way back to our house. By this time the sun was just about to set. Our power still wasn’t on, though it seemed the whole rest of the city was fine. I rifled through the garbage, royally pissed at the inconvenience of it all. No power. No computers to prove that I had a pill prescription. The electricity was on in that stupid Shoppers, too… what was up with their computer? I was just lucky that I found an empty pill package to show, or my cycle would be messed up for a month or so, which would mean no sex, which would mean I’d be dealing with an outage of my own long after this one was fixed up.
Since the evening was getting later, I decided to take my bike back to the drug store. I locked up beside the regular panhandler, who sat on an overturned milk crate whittling sticks into fluid shapes and asking for change.
“Hello, cyclist – can you spare any change?”
“I might be able to when I come back out of the store,” I answered, because the truth was, as I thought about it just then, I didn’t have much money on me. I didn’t usually need it because of Interac. I mentally crossed my fingers and went into Shoppers for the second time that night.
Sure enough, I was out of luck. Usually I just had to pay a dispensing fee of $3.00, but they couldn’t call up my insurance information on their system either, so it was going to be almost $50.00 for three months’ worth of birth control. Even one pack would cost more than I had (ten dollars, plus some dimes and pennies).
“Is your Interac working?” I asked.
“No, sorry… that’s down.”
“Oh, bummer. I’m going to have to hit a bank machine and come back.”
“How much do you have?” (I don’t know why he asked this; I doubt he would have been able to strike a deal with me.)
“Oh. Well, if you come back tomorrow, we might be back up. It’s on and off intermittently… we were up for a bit earlier today…”
“I totally would except I’ve put this off too long… I need to start the pills tonight.”
Luckily the Shoppers was located near St. Clair and Bathurst, a corner littered with different bank machines: a TD (my bank) on the northwest, an Amicus in the 7-Eleven kitty-corner to that, and a Loblaws with a President’s Choice bank machine a little walk down the street to the northeast.
All of them were down.
Using almost the last of the charge on my cell phone I called Chris to bail me out. I felt like a beaten-down flop, stranded with no cash, needing a bailout like this. I don’t think he minded though; it was pure luck that he’d hit a bank machine just before the outage and therefore had money. He took the streetcar down, we bought a pack of pills, and started the walk back home. As I unlocked my bike I looked for the guy who’d asked me for change, but his milk crate was empty.
The night was nice for walking, and we went through the residential neighbourhoods, which all had beautiful streetlights and porchlights and the flickering blue glow of TVs in living room windows. I’d been gone from our place long enough that I hoped we’d come home to the same luxuries.
As we crested the shallow hill out of what was long ago probably a ravine with Garrison Creek at the bottom, we could see Dufferin Street… and then nothing. Pitch black. There was a low-rise silhouette of trees and houses against the slightly lighter sky and the faraway ambient glow of distant neighbourhoods with power (the lucky bastards!) but ours was still black. I think we were now the last remaining neighbourhood out. This was about hour 29. I started to wonder if we’d been forgotten. I started to wonder if we were simply not a priority because our neighbourhood was just working class families and immigrants.
Later on at home as I sat on the porch in the dark munching on a chocolate bar, I tuned to the AM talk radio call-in station on the walkman and listened to people bitching and speculating. The DJ was one of those loudmouth ranter types that I’m not fond of, but it was interesting because it was so 100% people experiencing the same things I was, rather than the dry, distant feel of the news on CBC. It seems most people were up and running between 3 AM and 10 AM that morning, and they were still pissy.
“Oh, you don’t know inconvenience, you sissies,” I thought. Then someone phoned in from Lansdowne and Dupont, very nearby, and had the same gripes about still being off that I did: have they forgotten us? Are we less worth the effort because we don’t have the big houses they have in other neighbourhoods? What was really getting her goat though, was that she was close enough to a main street with fully lit billboards and store signage (and yes, most stores were fully lit and air conditioned that day, and continued after they closed), here in the dead of night during a time when there had been a provincial call to conserve energy. The DJ spurred her on and the two of them went into a sort of rant duet about how good citizens had to go without power so that Joe Businessman could light up his store like a Christmas tree after closing hours.
I slept more soundly that night, waking only once to dark silence, knowing, and sliding back into sleep.
Saturday morning we woke around 8:30 and reached for the walkman, sharing the ear buds again. The same old news played, they were still trying to figure out what started the 9 second power surge that blew out a good chunk of the continent’s power. (Read: Who can we blame? Who can we fire?) We stayed in bed for awhile since there was no hurry to get up, and listened to the babble about the electricity. To hear them tell it, things were all back to normal now (I think they said 95% of Toronto was back online) so I again wondered if it was possible to simply forget a whole chunk of city. I wondered if we were the last chunk of anywhere still without power, picturing a satellite map in my head all lit up with points of light, except one tiny little region northwest of downtown Toronto.
Then I heard it. The house started to hum. I spazzed and smacked Chris in the arm. He obviously hadn’t heard it because I got an indignant “WHAT???” in response.
“It’s back on! We have power!”
“It’s on! Look – your clock!”
12:00. The green glow.