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Power Outage
By James Braly

I am standing at my office desk one day, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wearing a telephone headset like an operator plugged into my cordless phone, about to make the call that's going to make me a man…of letters. A producer at a big radio show in LA wants me to tell her a story about my marriage. If she likes it, I get to tell it to 8 million other people. It's my audio close-up, the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice and marriage counselors, and I'm ready.

For the last two days, no coffee, no alcohol, no cheese, and no arguing with my wife, Susan -- nothing that could dry my vocal chords or rattle my confidence. And since I woke up this morning, no unnecessary movements, so I don't sound winded. I ordered lunch in from the deli.

And at exactly 4:13 PM -- three minutes after our scheduled appointment, so the producer thinks I've got things to do, too -- I start dialing: 1-213…and the phone dies.


Then I see the fan blade slowing, and my desk lamp's dark, and my computer's on battery power.

"Fuck!! Fuck!!! Fuck!!!!"

So I rip off the headset and run down the stairs from my second floor office to the sidewalk, and around the corner to the lobby where very quietly -- so the doorman who's behind his desk won't hear me -- I creep inside, and take the house phone down off the wall. It doesn't need electricity.

But it sticks, to the little cord that wall phones have, and the doorman jumps out to catch the thief. We lock eyes, and I say, "I need this phone."

The doorman holds up his arms like I'm robbing him and says, "Take it."

"Okay. I will. And by the way -- in case you were wondering -- my office blew a fuse."

"That was no fuse," he says. There's a portable radio on his desk, tuned to the news. "There's been a blackout. The entire northeast is without power."

"Oh my god," I say, and our eyes lock again, this time in that post-9/11 way. "Terrorists?"

"Could be."

And I run back out and around the corner and up the stairs and into my office, and I plug the phone in the jack and start calling the producer in LA -- Osama bin Laden is not going to ruin my career.

"The circuits are busy. Please try your call again."

So I call again, and again and again.

Until the producer answers and I apologize for being late in my mellifluous, dairy-free voice.

"How'd you get through?" she says.


"There's been a huge blackout."

"I know. I'm here. People are pretty freaked out. We think it might be terrorists."

There are sirens outside my window that we both can hear. So we're in this together, having a nice chat; building our relationship during a terrorist emergency, which seems to me a very auspicious beginning. Then the producer says, "That's kind of the story of the day, James. Maybe we can do this tomorrow?"

"Oh," I say. "Tomorrow. Sure," and I hang up.

When it occurs to me, I have a wife and kids! Upstairs, on the seventh floor, in a building without electricity, in a city that's just been attacked by terrorists. With no way for me to call in -- Susan turns the ringer off during the day, because ringers interrupt playtime -- and no way for her to find out -- because we don't have a radio; radios have radio waves, which Susan thinks fry your brain. Which is why she's been telling me to get rid of my cordless phone.

So I run up the back stairs in total darkness -- my office is on the stairwell and the superintendent forgot to install the emergency lights -- counting stair landings as I go. Until I count seven and open the fire door and walk into the hall, which is also pitch black, and grope along the wall for our door handle and open our apartment -- where everything's light and normal:

Our two little boys are in their play dresses in the living room, playing with their little macrobiotic friend from the commune in Brooklyn, who's wearing his play dress, visiting for the day with his macrobiotic single mom, Barbara. While Susan is in the kitchen transferring line-caught wild smoked salmon and organic rennetless Gouda from the refrigerator to the freezer. "The fuse blew," she says.

"That was no fuse," I say, morbidly delighted at my dark little secret. "There's been a huge blackout. The entire northeast."

"Oh my god!" says Susan, and our eyes lock eyes in that post-9/11 way. "Was it…T-E-R-R?"

We live off the cultural grid, as well as the gender-specific clothing grid, and the diet grid and the radio-wave technology grid…and now the power grid. So we spell controversial things around the kids.

I say, "What else could it be?"

Barbara asks, "What is T-E-R-R?" Her personal motto being, "What would a raccoon do?" Barbara lives off the human behavior grid, in harmony with nature. Evidently raccoons don't know about terrorists.

Susan says, "Terr…" helping her.

Barbara says, "Ohhh no. The subways." Which are electric, and won't be running to Brooklyn.

Susan says, "You'll have to stay here tonight."

Barbara says, "Do you have plenty of food and water? If it is terr?"

Susan says, "I didn't think of that."

Meaning, I didn't think of that.

And now Susan and Barbara and the three little boys all stand there in their dresses and look at me, in my pants, wondering what I've done to deserve to wear them.

So I go through my checklist:
savings account;
retirement account;
education account;
life insurance;
health insurance;
disability insurance;
coop insurance;
credit card with an emergency credit line;
back-up credit card;
and a no-fee back-up back-up, just in case.

But, not one bottle of water;
no saltines;
no radio;
no flashlight;
and nothing else on the Daily News' "Are You Prepared for Another Terrorist Attack?" list they've been publishing every week since 9/11. I'm a white-collar protector in a blue-collar emergency. We're all going to die.

"You better get some food," says Susan.

"And water," says Barbara.

"I know," I say. "But…I don't have any money."

"You don't have any money???" says Susan, echoed by the three little boys, who are going through the imitative stage of verbal development. Which I used to think was cute.

"I was going to go to the ATM."

"It's electric," says my older little boy.

"I know!"

Barbara digs into her unbleached hemp bag from the Brooklyn Food Coop, while Susan goes into the bedroom to her emergency cash stash, and together they give me $160 to buy our Survival Kit.

"You better hurry," says Susan. Followed by three "You better hurrys" from the little boys.

"Don't worry," I say, calmly, like a protector. "We'll be fine." I walk out the door, slowly, and close it behind me.

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