Register Sunday | December 16 | 2018

My Own Private Blackout

Three writers recall the great darkness of 2003

The green see-through phone began to ring. The cordless was dead, but this contraption—which I had found on the sidewalk near our new west-end apartment—lit up like a toy, even in the middle of the blackout. An awful sound, like the strangled chirp of a dying pinball game.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

A friend.

“You have power yet?” he asked. It was the second night of the blackout.

“Are you kidding? We’re not supposed to get anything until tomorrow at the earliest.”

“My power went on at six o’clock this morning.”

Of course it did. Earlier that day, the downtown core had come back online. In the west end, the dividing line was Ossington Avenue—about ten blocks east of20us, but west of my lucky friend.

“How come you have power?”

“I don’t know. I woke up around seven or something, and every light in the apartment was on. Every house on Shaw has their fucking air conditioning going now. You walk up the street and all you can hear is bhvvvvvvvvvv.”

Biking across Ossington that morning, on my way to Kensington Market, I could actually sense the sudden presence of electricity. It almost felt like a shift in time: behind me my working-class, Portuguese neighbourhood, stalled; ahead of me, the downtown people, being drawn along toward their happy futures.

(And air conditioning was the future—you could have stored meat in the aisles of the drugstore where I bought the slim “blackout” edition of the Toronto Star and a lighter for our little camp burner.)

Everyone I talk to about the blackout keeps coming back to the sight of ordinary people directing traffic, something I never got to witness first-hand. Impromptu barbecues and backyard stargazing across the city—people speak as if the sudden loss of power allowed our better selves to emerge, if only for a day or so.

For myself, the blackout just made me more paranoid, as if the generators that powered my sense of optimism and well-being had gone offline as well. My family sat on our front step the first night, hanging out with the upstairs neighbours—I even brought out my guitar in an attempt to encourage the kind of good vibes I kept hearing about—but I found myself unsettled by the brightly lit city buses coming down a blackened Lansdowne Avenue like giant, luminous fish. A house burned down around the corner from us—a candle accident—killing an elderly woman. This was the kind of thing I was fixating on.

“Do you want to come over and watch a movie?”

“I should probably stay here to protect my family in case society collapses,” I muttered.

We both laughed. I didn’t mention that I had slept with a baseball bat next to the bed the night before.