Mark Hayward's City Matters: The random brush of fate, power
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,
shadowed and veiled ...
Nothing more than storms (or perhaps lottery results) prompt us to point our fists to the sky, and, like the Medieval poet whose "O Fortuna" opens an epic choral work, rail against what fate has blown our way.
Storms fester on fate as much as low barometric pressure. Twisters uproot trees and flatten homes in one spot and leave others with a mere dousing of rainwater. And why did Hurricane Sandy veer slightly south, brushing New England but pulverizing New York and New Jersey?
George Merced knows about the random brush of fate. He lives in a two-family building on Notre Dame Avenue, in the block between Amory and Kelley streets. As he prepared his children for school Wednesday morning, street lights burned nearby while apartment windows on Kelley Street glowed in warm, electrically fired incandescence.
Merced had to count his steps merely to negotiate his darkened stairway.
Like thousands of Manchester residents, and tens of thousands across New Hampshire, Merced spent two days without power. And while several of his West Side neighbors took the inconvenience in stride, they did not suffer through Monday night and Tuesday with four children in a home severed from the electrical grid.
"We can't go through the day without power or TV. Now we know what Amish people go through," Merced said.
Most of us city residents, especially those in congested neighborhoods, don't take storm warnings seriously. Outages happen to people in the hinterlands. Our numbers, we reason, will demand a quick response from the power company. And even if we do lose power, stores, hotels and shelters are nearby.
So by the time Merced got to Walmart before the storm, Sandy survivalists had already come and gone, stripping the place. No flashlights. And he refused to pay $6 apiece for scented candles. He ended up with tea lights.
"It was dark and scary," said his 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, about her second night without power. (Of course, the ghoul heads hanging from their second-floor porch may have helped to stoke those fears.)
"It's like the Dark Ages: Candlelight, outside food, you can't cook, you can't do nothing," said an exasperated Merced. "Look around you. Everybody else has lights. The traffic lights are working. Only our grid of 140 people doesn't have electricity."
That grid includes Cartier Street, the next street to the west. James Hayes, 23, who lives in a converted storefront, had no X-Box-deprived children to worry about. His strategy for a dark home was simple - avoid it as much as possible. He got home at 11 p.m. Tuesday and was preparing for work Wednesday morning.
His biggest worry was the food in his warm refrigerator. He's squirreled some of it into his workplace refrigerator. He was cooking the remainder - chicken and turkey - on a propane stove Wednesday morning to keep it from spoiling.
"It does suck, it's hard waking up in the morning, hard to make coffee," he said. But he said it wasn't enough to get angry about; he can do without television or the Internet.
Telecommunications is different. Like nearly everyone else, Hayes used his car to charge his phone, and his phone was his alarm clock. Throughout the day Tuesday, PSNH left recorded messages on that phone. Yes, the company knows about his street; yes, PSNH is working on restoration; no, it doesn't know when his power will be back.
This storm has some advantages, he said. The weather has stayed warm. There was no damage to his property. And he can still flush and run water, although the shower is pretty cold.
Cartier Street represents the traditional West Side. Lawns and bushes are trimmed. Fences hem in small front yards and neat multi-family houses. A couple of side yards feature shrines to the Virgin Mary. About the only debris after a day of heavy wind are a few leaves and recently delivered telephone books.
Denise Martel Bastien said she spent Monday night playing Parchesi by candlelight with her husband. But on Tuesday, she and her husband went to their camp at Gilmanton Iron Works, which had power. Her 90-year-old mother-in-law remained behind in order to make a doctor's appointment Wednesday. Her bonus - breakfast at Chez Vachon.
In her 30 years on Cartier Street, Bastien has never seen the power out this long.
Merced said he's called PSNH to point out the likely problem - an alleyside transformer that was shooting sparks Monday night. But the operators won't say when it will get fixed.
"It's going to be restored by the end of the day," he said, "I'm going to keep calling them until they're sick of me, or I'll play it smart and say there's a line down. They'll come for that."
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Mark Hayward may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.