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Powerless: Ain’t Got No ‘Lectricity

When I heard that PG&E was going to turn off power in my part of the world my first response was denial. I thought that if I told myself that, it was no biggie. After all, I’d gone without power when I lived in rural Sonoma County and when powerful storms would knock down wires and poles. I’d not have electricity for a week.

Also in October 2017 I had a forced evacuation from my house because of wildfires. But the other day when I saw that almost everyone around me was preparing for PG&E to exert its power and deprive us little people of our power I decided I’d better prepare.

I was in the town of Sonoma attending a meeting of the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Enthusiasts. Michael Coats, who chaired the meeting, looked around the room, saw the empty seats and said, “I guess we know why so many people haven’t turned out.” Usually the room at HopMonk tavern is packed with cannabis growers and manufacturers who want to make Sonoma Weed known globally. Now the room was about a quarter full.

I left early because I’d invited my friend Neil Miller for dinner and I wanted to get home and make food. My first stop was Friedman’s, the mega hardware store that boasts, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.” A lot of people needed stuff that wasn’t available. It had already been snapped up and taken home. I wanted a flashlight, but there wasn’t a flashlight in the store. I bought AA batteries for the one tiny flashlight I had. I’d be able to get around in the dark.

Leaving the town of Sonoma took much longer than usual. There is often a lot of traffic and gridlock but there was much more that day. People were driving around and shopping. Everyone was buying shit whether they would actually need it or not. They were buying batteries, extension cords and generators, plus food. There were long lines at check out counters and long lines at gas stations: the kind I remembered from the early 1970s, during that gas crisis. I had half a tank and figured I’d be okay.

In the village of Glen Ellen I stopped at the market and wandered down the aisles wondering what to buy. I settled on a loaf of bread, a hunk of imported English cheese and a bag of ice, one of the last in the store. I paid and drove home, which took me over Sonoma Mountain to Santa Rosa. By then, it was about five p.m.

Neil Miller was supposed to show up at 5:30. I filled a pot for water to boil pasta, took my homemade red sauce from the frig and sauteed greens in olive oil and garlic. Neil arrived right on time, bearing goodies: vanilla ice cream, a head of lettuce from his own garden and a bottle of Chardonnay, which we mostly polished off.

I’ve known Neil for decades. We watch Monday Night Football together at the house of a mutual friend. Over the years I’ve heard many of Neil’s stories. If I had deliberately set out to invite the perfect guest on the eve of a power outage I couldn’t have chosen better. As soon as Neil arrived I began to talk about the outage and the imminent crisis, thinking that if I talked about it I’d ease my own anxiety. It worked.

Neil explained that he had done nothing to prepare for the powerless days ahead, or “Armageddon” as he jokingly it. He added that we would have a “Last Supper” together. It was good to laugh about the situation we could do little if anything to alter. I understood implicitly why Neil wasn’t alarmed. He has traveled to the ends of the Earth, to Tierra del Fuego, for one, and was caught up in military coup d’etat in South America in the 1970s when thousands of people “disappeared.”

On several occasions he was detained by the police and by soldiers and interrogated. He was 23. He remembered that he thought he was “invincible.” When he saw tanks in the streets of one big city and men with machine guns, he didn’t panic, but he decided it was time to go back home. He bought a bus ticket to Brazil and eventually got back to California. His American passport proved to be indispensable.

Over pasta and greens, Neil told more stories about his travels. I suggested to him that he might be described as a “contemporary Henry David Thoreau” who surely would have known how to get through days without electricity. At Walden Pond he’d done quite nicely without electricity. Neil thought for a while and said, “Yes, one could say that I’m a contemporary Thoreau. He’s one of my favorite writers. He has been since college.” Not surprisingly, Neil lives in a cabin he built in the woods, along Salmon Creek near the town of Bodega.

Before he left and while I still had hot running water I washed by hand the dishes, pots and pans and forks, knives and spoons. He also ate ice cream. After he left I filled every container, pitcher, kettle and more with water. Before going to bed I sent out a few last minute emails to friends and family. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get online and use my computer in the morning. That was the hardest thing to accept. I knew I would want to write on my computer. I’m writing right now by hand in a notebook.

I slept soundly. I woke at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday October 9. There was no power in my house. My mobile phone was still charged so I made a few calls, including one to a friend who lives in Cotati, ten minutes by car from my house, and who said she had power. I’m at her place now typing up this account, which I originally wrote by hand.

I’ll go home soon. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be powerless. None of the half million or so people who are in the same or a similar situation know either. It’s a bit anxiety producing. On the way to my friend’s house I found a gas station that was open. I filled my car with gas. On the radio I heard Governor Gavin Newsom blast PG&E, and rightly so. The company has made a fortune for its executives and its stockholders and fucked the rest of us. Shouldn’t the public own the utilities?

On October 10th power came back on. I’m back in my house, able to flush the toilet, have hot running water and turn on the lights. What did I learn from the mini crisis? That PG&E is powerful and can do almost anything it wants to do. That doesn’t seem right. I told my brother Adam that Californians often boast that we have the fifth largest economy in the world but that didn’t mean much if the state was without electricity. He said that was irrelevant. I guess I was just venting.

There are a lot of venters out here. I remembered the early 1970s when my parents along with their neighbors were up in arms about PG&E. Nothing happened then. I think there’s more of a chance for something to happen now, if only because many people are angry. So are newspaper editors and politicians. Let’s hope we have some traction.

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