Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Last night's transformer fire has turned me into a most pampered refugee. We have no electricity, heat, Internet or phone service (not even mobile), or hot water, so we are "camping" in my husband's rather luxurious university office and eating our meals out. I can't complain; my biggest trouble is that I've probably lost all the homemade chicken stock I had stockpiled in our tiny freezer.

I saw the smoke before I smelled it last night, and since I was in the mood for a walk, I went out around 7. I was dusted with flying ashes as I stood on our doorstep. I headed toward the billowing cloud of black smoke near Dalton Street, just to see how close I might get. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was out walking or running. As I approached Newbury Street, police cars drove by slowly with their loudspeakers on, telling everyone to go indoors because the smoke was toxic.

Hmm... I have sensitive lungs; I can barely walk down the street behind a smoker. And I was feeling fine. But I obediently turned around, went home, and closed the windows — it was the first day I'd opened them in months.

Not being obedient by nature, I quickly hit the streets again, passing many joggers deeply inhaling toxic smoke. I walked up Newbury Street, pausing to take photos of the abandoned plates and glasses on the outdoor tables at Charley's. (I can't download them; I'm using a borrowed computer, so I'll post anything interesting later.) At Trader Joe's, I bought a large tub of cookies in the spirit of disaster preparedness. The store was not busy for once; everyone was out gawking, I guess.

As I left the store and turned the corner, I heard a woman behind me say, "There's a 115,000-volt transformer right where the fire is. If that blows up, man.... Wow." (I thought she'd said "150,000-volt" but what's a few thousand volts here or there?)

Less than a minute later, the lights went out all over Back Bay and, thanks to her, I was not at a loss for an explanation. I always thought Back Bay was immune to blackouts because our cables are buried; it was my first power failure in more than 30 years here. Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue were eerily dark, but the night sky was bright and smoky, so it wasn't hard to walk. It was easy for me to find Mercury and Mars, and the constellation Orion without the usual squinting. The tops of the Pru and Hancock towers were still lit, and so were hotel signs: "Sheraton," "Hilton." The traffic lights were out, and I was reminded of the traffic bedlam in Egypt as pedestrians and cars took turns yielding but mostly not yielding.

The gas lamps remained lit on Marlborough Street but it was tricky to unlock our doors and get up the steps in blackness. Gas lamps provide a lot of charm but not much illumination. Our fire alarm was blaring but I couldn't see to turn it off. Our apartment was pitch-dark until my husband waved a flashlight in my direction. I had another on my desk for hunting down Wendy's toys, so I took it to organize the evening pills for Snicky and Snalbert. The flashlight made it much easier to check inside their mouths to make sure they swallowed everything. I may use a flashlight from now on.

I was immediately bored again — I guess noisy, hovering helicopters make me restless —so we went out together into the toxic smoke with our flashlights. Our neighborhood had transformed in minutes from normal to surreal and we had to witness it. Along Mass. Ave., clever passersby were using lit cellphones as flashlights. People were still drinking in candlelit bars along Newbury but most restaurants and shops were deserted. We realized that ice cream and frozen yogurt shops would likely be a mess in the morning. And was anyone trapped in an elevator in the big condo buildings or hotels?

After bumping into a few neighbors and filling them in on what we'd heard — there were no news reports until later and cell service was spotty — we were ready to go home. We lit many candles but still stepped on many cats. Without phones or Internet, we were at loose ends. It's annoying to read small print by candlelight, so I resorted to An Old-Fashioned Girl (Louisa May Alcott) on my brightly lit iPad. I enjoyed the irony until I realized I wasn't enjoying the story. Not one of her better efforts. My husband had downloaded Hugo on his iPad; we were charmed despite more hovering helicopters.

That tub of cookies proved really useful, although it was impossible to know how many we ate in the dark.

I expected to sleep soundly, given how dark and silent the neighborhood was, but I was awake all night. The sky was strangely bright; blue light streamed into our bedroom even though almost every neighboring window was dark. (Do none of our neighbors have candles? Had they all decamped for their weekend houses?)

We awoke early to chilly rooms and the last of the hot water. We are in Cambridge now, grateful for warmth, light, music, Internet service, breakfast, and Peet's. We'll go home much later tonight — the power should be back — and see how the cats are doing. They haven't been inconvenienced at all so far and, honestly, neither have we.


  1. Christine Nuwayser D.March 15, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    Hey! I bet you saw Venus and Jupiter, if you were looking up and to the west. Mars would have been more to the east. I'd be mighty surprised if you spotted Mercury - speedy little guy rarely gets far enough from the Sun for us to see.

  2. Greetings, Christine, O stellar stargazer! I'm sure you're right. I only knew they were planets; Mars is the only one I usually can spot. I took Astronomy pass-fail as a freshman, and what little I absorbed dissipated rapidly. Only little crumbs remain. Hope all is well!


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