The Day the City Lived

Day 1- August 14, 2003

I looked out of my apartment window during the late afternoon. Cars were lined bumper to bumper driving north on Yonge Street. From a distance, I could hear the fire engines wailing. An ambulance was parked across the street in front of a building. Was it a traffic accident? Pedestrians scrambled back and forth aimlessly, jaywalking and ignoring all traffic signals. I looked down at the street again. There were no traffic signals! Doors were slamming in the apartment hallway. Beep. Hum. Beep. The smoke detectors shut down. The clock on my microwave flashed 0:00. I turned on my radio, only to hear the eerie sound of silence:

What was happening? Should I leave my apartment to investigate what was going on downstairs? Just then, the phone started to ring.

“He:ll:o,” I answered in a shaky voice.

“Hi, It’s Mom. I’m calling you from the payphone at the subway station. Did you know that the whole city has no electricity? There are no trains or busses. I’m stuck downtown and am about to walk home. I’ll wait for you downstairs when I arrive home,” answered the caller on the other end.

I hung up the phone. Panicked, I searched the cupboards for batteries and flashlights. With my flashlights in tow, I grabbed as many containers as I could to fill them up with water from the tap. As I turned on the tap, I noticed the water start to trickle in tiny droplets. Suddenly I remembered being told when I moved in that electricity was needed to pump the water onto the higher floors. Oh no! I was running out of water fast. For the next hour or so, I filled up as many containers as I could.

Before going downstairs, I phoned other relatives and neighbours, as I was concerned about their well-being. I walked down the hallway, until I came upon another neighbour down the hall.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

I stared at him in disbelief. Here was a man trying to restart his laptop computer in the middle of the hallway. What an idiot! Note to self: Someone ought to write the “Idiot’s Guide to Power Outages.” You would think that at a critical moment like this a computer would be the least worry on someone’s mind. I wonder if he ever did get that computer started up during the power outage? I guess not.

Looking down at my watch, I knew I was running out of time before the sunset. With my flashlight in tow, I quickly ran down eighteen flights of stairs, in search of an elderly neighbour in another building whom I was concerned about. I was left in a state of awe by what appeared on the other side when I opened the emergency exit door: people of all shapes, sizes, ages, etc. were running around like mad chickens with their heads cut off across Yonge Street. Cyclists and rollerbladers criss-crossed the intersections as if they were on a racetrack course. Local business owners stood on guard for looters in their pitch-black stores.

Like everyone else, I jaywalked across the hectic street until I arrived at the front door of the neighbour’s apartment. When I made it to my neighbour’s building, I was greeted at the foot of stairs by a group of security personnel. I frantically explained my situation and was escorted up a darkened stairwell. When I made it to the top of the stairwell, my elderly neighbour was surprised to find me at the door. She was relieved when she saw me, as she had been waiting alone in the dark for hours.

“Make yourself at home. Sit down on the couch. Do you want to have a glass of juice? Just before you came, I lit a couple of candles my daughter had given me. I remember when:” she said politely.

I could not believe it! Here she was, pretending as though nothing had happened. For the next couple of hours, we joked around shared old stories under the dim candlelight, while I drank a glass of lukewarm juice.

By the time I knew it, it was as pitch-black on the outside as it was on the inside. With a feeling of dread, I headed back down onto the darkened Yonge Street. There was a long lineup in front of a sushi restaurant, as the chef prepared a meal near a propane stove. Sad to say, the smell of raw fish did not appeal to my hungry stomach, and I dreaded the long walk back upstairs.

The manager of the building greeted me in front of the concierge desk in the darkened lobby.

“You only have a couple of minutes left before the hallways are completely darkened,” he warned in his scruffy voice.

I quickly ran toward the open door of the dimly lit stairway. I was about halfway up the stairs, when I heard another “hum”. The lights in the stairwell flickered off and on, until it became totally darkened. I could hear the tune from the Titanic sing into my head. Was this what it was like for the survivors during that fateful night? Slowly, I fumbled around for a couple of minutes in search of the flashlight in my pocket. Thank goodness I had only another couple flights of stairs!

When I reached my apartment door, I stared at the glass door leading out to my balcony. I could not help but notice the beautiful night sky. Was this remarkable wonder of nature hidden under the bright city lights all the time? Tired and hot, I opened the balcony door and decided to spend the rest of the night “under the stars.”

“Hmmm:maybe the power outage isn’t so bad after all,” I thought to myself, as I turned my head upwards to witness this remarkable feat of nature.

Day 2 – August 15, 2003

Specks of light flicked off and on in my face. Awakened by the light, I cracked open an eyelid to find its source. I looked up: a group of youngsters from the apartment above were aiming their flashlights on the streets below. Too exhausted to care, I fell back asleep on the balcony chair.

Another speck of light hit my face. This time, it was the bright morning sun. My stomach started to growl when I woke up. Just then, the phone started the ring. On the other end of the line was a neighbour, inviting me to barbecue the remaining food from the fridge on the rooftop garden of our apartment building.

Without much thought, I grabbed a package of day-old chicken sausages and ran down the stairs in the dark with a bottle of water and a flashlight. When I reached the garden, I asked about my neighbour’s newborn baby. I was relieved when I heard that the baby was okay upstairs. Instead of staying for the barbecue, I gave the package of sausages to the neighbour and ran down the street in search of more water.

Walking down the stairs, I felt the stillness of the air. For the first time ever, the streets were deserted and barren, like a ghost town. Signs in black magic marker were posted on the windows of the local businesses. “Supermarket is closed, due to the power outage”, read the supermarket sign. “Closed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience,” read the sign on the bank. “Closed for obvious reasons. Appointments will be rescheduled,” read the sign on the on the local tattoo parlour.

Walking through the ghost town, I continued my search for water and batteries. I walked down the street in a desperate attempt to find anyone who would have a bottle of water. A darkened row of empty shelves greeted me as I passed by a variety store. Walking inside, a few boxes of crackers and canned food lay on the shelves.

“Do you have any water?” I asked the three ladies who were stationed at the checkout.

They shook their heads in the direction of the door, so I walked out of the store and back out into the ghost town. Further down the street I walked, until I arrived at another variety store. A crowd had gathered in front of the second store. I pushed my way through the crowd and ran toward the store’s freezer aisle. Pushing aside a box of slippers I slid open the freezer door to check for bottle of water. Finding none, I grabbed three bottles of Pepsi at the very bottom of the freezer and headed toward the back of the store in search of batteries. Eureka! I found a stack of batteries located in a small plastic bin near the back. Digging through the box with three other people, I found three packets of AA batteries, as the other three people continued to search for C batteries. I quickly headed to the front of the store again, to pay for my purchases. Another crowd had gathered at the man behind the cashier desk, demanding flashlights and candles, which were dwindling in supply. A rowdy teenager yelled at the cashier, demanding the price of pop should be lowered. Afraid of being in the centre of a dreadful confrontation, I grabbed my purchases and ran out the door.

I ran down the street in the direction of my apartment building, and went inside a third variety store, in search of water. Unfortunately, there were no bottles of water left. Sticky and tired, I gave up my search and walked back up the stairs. I was surprised to find a group of neighbours at the lobby of my apartment reading the newspaper. After chatting with a couple of neighbours, I followed one onto the second floor rooftop garden, before I had to make my long trek upstairs.

When I arrived at the garden, I emptied my Pepsi bottles and refilled them with water from the fountain in the exercise room. On my way back up the stairs, I met a woman who walked with me up the stairs with a candle.

“Those bags look heavy. Here, let me help you up the stairs with the light from my candle,” she said.

Guided by the light, I found my way back home. Was it a nightmare? Or a good dream? Sometimes it takes the worst situation to make find the best out of a person, or vice versa. After all, it is when we lose something that we realize we have taken for granted what we really have. Perhaps on that hot summer day, the city did not die. Rather, it was the day the city lived: