Nowhere Near Three Cups of Tea but Neighbors Nonetheless

In 2003 an ice storm paralyzed the city where I still live, taking down power lines, leaving Lexington cold and dark.

At Briarwood, the government-subsidized housing complex I called home, branches bent under the weight of so much winter weather, trees seemed to hang their icy heads in shame, sorry for the light-less, tea-less inconvenience of it all.

The storm moved through the night of February 15th, so we woke up Sunday the 16th with 2 inches of ice coating sidewalks, streets, and trees.  Eventually, most of Lexington was without power, as the storm unexpectedly intensified as it moved through the state, leaving utility companies scrambling to repair power lines downed by fallen trees–trees that, in some instances, smashed cars and damaged roofs.

When I woke up in the wee hours of Sunday morning (2:30 according to my journal), the power was already out in my apartment.  At the time I lamented not having enough light to read or write by, not anticipating then that I would be without for 6 long days and nights to come.

Admittedly, this comes nowhere near the 13 day stretch we went without power in Haiti last summer, but at least in Port-au-Prince I’d grown accustomed to going without.  There we rarely had electricity for more than 8 hours a day, and many Haitians never have any.  They really deal with darkness at night, every night.

However, in the winter of 2003, I hadn’t been to Haiti; I was a newbie when it came to power outages.  And since I had only an electric stove, I had no means of even boiling water, no hot water for those strong cups of hot tea I used to keep me going, ones I could have used to keep me warm, as well.

With no electricity, it was also difficult to get news—no T.V.—no radio.  Eventually, I rounded up enough batteries to power my boom box and began hearing predictions that we might be without utilities for 3 to 7 additional days.

Officially, then, Briarwood was to have been evacuated—residents sent to shelters nearby that generated enough power to keep the heat going and lights on.  Some residents went to stay with family, but for most Lexingtonians, local relatives were also doing without, unless they had managed to secure an hotel room, all of which were booked in the city and surrounding areas once it became clear Lexington could remain cold and dark for days, if not weeks to come.

However, unofficially, many residents remained at Briarwood, especially those with pets, as no animals were welcome at shelters.  To accommodate these folks, the management, maintenance staff, and younger, able-bodied neighbors like myself pitched in, making sandwiches and coffee, which we delivered door to door.  I don’t remember how we made the coffee, especially for so many people, but I have some vague recollection of Terry, the maintenance supervisor securing a small generator that produced enough power to fuel a few of these endeavors.

The second floor craft room in the building where I lived (one I’ve written about before) was a hub of activity carried out in semi-darkness, even during daylight hours, since the room had only one small window.  There we gathered in a spirit of strong, if dimly lit, camaraderie, sharing food we knew we’d lose without refrigeration.  Some residents with grills on their balconies even managed to roast meats that began thawing in freezers—meat that would definitely rot if not eaten—hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, more and more a carnivore’s delight as the week wore on.

However, with no means of producing heat, our apartments became colder and colder.  Thawing meat meant increasingly freezing temperatures in my living room, until on day four of our ordeal, I was wearing five shirts, three pair of sweat pants, and three pair of socks.  By day five, I was officially miserable.  With no natural light in my bathroom, I struggled to brush my light by candle light and began to crave a long hot bath—not to mention a decent cup of tea.  I lament in my journal about being unable to boil water, even to heat it warm enough so tea would steep before cooling in my increasingly cold, dark kitchen.

But just as the dim half-light was becoming a way of life, power returned late on our 6th day of doing without.

And even if the local utility companies had taken longer than we liked to get things up and going, even if I hadn’t had a single cup of tea, we residents of Briarwood had gotten along.

We’d played board games—Monopoly and Clue.  We’d fed one another, helped one another, drank coffee instead of tea.

We emerged a stronger community than we’d been before the storm stranded us together on those dark and icy February nights.

We cared.  We shared.  We became neighbors all over again.

Haiti in your Face

I’m pleased to share——-(drum roll)—————

I will be heading back to Haiti Saturday, after 3 weeks in the US—21 days so far since my American Airlines flight landed in Miami and I had my first night in several months with an uninterrupted supply of electricity.  I guess Friday will be my last for the next 90 days or so.

Which raises the question—

What comforts from home will I miss most in Haiti?  Over the next several days, I’ll share them here, a way to gear up for this transition.

Clearly, however, electricity tops the list.

Now, I’ve been without power before in the US, without the luxury of electricity for 6 days straight during an ice storm in Kentucky some years ago.  But being without this utility here at home is entirely different from being without in Haiti. 

For example, no electricity for several days means near disaster in most of North America.  No one knows what to do or how to manage the tasks of daily living, so folks function on the adrenaline panic produces during times of crisis.  Citizens of Kentucky jump into fully fueled cars, drive to Lowes or Home Depot, grab all the batteries, flashlights, and candles money can buy this side of Port-au-Prince.  Normal life is temporarily interrupted. 

It takes several powerless days to shift into “picnic mode” and celebrate with neighbors round a fireplace, all hoping to stay warm on icy February nights.  

People play games.  They pop popcorn on the stove top (gas, of course).  They become families and neighborhoods once again–helping one another survive this bout of being without. 

The local utility company may take longer than they’d like to get things up and running, but folks maintain a basic faith in the system, a security that only a strong and stable infrastructure provides. 

They believe.  They know. 

The lights will come back on and all will be right with the world—a reality interpreted largely in terms of how well one sees at night. 

Eventually, neighbors go back to FaceBooking  in the evening, doing status updates out the ass—rather than playing Monopoly or Clue around the kitchen table—really seeing the shadows candles cast on the faces of their children—the shades of gray and flickering light—Sally’s chin that’s strong and Bobby’s dimples winking in the nearly dark. 

In Haiti it’s an entirely different affair. 

If we happen to have power when we wake up in the morning and even less likely happen to have it when we fall asleep at night, Sara and I marvel to one another:

“Do you think we REALLY had city power all night?” (What in Haiti we call electricity that comes from something other than a generator)

“Well, was it on when you fell asleep?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t just forget to turn the generator off?”

“No, if you didn’t turn it on, I didn’t either.  Had to be city power!”


We marvel at the having rather than the not.

But Sara and I are spoiled.  Though we often face the threat of diesel running low—at least we HAVE a generator.

Most folks in Port-au-Prince, on the other hand, truly DEAL with darkness every night.  Without the ability to generate power, they struggle to help children with their homework—that is, if they can actually afford tuition, if they can actually afford to buy a candle for their kids to study by.

Eyes adjust to lesser light—the dim of half-light becomes a way of life.

But now—

As I prepare to return to friends on our Caribbean island—now that I once again have grown to expect bright light at night—20 good evenings in the US—it’s time to return again to the dimly lit faces of my Haitian neighbors.

To look them fully in the face at night—

And see the contours courage carves.