Funniness Negates Wrongness
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
The Blackout of 2003 or The Night the Lights Went Out in Canada
2:42 PM EDT

My AA flight touches down at Toronto-Pearson, on time and without incident. The MD-80 nudges up to the jetway and we slowly exit the aircraft. I, for one, am relieved to finally be away from the weird Dutch guy I'd been forced to sit next to. What made him weird? Well, he's Dutch. That's enough for me. On, and as soon as the plane took off, he took a thick sweater out of his carry-on and wrapped it tightly around his head. He then began to snore loudly, creating a sound that wreaked of one raised on socialized medicine and a constitutional monarchy. I'd spent about thirty seconds on the flight comparing the name "Netherlands" to "Nether Regions" and wondering if anyone else had noticed how close these two terms were. Across the aisle from me had been a group of French businessmen, who'd loudly conducted an in-flight business meeting, without regard for the other passengers, who, along with me, certainly regarded their nasally Gallic voices with disdain. I thought of a story in the Dallas Morning News I'd read earlier that day about how nearly 3,000 Frenchmen had died as a result of the heatwave that had struck Europe. I don't consider this all that great of a loss.

We make our way to the Customs area, which is a large room with about 20 lines leading to customs officers. I choose the shortest one, which proves to be a mistake. In my lifetime of bad choices, I've made yet another. The line crawls. I glance over at another line only to see both the Frenchmen and the Dutch guy zip through immigration and customs while I am stuck behind a particularly odoriferous family of Pakistanis. I spend my time looking over the Pakis. I notice that there are three sons and three daughters, all of which have uni-brows like their mother. It's the Jihad Bunch. Finally, after what is surely an eternity, it's my turn to be interviewed. I step up to the desk, making sure I look cooperative. The Canadian Immigration girl behind the counter is cute. It's been my experience that Toronto is full of attractive, neo-Socialist women and she is no exception. There's something a bit erotic about her uniform, with its shoulder patches featuring both English and French. If I were Canadian, I'd make an effort to speak English on a daily basis, but I'd certainly make love in French, as that seems like the right thing to do.

"Good afternoon!" she says, with a smile on her face and a certain something in her eye (which might be dust, but is probably relief to be talking to a white person whose native tongue is English rather than Arabic or Urdu).

"Hello," I reply, realizing that I just used the short, clipped accent of a Ontarian. I tend to do this everytime I'm in Canada--it's some kind of subconcious device I employ to fit in, I suppose.

She interviews me about my intentions in Canada, though she never comes out and asks the questions that I'm sure are burning deep in her heart, such as "Are you here to subvert the parliament and overthrow the bourgeoisies?" or "Will you come back to my place and make passionate American love to me after which we can lie in bed, smoking American cigarettes because Canadian cigarettes are crap while we watch Canadian Idol on CTV?" or "Is every American as full of himself as you are?"

I survive the interrogation, apparently having supplied acceptable answers to the cute officer. I've been granted entry into Canada. I follow the signs to the baggage claim and find my black duffel awaiting me. I take it off the carousel and open it to survey the contents. Everything is disheveled and a TSA slip is tucked inside, apologizing for messing everything up. Bastards could at least refold one's clothes instead of wadding them up. If I wanted to travel with wadded up clothes, I'd have packed a garbage bag, which I once actually saw some rednecks using as a carry-on on a Southwest flight once. What do you expect, though, when you offer one-way tickets anywhere within Texas for $34? It kind of makes me yearn for the days before deregulation when the Proletariat rarely could afford to fly.

3:30 PM EDT

I exit the secure area and, luckily, immediately find Clay and Olivia. After greetings, we leave the terminal and cross over to the garage. It's hot, and the humidity coming off of Lake Ontario doesn't help matters. Despite having spent a better part of my life in the Texas heat, nothing has prepared me for this kind of humidity, as I've never lived in Houston. The air conditioning of Olivia's Camry is most welcome and soothing, and having paid the $8.50 CDN for the privilidge of parking in their fine garage, we're on our way south down the 407 towards the Gardiner Expressway. We take the Gardiner east towards downtown. Olivia and Clay inquire about my flight and about how things are back in Texas. I notice a bit of a peckish...a slight hunger growing inside me, no doubt an effect of having consumed very little that day. This is going to have to be remedied. Soon.

3:55 PM EDT

We park the Camry in an hourly lot. The automated parking attendant takes a while to figure out, as the instructions are in Canadian, rather than Standard, English. We finally figure it out, buying a few hours of parking priviledges, or at least we think we have. We set out on foot, taking in the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells that is Toronto.

4:05 PM EDT - Corner of Queen Street W. and Spadina

I spot a McDonalds. Normally, I'm not a huge fan, but as I only have like $5.00 CDN in cash, this will have to do. We make our way inside, past a particularly nasty group of sweaty, shirtless construction workers sitting on the sidewalk outside smoking their Players and Matinees.

4:07 PM EDT

I order a burger and a small Coke. I think it's weird to hear a Canadian accent coming from the Chinese guy behind the counter. He hands me my Coke and tells me to wait.

4:10 PM EDT

I'm handed my burger and saunter over to the stand-up counter where Clay and Olivia are waiting. I unwrap it, taking a bite and am instantly reminded as to why I'm not a fan of Mickey D's. However, my hunger outweighs any other considerations and I press onward, determined to choke down what remains of this fetid excuse for tastiness. I'm reminded that tastiness is a single letter away from nastiness.

4:12 PM EDT

I'm taking the final bite of my burger when the lights in the McDonalds go out. Everyone kind of looks around, then at the lights to see if they're going to come back on. They don't. We walk outside. A TTC trolley, powered by overhead powerlines, grinds to a halt in front of us, blocking an intersection. The conductor herds the passengers off and into the street. People look curious but not overly-concerned. Perhaps this a rolling brownout forced as a result of massive power consumption in the wake of the oppressive heat, though if you ask me, 84 degrees isn't all that oppressive. We start walking, not yet knowing of the extent of the blackout. We're looking for a block where the power is still on. Clay surfaces the theory that the dirty construction workers cut the power in some sort of sinister plot. People begin pouring out of highrise office buildings and milling about the streets. No one really seems to know what's going on. The streets are growing gridlocked as the traffic lights are out and TTC trolleys block some intersections. There aren't enough police to direct traffic, so civilians step up and start motioning autos about. We walk several blocks and soon come to the conclusion that the power seems to be out for at least most of downtown, so it might be in our best interest to go back to the car and make our way towards the States.

5:30 PM EDT

We make it back to the car and are soon savoring the A/C once again. I turn on the radio, but hardly any stations are up and running. I finally settle on Mojo Radio - 640 AM. It's now that we learn the true extent of the blackout. New York, Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania are amongst the areas affect. Shit. We try to get a cell line out, to call our families to let them know we're okay and to find out if Buffalo has power, as that is where we'll be retreating to.

We start to weave our way through the traffic, towards the Gardiner Expressway. It's slow going, and we still can't get a call out. As Clay pilots the car, I continually hit redial. No luck. Traffic crawling.

6:25 PM EDT

We finally get on the Gardiner Expressway, heading west towards the QEW. Traffic here is moving, albeit slowly. As we approach Mississauga, I finally get a call through to my mother, back home in Texas. I let her know that we're okay and we're heading towards New York, but it might take a while. As I ponder how much a cell call from Canada is costing me, she lets me know she'll inform Clay's parents--who live down the street from her--that we're okay. I promise to give her a call once we get back to the USA.

On the radio, people are calling in telling their experiences. They tell of men in business suits directing traffic and old ladies leading frightened and confused people out of subway tunnels. Various theories about the cause are bandied about. Terrorism, the one theory that everyone almost wants to be the cause, if only for a reason to kill more brown people, is quickly discounted. The Canadians are blaming the Americans. The Americans are blaming the Canadians. Ernie Eves, Premier of Ontario, says that it was a lightning strike at the Niagara Mohawk power station at Niagara Falls, NY. Nevermind the fact that it's a cloudless day. This theory sounds especially bad when someone from Niagara calls in and says that Niagara Falls, ON and Niagara Falls, NY, along with Buffalo, all have power still (a call that makes us relax a bit, as at least we'll be drinking cold beer tonight). Someone else mentions a fire at a Con Ed station in Manhattan. We keep waiting for reports of looting, but are disappointed to find that not only are the Canadians behaving themselves, as expected, but so are the Americans. We creep along, listening to reports that the airports in NYC and in Toronto are shutting down, as their backup generators are on fumes. Flights are being diverted to Montreal, Calgary and elsewhere. I find myself thankful I got here when I did, otherwise, I might have been spending my vacation amongst the Inuit in Nunavut. My inukshuk-making skills are a bit rusty. Reports that the border is backed up start coming in, along with reports of people running out of gas as they can't pump fuel at the gas stations. Clay thinks we have enough to make it to the border, but if it is backed up, we might run the risk of running out while waiting.

8:05 PM EDT

Rumors on the radio that north Burlington and Oakville have power prove unfounded. We finally pull into a PetroCanada station that's open, albeit without power, on the outskirts of Hamilton. We might not be able to get gas, but at least we can get some drinks and snacks. Lukewarm bottled water and melty candy bars did the trick. We got back on the road.

8:55 PM EDT

We pull into a functioning, powered gas station in Niagara Falls, ON. We filled up with $0.65 CDN/liter unleaded and inquired about the border. The Indian clerk said he thought it was okay, so we decided to go for it. Twenty minutes later, we were back in the United States and in Buffalo. Lights were glowing all around us and our odyssey was at an end. We pulled into a Puerto Rican cafe for some dinner and were thankful to be home.

The blackout didn't really impede the rest of our weekend. On Saturday, we went to Rochester and Corning without incident and by the time we returned to Toronto Monday afternoon, things were back to normal. I returned to Dallas, where it was 96 degrees when I got in at 11:00 last night and was thankful that we've never had a huge blackout here. My air-conditioned apartment welcomed me home and I fell into a deep sleep, thankful to be back in Texas.