`Pardon the inconvenience' -- some afterthoughts on Gloria

WHERE are the snows of yesteryear? asked the poet. Well, they're practically preserved under glass compared with last week's hurricane.

Gloria who?

There's nothing quite so forgettable as the Storm of the Century that barely makes it as the Busted Gust of the Month. You could see the forecasters' faces visibly drop on camera as if they were registering the dropping velocity of the winds. Forecasters have a vested interest in the weather -- and when they say weather, they mean bad weather.

To clean up the abandoned hype would take a lot longer than to pick up Gloria's strewn branches. But before we all rush on to the next Big (Maybe) Story, there ought to be a nice, quiet lesson to learn -- besides the limitations of forecasting.

The distance is almost embarrassing between the earthquake in Mexico City and the Caribbean pussycat that fairly slinked through New England. But the genteel, middle-class disasters of a smashed boat in this or that marina, an uprooted tree across a random suburban lawn, put affluent Americans into the same drama, at least as insurance companies see it.

How does it feel to be paisano for the day?

When the electricity goes out during a storm, there is a feeling of night descending in the middle of the afternoon. As likely as not, your television is turned on for the latest bulletin, with your smiling anchor man warning you that people are losing power in your neigh-bo-o-r-r . . . . Uh-oh. Two blinks, then a blankness. Your television screen withdraws your last light, like a final guest backing out the door.

The vibrating refrigerator that boasts while working with its shake-rattle-and-roll is suddenly quiet. The fluorescent light in the kitchen ceases its tuning-fork hum. All the comforting little murmurs that go to make up the background music of a household are silenced.

You pick up the phone to notify the world out there that you are without power -- unwired, unplugged -- and you find out just how disconnected you are. The phone has turned into a box without a voice. Your machine that yells ``Help!'' has gone dead.

Where did the 20th century disappear to?

This is how your great-grandparents lived all the time -- without television, without, yes, electricity -- and they thought themselves civilized. You feel like a bereft Neanderthal -- back in the cave, rubbing two sticks together.

Somewhere, people are still wired up, connected to the circuits of life. As they push their buttons and snap their switches, they don't even think about it. You can think of nothing else.

The refrigerator becomes your special obsession. You imagine you see cold air seeping past the seal on the door. You can just about feel the milk warming. Oh, to be able to open a refrigerator door again and stare at the contents, deciding what sandwich to build. Roast beef? Turkey? Salami? All three? And all the time the cold is escaping, and what does it matter?

Will you ever be that happy, profligate person again -- spooning ice cream from an open freezer?

How you will cook when power is restored! Four burners and the grill and oven -- all at once. Maybe you'll buy a rotisserie. You'll invite all your least popular relatives over for Thanksgiving, and one more resolution -- you'll never, never eat cold cereal with powdered milk again.

So this is what it feels like to be powerless -- middle-class powerless. But meanwhile, the utility companies work around the clock-that-doesn't-run to restore your power. The politicians are ostentatiously solicitous about your plight. Newspapers and televison flatter you as a survival figure, virtual heroes, every last one of you.

Which makes it all a little different for you than for the millions and millions of people in the world who are powerless -- unplugged, cut off from circuits they never had, and that is their permanent condition.

The distinction is simple. Whatever messages are addressed to them, the one phrase they will not hear in any language is, ``Pardon the inconvenience.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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