By B. Lynn Goodwin.
“Hello. I’m calling from the Starbuck’s on Camino Ramon in Danville,” the young manager in the green apron said into her cell. “We’re currently experiencing a blackout.”
I’d never been in a Starbuck’s without inside light.
A clerk who sounded like a high school student told me the coffee was cold. She suggested I try another Starbuck’s but I decided to wait. I liked the natural light coming through the windows, and besides, I wanted to be a part of the adventure. It’s not every day a business grinds to a halt because the power is out.
Power blackouts are a holiday from real life. If this one happened when I was at home, I’d have felt my way to the kitchen, found the matches and candles, and put them in the bronze candlesticks I gave my mother when I was thirteen.
Then I’d have opened the freezer door for flashlight batteries, and heard her voice saying, “Don’t open the refrigerator. The cold air will leak out.”
When I was younger, a power failure brought out cookies and crackers from the cupboard, my favorite legitimate, unbalanced meal. They also brought us out of our separate rooms.
Trapped by an electric garage door that would not open, we gathered in my parents’ bedroom to wait out the storm that knocked the lines down. Through rain-splattered windows we could see the distant lights of San Jose twinkling below. Sharp black rooftops and ebony tree limbs blotted out portions of the city. It was 1959, and we had no idea we were looking out on the future Silicon Valley as we sat high atop the hills of Los Gatos.
In the shadows, my parents began to tell tales of the “olden days.” My father remembered a blackout in Martinez during World War II. He was outside with a friend walking through a darkened neighborhood when he lit a cigarette.
A neighbor woman rushed out to scold him for aiding the enemy. “Are you crazy? Put that thing out before the Japs see it glowing and attack.”
“So what happened?”
“Your father put out his cigarette to shush her. Then Art and he laughed the whole way home.” My mother’s voice was warm and gentle as she added her memory of that long-ago night.
This is the way it’s supposed to be, I thought as I sat on my mother’s bed, looking from one darkened face to another. I knew we would remain a close-knit family as long as the power was off. When it came back on my father would return to KQED or the ballgame, broadcast in black and white; my mother would return to the kitchen or stacks of student essays; and unspoken resentments that screamed for attention would lace the air, unanswered.
My parents were good people, flawed by resentments they didn’t know how to process. Their strained silence ate away at me day after day. Maybe the power failure brought out their long-hidden need for one another. Though I was only ten years old, I knew I would always cherish the openness that came out when the electricity went off.
As I wrote those words, the power just came back on at the Starbuck’s on Camino Ramon, and the four clerks went, “Awwww,” just like the kids in school when the lights came back on and free time was over.
Starbuck’s is back in business, but who wants to return to pouring coffee and heat cookies with adrenaline still racing through the body? Blackouts charge us up in ways that caffeine cannot. So do unexpected holidays. They bring out the helpful side in some and the celebratory side of others. They make us hyper-aware, and often they make us grateful.
Everybody has unexpected holidays, but not everybody recognizes them. Have you had one? Where were you? What happened? How did it interrupt your routine? How did you feel when it was over? We’d love to hear. You can write it here, or you can share it with me at [email protected] if you prefer.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Gail Lynne Goodwin