How Last Week's Torrential downpour forced Jim Schutze To Reflect On His Insignificance In the Universe
I was injured by last week's storm, personally wounded in a way that burdens me with a sense of grievance. I am uneasy. But I am having trouble putting my finger on the exact nature of my grievance.
I did notice that the 10 p.m. TV news didn't say, "Vicious thunderstorms late Thursday lashed out against Jim Schutze."
Other people got wet. I know that. But for some reason this particular storm has caused turmoil deep in my most inward sense of being and identity.
Take the identity part. There was a time in the distant past when you could get some leverage out of your occupation as a reporter. Not I, of course, but other, less scrupulous reporters did so, I am told.
In a conversation with the electrical utility, a less scrupulous reporter than I might have said, "You know, the power has been off at my house for a day now, and as a reporter for The Daily Bugle, I am beginning to think this might be a story. A negative story."
I have heard it said that you could get some mileage out of that kind of implied threat—special treatment.
I mention this, because last week's floods and power outages in Dallas were an opportunity for me to reflect on my own status in the world, or the lack thereof. I am still troubled by what seems to me to have been my own personal lack of juice.
At one point at the height of the crisis, we were caught in a vise-grip of emergency. The main electrical supply lines had been yanked part but not all of the way out of our breaker box at the back of the house by a falling tree, just as the grid for our entire neighborhood went down. Some years ago, I was asleep in a former house of ours when this exact same thing happened.
In that case, when the power came back on, the back of the house lit up like Omaha Beach on D-Day. The partially disconnected wires exploded, sending immense arcs of spark and smoke 30 yards from the house and instantly setting the house on fire. That one came out OK. The house survived, although I believe I lost a few months off the end of my life. Could be a good thing.
But here was our challenge last week. Our house in East Dallas is a 95-year-old tinderbox. We had to get the wiring fixed at the back of the house before the power company fired up the grid, or we were going to have the same bad situation we experienced in the other house.
We did reach an electrician. He did show up. The fix would involve three hours of work. Experience told me that should cost between $300 and $500. He pointed out that we had very little wiggle-room in terms of how fast the repair needed to be completed, and he said he would do it for $1,200. I gulped and said yes.
Both my wife and I, in different conversations, called Oncor, the power company. We both spoke to what we believed were human beings, possibly in America, and both of us explained that we had a power line pulled semi-loose and under repair. We both stated in slow, clear, simple language that it was very important that the power not be switched back on for our area until repairs had been safely completed on our house. We both received deeply unsatisfying responses.
The apparent human beings on the other end said something like, "They never do that."
We said, "Do what?"
"What you said."
"You mean they never turn the power back on if there's still a line down in somebody's back yard?"
"Uh-huh. I don't think they would."
"Are we on a list? Are you making a record of this call? Is there some kind of notification in the system not to turn our area back on until our house has been cleared?"
Long pause. Finally they said, "Sure."
We both hung up feeling extremely not sure. I told Captain Blood, our electrician, what Oncor had told us. He was unimpressed. "Yeah," he said. "I gotta work fast."
Then while he and Smee, his assistant, were still working, I heard the Oncor truck in the alley. I raced to the fence and saw the cherry picker rising above me like the Great Sickle of Death. Because our gate is whomperjawed, I had to run down my driveway, around the neighbor's house, down the side street and into the alley. I was practicing these lines that I am told other unprincipled reporters have used in the past:
"I am a reporter for The Daily Hatchet-Job Express News. I'm working on a series of stories about how Oncor burns people's houses down and thinks it's a joke."
As soon as they got out of their truck, however, I saw what the deal was going to be. They weren't Oncor. They worked for some jack-leg contractor. And no one in the crew was going to speak a single word of English.
Let's not be ethnic. You don't know what nationality I'm talking about anyway. They could be Eastern European. Or Arkansan. That's not the point. What was the point?
I could tell them I was a reporter. I could tell them I was Obama. Then we would all do that silly hand thing with both palms up sort of juggling the air like melon salesmen, grinning foolishly. And then they'd blow my house up. For that one long moment, I felt utterly helpless and inconsequential.
Aha! It was not an electrical truck. They were tree guys. They were not there to destroy me. We smiled and nodded, did the melon bobbing thing and backed away from each other decorously, as if taking leave of Queen Elizabeth. It's wonderful how mannered and polite absolute strangers can be, even when they are blowing each other up. Perhaps especially then.
I won't bore you with the rest of my day, because I assume many of you suffered through worse. It was an especially bad storm. A neighborhood in West Dallas was routed because the city's giant flood-control pumps failed.
We had all of the predictable phone-tree adventures with people in India, trying to get phone service and cable TV and broadband services restored. In the end, the bottom line is that those things sort of worked out, in spite of driving us crazy.
The bullet that whizzed by my ear in all of this, however, was the business with Oncor. Captain Blood Electrical completed the repairs at the back of my house in the late afternoon. I had to leave the house in order to get to a place where I could go online and transfer money to cover my $1,200 check to the captain.
When I returned, lo and behold, the power was back on. I found my wife in the backyard surveying the havoc to her garden.
"So it's back on," I said.
"Did Oncor ever call or show up to check and make sure they weren't going to blow us up?"
"Not a peep. Never called. Never showed up. It just came back on."
So, two things could have happened. They could have set my house on fire. They could have killed Captain Blood and Smee. No, three things: We all could have gotten lucky and somehow found a way to complete the repairs before nameless, faceless people in India clicked a mouse and sent power surging back into the houses on my block. Which is what happened.
But in the end—even if it was what some people might consider a happy ending—the fact is that I was utterly without leverage or importance of any kind, a powerless cog in a vast machine. I was ignored. People did not do what I wanted them to do.
I suggested to my wife it was a terrible thing Oncor had done, not checking with me to make sure they weren't going to blow up my house. She said something about it being a wonderful thing the house hadn't blown up. Well, sure! If you're going to insist on looking on the bright side.
I told my neighbors about it. They were quiet and looked pissed off. At me. I thought about it and realized that while I was basking in air conditioning, their power was still off. People have a tendency to look at things selfishly, I fear.
Finally I told my son how much Captain Blood had nicked me for. "Can you believe it? Twelve hundred bucks for two and a half hours' work, max. Man. He knew he had me. He knew he could get away with it."
My son, who is 22, asked, "He didn't tell you beforehand what it would cost?"
I said, "Yes. Of course. We talked about it. He named a price. I agreed to it."
"Seems up and up to me," he said. "How many chances does a guy get to make a score? He knew this was an opportunity, and he took it. You could have said no."
So much for sons.
So here I am in bed at night, eyes wide open, cool air blowing on my face from a ceiling duct. Across the street, families still without power are sweltering.
Something happened to me. I am not letting this go. Oncor was blind to me, couldn't speak my language, couldn't even see me. But that's not it. That happened to everybody. It's not the storm itself. I'm not mentally unhinged, damn it.
It's Captain Blood. He gouged me. My son is only partially right. I should have bargained better. But I still got gouged. For that I feel humiliated. Right now, I don't need that.
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