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."

Long pause.

"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."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze