Power, small talk, and big things

Our dawn-simulating lamp completed its 30-minute gradual brightening process, and we had light sufficient for the task of getting up. Then, promptly at 6:00, it went off. It was supposed to stay on. Everything was off that was supposed to stay on. The refrigerator, the furnace motor. Our computer chargers. Great. Happy New Year from our rural power cooperative.

We had already decided to buy our house when we learned we would enjoy Amateur Hour reruns with the electric coop. One neighbor told us it “usually worked pretty good” [sic], but when it first started up, a hawk touching down on something—I wasn’t clear precisely what—would cause an outage. But things were better now, he assured us.

No microwave, no stove. Oh no—not that—no coffee grinder. . . .

I think I was the first ratepayer to call in. A guy “in engineering” was manning the phones. Both streets of our otherwise civilized neighborhood were powerless. We soon learned we’re the only survivalists in the coop’s service area.

One couple fled their home uncharacteristically early; we speculated they were headed to McDonald’s in town. My husband set up our generator and connected it to the refrigerator, some lights, the electric water kettle, and—yes!—the coffee grinder. No one else that we could see had lights. Not to be done out of his four-egg breakfast, my husband cooked his eggs outside on our propane stove. I was just glad my cat’s insulin was still cold. I had my usual breakfast of fruit and cake, and we both enjoyed freshly ground coffee.

The power returned, stayed on four or five minutes, and went off again, four times. I called the guy in engineering again to try to find out whether The Joker was behind the outage, or whether the crew knew yet what they were dealing with. The guy, apparently lacking the jocularity gene, said rather cryptically that a “piece of equipment” had gone down. I wondered whether they would have to order a replacement from Sears or someplace, but I didn’t ask Mr. Engineering this. I figured at least a piece of equipment sounded more advanced than a hawk.

My husband headed for the courthouse, and I made rounds to two pharmacies to pick up prescriptions for my cat and myself. Coolidge requires a compounding pharmacy, so his thyroid medication is downtown; the neighborhood pharmacy meets my needs. After a frazzling ordeal with an online pharmacy in Phoenix, our vet discovered that a local pharmacy compounds veterinary formulas. Not only is it convenient and personal, but the medicine is significantly less expensive at the local pharmacy, and I don’t have to worry about UPS being unable to account for its whereabouts.

I performed these pick-up errands on Valley time, meaning both were social occasions as well as errands. Most people have no idea there is any electric provider besides the main power company, Avista. Avista provides our natural gas, but for whatever reason, the company was unable to supply electricity to our rural subdivision.

As I was explaining this to a cashier at the downtown pharmacy, another customer joined in. She was at least 6’2” tall, and she nodded her head deeply and sagely when she spoke. “When you do business with a power company, they have power over you,” she said with a dip of her head to emphasize the profundity of her assertion.

“But I don’t want to run a power company,” I said with my dippiest Suzi Homemaker affect. “I prefer to leave things like this to corporate professionals. Besides, what choice do we have?”

The tall woman raised an index finger and then pointed it downward. “Thermal wells,” she said, as though it were her mantra. I could tell she was trying to let me in on something big.

The cashier handed me back my credit card, and I slid it deftly into its slot in my wallet. As I placed my wallet back in my purse and pulled on my gloves, I bid the tall woman a terrific day, thanked the cashier, and headed homeward to my neighborhood pharmacy, where I could count on conversation sidestepping such things as thermal wells.

Turning onto my street, I noted the heartening absence of electric service trucks, and seconds later, the welcome sight of my house. The lights were on, and they still are.

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