Fiat tenebris: On escapism and the PG&E blackout

Pixabay/Creative Commons

Related Posts

Note: The events of this essay occurred during the week of Oct. 6-12.

Thursday, time unknown

There was supposed to be a blackout today. And yesterday. For all I know, there was one. But living in the Unit 2 residence halls, three blocks from campus and the faint murmurs of the powerless residence halls on Durant Avenue, no utility faults have crossed my radar. Everything is playing as it should.

Tuesday, 12:38 a.m.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been running without a plug. I’ve been afflicted with an empty creative well. Back home — Redondo Beach, California — ideas sprang up in my mind so frequently that the notes on my phone became suffused with fragments of prose, lines of dialogue and titles of potential short stories. I thought by removing myself from my accustomed environment and establishing myself in the heart of a region where I would encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of new people and their stories, and observe and be inspired by myriad more events and quotidian occurrences, my writing would flourish. 

But, for the most part, inspiration has not come to me so much as I have dragged it, fingers dug deep into the dirt, violently twisting and protesting, into existence. I have had to churn out —  almost never a pleasant phrase to use in relation to the subject matter — creative ideas.

It’s a saddening development. But I’ve been so focused on schoolwork, or getting around to schoolwork, that I haven’t had much time to pause and look deeper into my defective outlet. I’ve been locked up inside of my room for the past X hours, and I’ve barely been able to progress on a short history essay that’s due around sundown tomorrow. I declare, aloud and not to anyone in particular, that I’m taking a break. 

Escape takes many forms. Its urgency depends on the avoided, its frequency on the running. My feet lead me where I suspect I’ve been subconsciously yearning to go all along: out.

Escape takes many forms. Its urgency depends on the avoided, its frequency on the running.  

Tuesday, 9:52 p.m.

I’m standing in the doorway of my suitemate’s room, as he explains to me how PG&E’s decision to unplug the Bay Area’s electricity will likely not affect the residential units. 

“Kids are partying hella hard tonight,” he says.

“Like it’s 1999,” I say, chortling.

 An apocalyptic message has been touted well by administration, faculty, UC police and my ghost of a resident assistant, whose floorwide texts contain more all-capitalized words than the president’s tweets, including such phrases as “during all this chaos” and “in this intense time.” Since noon, and increasingly more since it was announced at 4:57 p.m. that Wednesday classes would be canceled, administration and faculty have been urging students, via email, to stay off campus and stay safe. I surmise that most of us don’t read far past the cancellation.

Typically on a Tuesday night, my building’s laundry room, tucked away beneath the main lobby, is as occupied as a saloon in a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western — barren, save for the few stragglers, the master procrastinators who are habitually horrible at completing tasks at a reasonable time. For analogous purposes, it is effectively a ghost town. Which is why those who would rather not have to chuck someone’s clothes out of the washer, such as myself, come strutting in on Tuesdays like clockwork.

Cradling my laundry basket in my left arm’s crook, I race in my slides down the chilly lower-level stairway before bursting past the hiss of the basement’s security door. But even before I enter the laundry room, I can sense that something is wrong: The rattling and humming of the machines is too loud, too raucous for a Tuesday night. Every nondefective washer and dryer is in use. Just like a supermarket empties its stock before a storm, fear of the impending power outage has pricked students into anticipatory action, into remembering to not accept an ordinary capability as untouchable. A mob fever acts quickly.

 An apocalyptic message has been touted well by administration, faculty, UC police and my ghost of a resident assistant.

Thursday, 12:35 a.m.

Tuesday’s celebratory atmosphere rolled over into a lethargic Wednesday. Fellow res hall boarders schemed (and some executed) plans to go to San Francisco. A group of girls picnicked on the courtyard’s grassy hill, an artificiality that simultaneously disorients and embellishes the complex of steel and concrete. I spent some hours in the study room with a floormate who complained about having to turn in an essay even though it’s past the deadline and he’d only receive half credit. People I had never seen before emerged from their rooms, loitered about, plotted plots to do nothing. Between us all, there seemed to be an unspoken dread of tomorrow and its unpleasantries and reckonings. We trudged toward the inevitable, without veils of grit to cover our exasperation. But all of this was expected, eventually. Tomorrow rests for only so long. Everything plays as it should.

In leisure and in blackout, sports are popular around these parts. People play frisbee in the courtyard, watch football in the lounge, while clad in good-luck jerseys, and group together around laptops streaming tennis, basketball or baseball. Regardless of whether or not there is a midterm to be studying for or a problem set to be finishing, people, including myself, can’t resist the allure of relaxing by tuning in to Neptunian athletic feats accomplished right before their eyes or going out and releasing pent up energy, be it on turf or hard court. Despite the prospect of school resuming tomorrow, people carry on with their sporting activities — which, at the dinner table for what defines American culture, sits a few seats down from equal economic opportunity and weekend barbecues. The blackout just gives us an excuse to indulge ourselves longer.

I am by no means innocent. When I should’ve been catching up on reading for my political science discussion, I instead watched baseball. In less than an hour, I watched the Dodgers’ — my hometown team —  season evaporate. Dave Roberts, the team’s skipper, had his plan to gallop pitchers Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw into the league championship series spectacularly blow up in his face. Roberts seemed to have bought into the underlying thesis of “Moneyball”: His planned narrative entailed glory for the young Buehler, who did not disappoint, and redemption for the veteran Kershaw, who was trying desperately to escape a reputation for less-than-standard performance in the playoffs. The would-be targets of the plan were the Washington Nationals, a team that in its recent incarnation, had never won a playoff series. But the potential collection of headlines running puns on Hollywood, fairy tales and scriptwriting disappeared after Kershaw, in relief of Buehler, surrendered the lead in three pitches. A grand slam later, the Nationals ran onto the field in ecstasy. From another point of view, it was a fairy tale. 

The loss was not crushing, it was stunning. Any feelings of anger and disappointment within me were cranked to the full 360 degrees on social media. The debacle generated less of a field day than an all-out, worm-riddled, tomato-pelting display at the expense of Roberts, who was criticized for mismanaging a playoff bullpen for the fourth year in a row, as well as Kershaw, who reaffirmed that the Dodgers were in the heartbreaking business.

In the days that followed, videos of a weeping little boy declaring his hatred for Roberts and Kershaw and throwing his pricey Kershaw jersey onto the field of Chavez Ravine, unstopped by security, gained traction on the internet. Even my mother texted me, letting me know how let down she felt. 

Rich Hill, the Dodgers’ 39-year-old southpaw, while standing by his locker and struggling to hold back tears, said, “People say it’s just a game, … it’s a lot more than that.” It is a game that moves people who have never played an inning of baseball in their lives to start using the first-person plural pronoun — “We just traded for X.” — and to buy jerseys, sweatshirts and hats that have “TEAM” ironed on them, for all to see; a Kershaw jersey hangs in my own closet, a Dodgers cap on a nearby hook. 

But then a finger is put to life’s lips, calming all back to its wonted quiet. And tomorrow is awake.

So it should be of no surprise that the joy and pain of their teams and heroes are multiplied by four, and people are either running in the street, trying to climb up Crisco-lathered light poles or sulking around for days, wielding the line “I don’t want to talk about it” like a pavis. We latch on to athletes and teams as extensions of our own cultural identities, obsessing ourselves and investing plenty of emotional capital when we’re trying to look away from the real, flashing-red priorities in life.

I’m upset at the Dodgers’ loss, and a city of 4 million people feels likewise. People will call into the radio stations in the following days, cursing out Roberts and Kershaw; they will cry in front of mirrors; they will prohibit any talk of baseball within a 50-foot radius. But then a finger is put to life’s lips, calming all back to its wonted quiet. And tomorrow is awake. Up close, we feel like we’ve been touched from afar. But we’re still sitting alone, the screen’s blue glow flickering in the emptiness. 

It’s half an hour past midnight. I am fixed to my seat once again, trudging through the required reading for my political science discussion, which is in less than eight hours. My roommate, who also has a class at 8 a.m. (he has five of them a week, an ungodly amount), has gone through his nighttime skin care routine and put in his AirPods before carefully applying his sleep mask over his eyes. 

But just as soon as he lies down in bed, a cry is released from across the courtyard. It’s a familiar, sometimes celebrated, other times hated and, oftentimes, ironically used phrase. 

“Go Bears!”

And one by one, students from around the unit, from their windows and in the courtyard, as well as behind thin walls, join in. Initially, it only strikes me as unremarkable. People shout and sing in the courtyard every night, and far later than half past midnight. My roommate, who has irritably woken up, checks his phone before collapsing back into bed, his arms splayed out. He groans. 

A cry is released from across the courtyard. It’s a familiar, sometimes celebrated, other times hated and, oftentimes, ironically used phrase: “Go Bears!”

“They’re canceling class tomorrow.”

Although my roommate and I are usually peeved by the courtyard screechers, tonight, we’re especially so. It feels as if we’re the proverbial fist-raising, false-teeth clenching senior citizens chasing kids off our lawns. It feels odd. 

“Get a life!” he shouts out the window.

“There goes our dead week,” I say quietly.

But most freshmen aren’t talking about days being shaved off of our dead week, even if the thought is perched at the back of our minds. Checking social media later, I would find that similar scenes of unbridled joy plus relief unfolded across the other residence halls. A surge of late-night hangouts and kickbacks, or the desire to go find something of that sort, occurred soon after. My roommate throws up his hands and says he’s not going to bed anymore.

I meet with a friend who’s on a midnight run from Foothill, which is supposed to be among the buildings affected by the power outage. He tells me differently — running on a backup generator, they’ve had power all day. So have we. No one blinks. Nothing changes. Something that has had its importance pressed upon us so diligently seems so far away. And even if we were affected, we wouldn’t know. Everything plays as it should. 

From some unknown window, a student shouts, “Fuck school!” It’s not like he’s alone. The student body exhales. Capital “D” Dread has been postponed another day. The drill will be repeated again the following night. We can forget about the growing task list in our planners. Forget about school, pressure or pressure from school. Forget about the nearly 2 million people who are in the dark. Forget about the 2018 Camp Fire, which came to California and took 86 lives, 14,000 American dreams and Paradise with it. We have power. We have light. Fiat lux.

Less than a mile away, the main campus is pitched in total darkness.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexdaaangi.