The blackout

On the third anniversary of the date, I want to come clean on my responsibility in the Great Blackout of 2003, when 30 million people in Ontario and eastern US went without power for a few days. Oh, it wasn’t completely my fault, I still blame it on the Radio Shack sales guy, but I suppose that I provoked him.

It all started that morning…actually, it started a few weeks before that, when my clock radio alarm went off one morning, I hit the snooze button for another precious nine minutes of sleep, and didn’t wake up for an hour when the alarm failed to go off again. That morning, Thursday, August 14th, 2003, the same thing happened, and I decided that I had to get a new clock radio. First, though, I felt like lunch with my friend Pat and a bit of sushi.

After exchanging a few emails on the subject (we communicate almost completely by email when we are not in the same room), we decided to meet at a favourite sushi restaurant close to her office, far enough away from my place for a decent walk there and back since I wasn’t really working that day. Unusually, I was early, so I went into the used goods store across the road in order to make myself late — otherwise, she couldn’t rib me about being late. For a measly $1, I picked up a used paperback copy of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and some other sci-fi writer since I had been on a Gibson kick lately, then dashed back across the road to meet Pat, who was sweltering on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. The heat was oppressive, even in shorts and a tank top, and I was a bit hot after my walk over. Over lunch, we chatted about the usual stuff, about the book that I just bought, and about my stupid clock radio with the intermittent snooze alarm problem. She said “You can stop at Radio Shack on the way home and buy another”, which started a conversation about Radio Shacks in the downtown core. She only knew of the one in the Eaton Centre, but I knew that there was at least one in the financial district, which was more directly on my way. We finished lunch and went our separate ways: she back to work, me back through downtown for a bit of retail therapy.

Along the way, I decided to look up the address of the Radio Shacks downtown through the web access on my Blackberry, but by then (2 minutes after leaving the restaurant), I had forgotten completely what I had to go to Radio Shack to buy. I walked along a bit, feeling stupid, but found a list of them and decided that I would just go in and my memory would come back to me by then. A longish detour to Business Depot for a new file case and some pens, then a quick stop at a fruit market for some mangos and bananas, and I stumbled across the Radio Shack in the Metro Centre. I was still having my “senior’s moment” so fired off to Pat via Blackberry email:

“Ok, you’re going to laugh, but I found a Radio Shack down here and can’t remember what I needed!!!”

I decided to walk around the store and see what came into my mind. Hmmmm, all these nice toys…oh, I need a memory card for my digital camera! That wasn’t the main target, but at least gave me something to buy. I snagged the sales guy from behind the counter and asked him for the memory card, then continued to wander around the store while he located the key to the display case holding the memory cards. Now this is a little store, so it didn’t take long. As he brought my memory card back to the counter, the memory in my head was jogged by a sign on the wall: “Clock Radios”. Eureka! That’s it! I headed for the sign, only to find the area stocked with power bars and other uninteresting electrical paraphernalia. Okay, but at least I remembered what I was there for. Back to the sales guy to ask about clock radios, and he pointed me to where they are actually displayed, as opposed to where the “Clock Radios” sign is. I find, miracle of miracles, the exact same clock radio that I already owned, just five years newer and in a lovely electric blue colour instead of a drab green. Bonus, I didn’t have to learn a new set of controls that I usually operate either in the dark or in a mental fog. I grabbed one of those and headed for the checkout.

While I was at the checkout, Pat replied to my email:

“clock radio 😀
yup, i’m laughing.”

I sent back:

“So I went in and walked around until I remembered that I needed a clock radio… d’oh! I’m checking out now…”

That message was time stamped 2:19pm, less than 2 hours before the blackout. I looked up from my thumb-typing to the sales guy’s “would you like fries with that?” questions that were probably indoctrinated in during Radio Shack boot camp. First, he asked if I would like an extended warranty for only $10. On a $25 clock radio? I think not. Next, he asked if I want to buy a 9-volt battery for the battery backup feature of the clock. Fatefully, I replied “No, we never have power failures in the city”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Next time, when the sales guy asks if I want to buy the battery backup, I’m not going to turn him down — these guys are powerful!

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