It was January 1998. I was 29 years old, had graduated from the University of Vermont in the spring prior and moved to Freeport, Maine. I had a fantastic rental situation: the entire top floor of what was once an office building. I had a large balcony, three bedrooms, huge living room with skylights, bathroom, heat and hot water included, all for $700 a month which cost less than the one bedrooms I had viewed in Portland. In contrast I only owned one brand new bed, a black and white Apple laptop and small wardrobe (that quickly grew thanks to the surrounding clothing outlets.) I was literally one block away from L.L.Bean where my home was tucked in between restaurants and businesses.
It was both an exciting and lonely time. My dream job as a Junior Management Consultant in Portland was to begin towards the end of January. I hadn’t yet made new friends but I wasn’t worried. I’ve always been an outgoing introvert (weird, right?) and knew once I started my new job in the Old Port things would take off. What I didn’t foresee was the power of the ice storm that toppled many tall structures.
AOL was a thing, in fact the only thing in 1998 as far as email and online access goes. Almost everyone had an account from using their AOL free trial CDs (which also came in handy as coasters). I still had my “car phone” aka “bag phone” which was a ridiculously large cell phone that needed luggage (the bag) to carry around.
Despite almost a full day of icy rain I still had power, so I assumed I was safe that evening and for the night. Yet, minutes later the power went out. Except for some distant street lamps and the glow from my laptop which had a battery, it was dark. I don’t recall how I found out that the Congregational Church on Main Street was open as an emergency shelter, but I knew that was my only option for that night.
Although the church was only a few blocks from my apartment, it felt like miles; every step was a near slip. The lights inside L.L.Bean were on but Main Street was silent and deserted. A lone street lamp created a dim glare on the dark ice. Then the church bell rang, at least it made the motions of ringing, but it sounded as if the waves slid down and off of the bell and then eerily vibrated along the sidewalk. I had to get down on my knees because I was unable to walk without sliding. I crawled the remaining block to the church and had to slide down the side staircase to get to the side entrance. In retrospect I know now that I was learning an important lesson about self-reliance and the fragile human condition. When life brings you to your knees you can plan and pray but you’d better accept help, too.
Inside the church basement the overhead fluorescent lights were bright. There were little kids, parents and other people. I felt alone and just wanted the power to hurry back on so *I* could feel powerful once again. Needing help and being dependent upon the kindness of strangers was not dignified in my mind. Underneath that more lofty and arrogant belief was the shame of feeling like a burden. However, avoiding conversation wasn’t going to happen because I was approached by a woman who was smiling and sweet. She seemed genuinely concerned about me, which seemed odd at the time. There was something about her that was very disarming. She offered me a bowl of hot chicken soup, and next thing I was chatting with others over a family-style dinner. I was fully present in that moment, enjoying myself and thinking that it was weird to experience so much unexpected warmth during an epic ice storm.
That smiling woman I learned was a nurse and she seemed to be administering aid I didn’t realize I needed. She brought me upstairs in a candle-lit room where there were brand new cots and “Warm Feelings” blankets donated by L.L.Bean. Next to the cot I chose was a stuffed bookshelf. Perfect!
Although still early in the era of checking out and disconnecting from ourselves by checking in online almost 24/7, I had permitted myself very little quiet time up until then. My grad school days began at 6:00 a.m. when I left my house and didn’t get home until 10:00 p.m. There were deeply troubling emotional wounds from my childhood that I still had not addressed or accepted. It’s for that reason I chose the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People which I read by candlelight before drifting off. It’s a wonderful book I suggest to everyone, and I still read it from time to time.
The next day I connected with some med students from UVM and crashed on their couch until the power came back on.
Back to the present moment, after record-breaking cold for over a week (it was -21 the other morning without a windchill factor) we are having a blizzard and our heating oil company is backlogged with deliveries. Every year I pre-pay for all of my oil from them in one lump sum at a fixed rate and call when my tank is half-empty; I never rely on auto-fill. However, when I called first thing January 2nd when they reopened, they were were unreachable by phone. I either got a busy signal, error message, once got connected to another customer on hold (??!!) and their voicemail was not accepting new messages. When I reached their answering service after-hours they said to call back during business hours and they aren’t taking messages. I asked if they were still providing emergency furnace repair, and they replied “no”! Wayne and I had paid for that service as well. Our furnace is OK now but you can’t live in Maine without an emergency repair service lined up.
People began posting complaints about them online stating that their tanks were empty even though they were on auto-fill!
I scrambled and called other companies to schedule an oil delivery to address our more immediate need for oil. A half tank doesn’t last that long when we have temps this low. Most other dealers answered their phones but said they weren’t accepting new customers because they, too, were backlogged. I got very anxious. Then I remembered I had an old account with an oil dealer in my town, drove over to them and was able to pay ($70 more for their fill-up) for a delivery scheduled to arrive tomorrow (Friday). With today’s blizzard pushing deliveries off by a day who knows when it will actually show up.*
In the meantime, Wayne took time off from work yesterday and we drove out of town to the dealer that has over $1,000 of ours to get some answers. We were both relieved to see that their office was open with people inside. While standing in line we heard calls and in-person conversations from people on auto-fill whose tanks had gone empty. Two people in front of us had empty tanks, and the man behind us did as well with burst water pipes. This is serious!
We were told that they are still providing emergency furnace repair if we need it, but they couldn’t explain why their after hours emergency answering service said otherwise. While we felt better seeing that they were open for business, the incoming calls and conversations we witnessed told another story. Since we had already paid for a Friday delivery with another business we scheduled the next one for three weeks out.
Space heaters were completely sold out everywhere locally that I called, but I was able to order some from Amazon that will be here next week. Our plan is to turn the thermostat down lower than is comfortable to conserve oil. We have one space heater I’m using in my home office during the day. When the other heaters arrive we’ll turn the thermostat down further unless we actually get an oil delivery before then!
Power outages are likely today. We have a generator and plenty of candles, real and flameless and a new comfy wool blanket.
To those affected by the record-breaking cold and blizzard, stay safe and warm
*Update: They delivered!