Everybody’s blackout has a soundtrack, and this is mine
Ruby had gotten a song stuck in my head that morning, and I was singing it over and over when my computer screen zapped to black and all the lights went out.
Being a Moderately Decent Employee, I stepped from the enclave of my little building and went next door to see if it had also lost power. Having confirmed the outage was bigger than me accidentally downloading a virus (whew!), I did what a Moderately Decent Employee does: I left. I did not call operations or wait for instructions or finish some filing by the light of the window like an Invested and Dedicated Employee would. I simply gathered my water bottle, lunch bag, purse, phone and keys, and I locked up, hoping my computer would eventually work as normally as a 6-year-old computer can.
I pretty much hop-skipped my way to the parking lot, where I tossed all my stuff on the passenger seat, wriggled out of my jacket and plugged in my iPhone, ready to be-bop home to the Hot Chip channel. But when Pandora failed to play, and when I couldn’t call my husband to find out if I should stop at the store, and when every radio station on my car stereo—even reliable NPR—offered nothing but white noise, I experienced an internal mini-freak-out. Alien invasion? Terrorists? This was way bigger than a local computer virus.
I should say here that I’d spent the first part of the month specifically avoiding all 9/11 coverage, politicized and manipulative as I expected it to be. And yet, there it was in my not-very-deep subconscious. If it hadn’t been for the upcoming 10th anniversary of the attacks, I doubt I’d have thought of any sinister possibilities. But alone in my car with silence and zero contact with the outside world? Well. That was positively 1908. It. Was. Scary.
I wanted to be with my family; this was a visceral feeling, fight-or-flight kind of stuff. So, I let the white noise of NPR play at a too-loud level while trying to text my husband—mostly while stopped in traffic but, yes, I did break the law and texted while creeping along, because if you think you might be in grave danger, then law-schmaw (as if anyone really puts their phone in airplane mode when flying. Please).
The text messages were taking forever to send, so I tried calling a seventh time and got through in one frustrating call that kept cutting out. “I’ll m—t y— at h—me,” he said. And then “I re—ly l—ve—ou.” The end.
While driving south on Interstate 5, I scanned the face of every driver I passed, or who passed me, for any indication that they, too, thought Something Really Bad was happening. I wondered if Harold Camping was smacking his forehead about having gotten the date of Judgment Day so wrong.
But there wasn’t a single revelatory look, not a bit of shock or awe, no seeming awareness that anything in the universe was out of alignment. My fellow humans looked the same as they do every day: Pasty-faced and droopy-eyed, hunched and defeated, de-valued and beat down from their shitty jobs where they’re over-worked and underpaid and probably—regularly—told by people who still get raises and bonuses that they should be grateful to have a job in this economy. Yup, same ol’, same ol’.
And I really knew all was still in order when an oafish, goateed white dude with Oakley sunglasses driving a black Dodge Ram Hemi V8 cut me off and slammed on his brakes so I could enjoy the cartoon elephant decal pissing on the word “Liberal.” Nope, I wasn’t lucky enough for the world to be ending. This gentleman and I would continue to share airspace, albeit in the dark for now, a cave-like place he’s obviously more comfortable in than I am.
I sighed and took a step away from Paranoia Ledge just then and set myself to the constructive task of scanning my car for a CD leftover from my pre-iPhone days. The only thing I found was a burned Neko Case album lying on the floor behind the passenger seat beneath some magic markers, Goldfish crumbs and the half-empty wrapper of an Organic Clif Kid Zbar. I stretched to reach the disc, figuring it was better than nothing, popped it in the CD player and turned up the volume.
It turns out, Neko Case is not better than nothing. I suppose she has her place, being beautiful and haunting and echo-y. But hers is not happy music or hot-September-day music or don’t-worry-about-the-myriad-possibilities-as-to-why-none-of-your-technology-is-working music. It’s slit-your-wrists-and-bleed-out-in-the-grungy-bathtub-at-a-cheap-roadside-motel music.
I realized—as I hit forward on song after song— that if I was going to die, it wasn’t going to be to a soundtrack that included “Star Witness” and “Maybe Sparrow.” (As an aside, my bestie had the same experience while driving home that day, only she was going to be escorted out of this life by Adele, which was very much not OK with her.)
I ejected the CD after 15 minutes, made a mental note to add some Bob Marley, LCD Soundsystem and Architecture in Helsinki to my emergency car kit. Maybe some Grateful Dead, too, but only recordings that don’t include that disaster they called “Space,” which was always where they lost me.
I drove toward home in silence.
But it wasn’t silence, really. I was waved through, stoplight after stoplight, by police and parking-enforcement officers to that song stuck in my head by my kid: “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes / sayin’ hey-oh / gonna let go / I wanna celebrate and live my life / sayin’ hey ho / gotta let go!”
I could probably die to that if I had to.
(Originally published in San Diego CityBeat.)