Lightning is as whimsical as Fate, and can be as destructive as Congress. Last Wednesday eve, amidst the hurl of the storm, the wincing crack of thunder and explosive glare of lightning came simultaneously, targeting the transformer on the pole not too many feet from my front door. All those blinking reminders of electricity’s luxurious necessities fled into the night. And the landline phones with them.
Now, doubtless, somewhere down the block, clench fists shook and profane orisons of blame rose against utility owners, deities of choice, and the past or current President (depending on party affiliation.) But not from my bride. Lorraine simply looked at my dark form and announced, “Snow Day!” As closet Prometheans and veteran campers, we nixed the flashlights and opted for a candle light eve with Lorraine playing Scottish fiddle tunes alternated by my reading from a well-thumbed copy of Robert W. Service’s poetry.
Somewhere amidst “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” our next door neighbor Marianne came knocking. Marianne is Petty Road’s highly valued organizer. She reminds us of everything from parade times to brush-pile day, and we gratefully follow her lead. She had cell-phoned PSE&G and won through to an actual person. In essence, she reported, the next light we saw would be sunrise — expect at least a day-long outage. Marianne’s response was understandably less gleeful than ours since she and her family, having just returned from vacation, had that morning filled their refrigerator with $300 worth of thawing groceries. In fact, part of her mission was to search out any neighbors with electrical juice and freezer space to foster her foods until service returned. After a reminder to report our outage to PSE&G, and a brief update on her two daughters, Marianne left.
A little note of perspective here. You have to admire Marianne’s attitude. Her fridge shutting down was a pain, but it was not an emergency akin to the electric loss that halts the pumping of one’s iron lung. In the face of her annoyance, this lady chose not to wring her hands in angst, not to endure, but to innovate her way into a solution. (In the next day, when current returned to some neighbors, you could trace the several hundred feet of extension cord from a neighbor’s home threading its way into Marianne’s fridge.) A few years back, our own solution to a full-fridge thaw had been to light up the campfire, slice up all the freezer goodies and invite our neighbors for an impromptu feast. Neighbors help make lemonade.
As Lorraine’s and my candlelight ceilidh wound down, we began our own preparations. I hauled in a few buckets of water from the pool to handle toilets and dishes. Since no electricity means no water from our well, Lorraine brought up the jars of fresh water we’ve stored. We change these three gallons of water jars on the first day of each season. Remembering the sage warning of W.C. Fields, “Water? I never drink what fish make love in,” we took comfort in our ample stores of Scotch and wine, which only enhance with time. We also set hands to my sister’s Christmas gift: a hand-crank-powered radio with a slot to charge a cell phone. Cute tool.
The following evening, my wife called me at the library where I was lap-topping my work to announce that electricity had returned — sort of. Lights and TV yes. Water, air conditioning, landline phones, internet, email, the garage door, dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer (all the 220 volt items) — well, not quite yet. Obviously, power surges and general screwups needed addressing.
This is where the calls and diplomacy began. I pulled out the list. Let’s see, Ken for the electric and the well, Marty for the garage door, Nick for the AC, some nice folks in India or the Philippines for online services, and a bit of a wade through the recordings until I latched onto a PSE&G repairperson.
Telephoning Your Fellows. Whenever I am relying on the kindly support of strangers, I employ this little human-touch phone ritual, which has proven markedly successful. It begins with attitude. Whenever your phone connects you to some minimally waged worker in a cramped Philippines or Piscataway office, I beg you remember that you are sharing time with a fellow human being possessing dreams, frustrations, and emotions surprisingly similar to your own. So why not seize this Homo sapiens advantage?
Regardless of the first question they ask you, try this response:
Hello there, this is Bart Jackson here in Cranbury, New Jersey, and I’m afraid I didn’t get your name….
…And where are you located?
…Well here the temperature is climbing to 97 degrees. What’s the temperature outside at your place?” Then comment on it.
Sound corny? Perhaps. But it bursts the bonds of brusque brevity. You are no longer a call-unit to be routinely dispensed. You’ve upgraded from customer to person. And keep using that individual’s name every time you address her.
Phone tip number two is: Do Not Whine. Sharing your personal discomfort is a truly ineffective way to speed up the repair process. Rather, express your urgency with a bit of humor. “You know, Neema, the only water we have right now is flooding into our basement, so if you could get one of your expert repair folks out to fix our pumps and get us a little drinking water, we’d really appreciate it. Do you think you’d be able to do that soon?” People love to help the cheerful.
By Saturday afternoon, everyone had pitched in to get the Jackson household back on its electrified track. Neighbors contributed drinking water in exchange for our homemade wine. Eric, the utility repairman, came at 10 p.m. from his South Jersey home to rewire our utility connection. Marty, Nick, Ken, each set aside time to rush in with repair devices blazing. Philip from somewhere north of New Delhi and Mike in person from Comcast guided me back into the mightily misunderstood realms of cyberspace. Even my insurance claims seem promising.
The storm that struck our household halted the flow of electricity to 5,000 other New Jersey homes. The remainder of its 3,580,000 homes continued to flow along as continuously as ever. Our dependable flow of electric current is a human miracle of rare device, made more appreciable to us when we visit scores of other nations around the globe.
Amid all our brief electrus-interruptus, we received a cell phone call from our utility provider.
“Oh dear,” the customer service agent inquired, “are you still with out power?”
“No Ma’am,” I replied. “We are never without power. We just don’t have any electricity.”
Bart Jackson, a longtime U.S. 1 contributor, is CEO of Prometheus Publishing and BartsBooks Ultimate Business Guides, and hosts the Art of the CEO radio show.