After Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the bottom half of my house and cost a bazillion dollars to recover from, I went on a small-scale preparation tear. You always prepare for the last war, or in this case the last natural disaster, so no doubt all my efforts are in vain, but I figured the only thing worse than not being prepared for an unknowable disaster was not being prepared for a disaster you knew full well was possible.
So, my disaster prep was more or less dictated by our experience during Sandy. We bought RTE food because the grocery stores and restaurants were closed for a week. We bought battery-operated water alarms in case the flood came while we were asleep. We bought flashlights that double as lanterns. We bought jugs of water. We bought a huge 7,000 RPM generator because the power was off for a week. I got a propane model with an electric starter because pulling that fucking ripcord is for people who have some level of physical fitness, and I don’t need to be out in the rain crying because I’ve been pulling that fucking cord for three hours and my hands are bleeding.
I realize that other folks suffered much worse—and other folks are suffering much worse right now in some areas. We were lucky, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Of course, I’m generally speaking an incompetent man. Despite being an Eagle Scout, I am not very good at the whole be prepared schtick. Or I should say I’m very good at being physically prepared in the sense of having the tools and materials you’re supposed to have, but not very good at making those things work in an emergency. It’s like when I was in the Boy Scouts: I technically knew how to build a shelter out of leaves and branches, how to make a fire. But any time I had to actually attempt those things under pressure, it was what scientists call a shitshow. Much like my entire Boy Scout career, ha ha! (bursts into PTSD tears).
And so when the power went out at the Somers Compound in Hoboken recently, I began to sweat. Because I was going to have to use the generator.
I live in an attached rowhouse with 0 ground-level outdoor space. That’s right, 0. No yard. We do have a second-floor deck that is quite nice, but the house is 100% lot coverage as a result of 1970s/1980s-era Hoboken wheeling and dealing; this town used to be the Wild Fucking West when it came to zoning and work permits. So when I ordered our generator I figured we’d put it on the deck, NBD. Except the generator weighed like 5,000 pounds and appeared to be made of solid pig iron, or possibly be merely a habitat for several dozen incredibly dense beings of pure energy. A friend of mine helped me carry it up to the deck, but I was already sweating the Judgment of The Duchess.
My wife, The Duchess, is a sweet and lovely woman who long ago accepted my incompetence as part of the Price of Loving Jeff. My cheerful inability to manage simple tasks just amuses her, these days (there was a brief period of trying to shame me into competence, but it was a long time ago and I emerged as cheerfully useless as ever). A side effect of this, of course, is that anything I claim will work she immediately assumes will not. It’s that simple. And so she took one look at the generator and assumed it would either a) never be needed, making it a waste of money or b) never actually work, making it a waste of money.
Years go by. The generator sits there. I fire it up every now and then and let it run a few minutes. But I’m haunted by all those fires I couldn’t start as History’s Worst Eagle Scout (aka the Eagle Scout who Smoked and Drank a Lot and Faked His Way Through at Least 50% of His Merit Badges), and I knew someday the lights would go out and The Duchess would suggest that it might be time to run the generator … and I worried I wouldn’t be able to get it going.
And then the lights went out when The Duchess had a huge project to finish that required the Internet.
The lights went out due to two adventurous but doomed squirrels who blew up two transformers on the block within a few days of each other. The poor things were splattered everywhere, and the lights went out for about four hours. The Duchess began to freak about her project, and so I went to fire up the generator just to get the Internet back up. Every step made me nervous, because this was the pattern of my life: A decently reasonable idea about how to stay alive during a non-emergency like a few inconvenient hours without Netflix magically transformed into humiliation. I opened up the gas line, adjusted the choke, and hit the starter button.
And nothing happened. I knew then I would have to simply climb down from the deck in my bare feet and start walking, starting a new life wherever I happened to find myself. My new name would be Derek, I thought, and I would live a simple life without any sort of electricity as a sort of penance for this. I would certainly never be able to face The Duchess again. She would force me to carry the generator down the stairs by myself while she taunted me with cruel insults.
I adjusted the connections to the battery and tried again, and the generator fired up. Five minutes later we were the only house on the block with electricity, and I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway when he makes fire for the first time.
What does this prove? Nothing. I didn’t engineer the generator, extract and process the propane, or do anything except press a button. But believe me, pressing a button is so often beyond my capabilities it was still a momentous occasion, and I wondered, briefly, if maybe I did, after all, deserve this Eagle badge.
Probably not, but a man can dream.