Love in Times of Fire and Ice

The History Channel recently had a documentary about the Great San Francisco Earthquake. I said the Great earthquake, by the way; I'm not referring to that scary rhumba the planet tossed Frisco's way in the 80's. The one near the turn of the century was a major disaster and the subsequent fire completely gutted the heart of the city.

I'm not an expert on earthquakes, as I've only experienced two in my lifetime. The last one was so weak and distant I thought maybe I had an upset tummy. The time before that I recognized it for what it was, since I was on the phone to a friend 500 miles away and he was reporting similar gyrations of his building. However, it was nothing serious.

I do, however, have a small bit of experience with natural disasters. I survived the Great Ice Storm that hit MontrĂ©al a few years back, in which a city of several million people lost all electricity for a week or more – in the middle of winter.

I had told the owners of the apartment building that I'd "keep an eye on things" while they were in Florida. So while they sunned themselves in Fort Lauderdale and my fellow ice-rimed tenants skedaddled to emergency shelters, I had to scurry around the building thinking up various ways to keep the pipes from freezing.

Our area had no power for precisely seven days and one hour. I learned basic survival techniques such as piling up my water bed with every blanket I could find and inviting my cats to sleep with me. (Incidentally, when the temperature indoors was so cold that I could see my breath, I was intrigued to see how my tiny cat Lily doubled in size as her fur fluffed out.)

Anyway, this story isn't about my heroic efforts, how I had a strange craving for bananas, or how when I actually did get into a warm mall after six days I nearly passed out from what felt like heat prostration. I'll just make one more detour before getting to the point.

When I said that we had no power in our area, I left out one detail: the commercial office building across the street was, for some reason, all lit up. Nobody knew why; it was a beacon of light in a vast sea of darkness. It didn't have its own generator as far as anybody knew. Yet every night as I lay huddled under my sleeping bag (and cats), I was bathed in a ghastly green glow from the garish Toronto Dominion bank sign. I asked my brother-in-law about this mystery and also mentioned how it irked me. After all, nobody seemed to be working over there.

He said the solution was obvious. "They have light sockets, don't they?" I explained that it was on the other side of the street and I couldn't possibly run a long extension cord over the road.

"No, no, you don't understand me," he continued. "If it bothers you that much, unscrew one of their light bulbs and stick a penny in the socket. That could short out the whole building. If you don't get electrocuted, you'll be happy."

He was only kidding, though. Actually, this brings me (in a rather sideways fashion) to the point of this article. I think few people would have seriously considered doing anything like that because of "Earthquake Love".

That's a term I heard used during the documentary about the San Francisco earthquake. Apparently, during the height of the crisis, all class barriers broke down and people were decent to each other.

We experienced "Ice Storm Love" in Montreal. As I walked along the streets, everybody greeted me with a smile and a rueful (but stalwart) shake of the head.

I remember one moment in particular from Day Six that seems frozen in time (no pun intended). I was stumbling along the sidewalk, picking my way through the piles of broken branches and ice shards, when I spied a woman coming towards me. She too was having the same problems negotiating the walkway. Our eyes met for only a split second. There was no longer any need for the brave smile. She just cocked her head up slightly, as if to say, "Yup!" and walked right past me. Now even though that encounter was so brief, I felt as if in that instant I knew her and she knew me.

More accurately, I knew what she was and vice-versa: two civilized people in an uncivilized situation, but by golly we were Montrealers and this ice nonsense wasn't going to stop us from making our appointed rounds.

That long frosty week was full of lovely situations like that. I only had one complaint about, uh, cold-heartedness. A certain Bank which will remain nameless (but is named after a certain city that at that moment didn't have electricity) bounced a $6 cheque I'd written to get some food. Why? Apparently I was two days late paying off the $150 balance on my Line of Credit account. I've always paid my bills on time, but unlike that mysterious Toronto Dominion bank, their ATM machines didn't have any electricity. Also, I was a bit preoccupied with that whole not-dying-of-hypothermia thing.

Oh, I just figured out (finally!) why that building across the street had power. Our local provincial Minister had his office on the third floor. I'm not quite sure how that helped, but I'm going to assume that somehow it did, because otherwise I'm going to regret not having used that coin-in-the-socket trick.

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