BLACKOUT

The noise was not coming from blaring speakers overhead, but from the voices of groups of friends and acquaintances engaged in lively conversation. Candles lit most high tables, and patrons shared the chips and salsa they brought in from home, while the tribal sound of Djembe drums floated in from outside. With one of the only open, cold-beer-serving spots in Pacific Beach, Cass Street Bar became packed with organic unity and a unique air of friendship the night the power went out in San Diego County.

As I rode my bike along the boardwalk from South Mission to PB in complete darkness, I thought of all the downsides. Traffic jams, accidents, running out of gas, people stuck in elevators and parking lots, perishable food going bad, cancelled planes and events, elderly people being cut off from life-sustaining machines or dying in the desert heat. The negative possibilities expanded exponentially and weighed on me until I heard one guy I passed by on the boardwalk say “Three Day Weekend!” Yes, there was a bright side, I thought. And for the rest of the night I focused on and resided in the natural beauty of those few hours of blackout.

The first and most obvious aspect was the unity of friends and family. Both on the sand and on patios, people gathered around fires, candles, and flashlights—bonded by this revealing and telling faux-apocalyptic evening. Runners and bikers carefully cruised down the boardwalk, politely addressing each other and slowing down in a collective concern for safety. This was novel: completely sober strangers greeting and talking to each other!? I must have exchanged words with a dozen kind people on a 1.5 mile boardwalk stretch.

And then there was light—one light. It was the only lamp on the boardwalk that was on, and as I neared it I could clearly see the solar panels that powered it. It was the best ad for solar energy I’d ever seen, bringing to mind the question: Why aren’t we all on solar power by now? At least half of the energy that homes and businesses need should already be on this accessible and affordable source of energy, I thought. Looking at the pitch-black skyline, it seemed as if the joke was one us human beings for being too stubborn and proud of our gas and electric, rather than using the daily power of the sun more effectively.

As I closed in on the main drag in PB—Garnet Ave—I imagined a not-so-far-fetched visual: handwritten signs saying “Free Beer!” I mean, maybe it was a pipe dream from the outset, but didn’t beer have to maintain a certain temperature to remain good? If the power was out and it was hot outside, wouldn’t owners of bars rather expand their popularity and clientele by giving away free beer rather than letting it all go to waste? I pedaled up Garnet, an unlit and eerie ghost town, waiting to see that “Free Beer” sign. But it didn’t happen. Everything was closed. It was a pipe dream, indeed.

Then I rounded the corner on Cass Street and spotted the congregation of shadows in front of Cass Street Bar and Grill. My hopes were renewed. I biked up to the crowd and asked an unsuspecting group of guys, without so much as a segue or introduction: “Free Beer?” They looked at me as if I was an idiot savant—or maybe just a plain old idiot. “Are you serious, dude?” Unfortunately, I was. He remained friendly though, and told me they were taking cash only and were probably the only bar open in PB. Though my free beer dreams were dashed, I was attracted to the festive atmosphere in the mostly candle lit, crowded bar.

I biked home and told my girlfriend that, though there was no free beer, Cass Street Bar was open for business and we should go while it was still open. She immediately noticed my abnormal enthusiasm for a bar that I didn’t usually frequent nor care about, so she jumped on the bandwagon. We counted our collective cash and walked to the bar (Was it wise to spend our last dollars on beer with the return of power uncertain?). We strolled down quiet streets where the only light source was from the occasional pair of car headlights rolling by. The moonlight was more appreciated—the stars shined brighter.

Cass Street reminded me of a European bar in the Summer time, with most people pouring out into the side walk and street, an amorphous group of friends with a common cause: drinking alcohol and socializing. But the alcohol part was secondary—that’s what was different! Patrons can’t drink outside of a bar in San Diego, yet over a hundred were gathered on the sidewalk, talking about the blackout and related events of the day. Inside the bar was packed too, and even louder. But, again, it wasn’t the booming sound system that normally reduces conversations to occasional shouts and crude comments that was producing the wall of sound. The noise was generated by everyone talking to and meeting each other, their laughter, and the beat of tribal drums—imagine that! My girlfriend and I sat down and had one of the best bar conversations I can remember. When I went for more beer, I passed by the chatter of friendly people expressing what they cared about most in that moment, and made it to a bartender that had something significant to say also—a personality; a sense of humor! Genuine human interaction!

And I wondered why we didn’t all just unplug more often, light some candles, barbeque and congregate—not necessarily for the conservation of energy (though that would be nice), but for the preservation of our humanity. Is that too dramatic? Too cheesy for you? At the very least, it seems that these kinds of events pull us out of the normal routine and serve as a reminder of our own humanity, and of the human bonds that should be the most highly valued things in our lives—with or without electric power.

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Comments

Gekko4321 Sept. 23, 2011 @ 9:54 a.m.

I was a former PB resident who got older and moved to North County. I experienced the exact same thing up in suburbia with my neighbors and had the same exact observations of humanity. I got to meet neighbors that in years I never have. People unplugged from TV and the internet and were forced (initially) to conversate with family, friends, and strangers. Most stumbled on this opportunity by just going outside to see what their neighborhood looked like pitch dark with just the almost full moon casting light down on it. It was a surreal night for sure and I was sad when the lights came back on. I joked with one neighbor that I wish they would schedule this once a month. It definitely made me aware of how too plugged in we all are. I hope to remind myself to detach more often.

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