Off the grid in Philly: A chronicle of 48 hours without electricity
Inspired by J.J. Abram's "Revolution," one writer sees what it's like to spend two days in the modern world without using electricity or batteries.
Producer J.J. Abrams said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly on Monday that "Revolution," his new television series imagining a future 15 years from now in which all batteries and electrical currents mysteriously go kaput, is not a vision of the apocalypse. Rather, Abrams said, in a frazzled society plagued by a reliance on all things digital, going off the grid is "a wish-fulfillment."
Clearly, Abrams has never lived without power.
I was on Sunday given the assignment to unplug completely for 48 hours – with the exception of phone and computer use for and at work only – starting at 5 a.m. Monday morning. Like any good urbanite with some vague sense of social consciousness, I try to buy local and eat whole foods, with "try" being the operative word. I never learned to drive and am lucky to live within walking distance of work. When I feel burnt out and need a break, I tend to avoid anything with a screen. I thought the assignment would pose no big problem, maybe even be like a mini-vacation. I was wrong.
This is pretty much your sole source of light, cooking fuel and heat.
The first thing I missed were the sounds of my daily routine, from the music in my earbuds to the chatty buzz of the morning news. Far from discovering the expected solace of tuning out, I found that once I took the headphones off, new, louder and more unpleasant noises filtered in. Honking horns, street shouting matches and the constant whine of buzz saws from several nearby construction sites – one that chugs along steadily overnight – drove me to near insanity.
And I did not enjoy the warm and fuzzy heart-to-hearts with family and friends that electronics supposedly impede. Both I and my boyfriend Zach, initially an enthusiastic participant in the experiment, quickly became terse and withdrawn from lack of food and sleep, plus the effort it took to procure said food – though the sleep, at least, came easy. I broke the no phone rule on two occasions: once to send a bitchy text to my editor informing him that my productivity would be next to nothing until I could turn my lights back on, and once to send a bitchy email to my mom about a pair of shoes I had ordered from Macy's.
Cooking in the parking lot. Totally normal, right?
Things really came to a boil on the second day, when Zach – he of corn-fed Jersey stock who, as a cook, can break down a whole pig in about the time it takes me to chop one onion – would not wake up and help me make breakfast on the propane stove I bought for use in our apartment building's parking lot. I went outside to fume and returned to find the camping stove assembled and Zach gone. A bag of English muffins sat empty on the kitchen counter and every light in the apartment was turned on. I felt betrayed. And I couldn't even call him to tell him.
Could the two of us together survive if Abram's fantasy came to pass? Once we adjusted to a wholly alien new routine, possibly. But would we kill each other first? That, I can't answer.
I didn't prepare, as I imagine those living in Abram's fictional world couldn't have possibly predicted a core law of physics would one day cease to exist. Also, I forgot. So I was pretty surprised when I awoke to the sounds of construction in the apartment next door – not to my cell phone's alarm clock – four hours later than usual. Zach didn't have the luxury of using the assignment as an excuse to be late for work. He called a cab.
Walking to work sans earbuds, I thought my senses would come to life. That I'd exchange pleasantries with a few neighbors, engage in random street banter or somehow capture something I've been missing as I make the daily trek, headphones buried firmly in ears. But I live across the street from a construction site. I work across the street from a construction site. I passed at least three more on my roughly one-mile walk. All I heard was jackhammers. And one man who stopped me to ask if I wanted free condoms, yelling after I had walked about half a block past him, "Don't worry – we have female condoms, too!"
Even with instructions, putting a propane lantern together is kind
I usually eat a breakfast of instant oatmeal and a banana – an easy 200 calories that takes about two minutes to prepare and another five minutes to eat. Given that no one in their right mind would trust me with a weapon and even if they did, hunting, foraging and any related activity that would allow me to capture my own food are so stratospherically outside my skill set as to pose a danger to myself and anyone within a five-mile radius, I decided to hit up the next best thing, the locavore's paradise that is the Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal.
One problem: it's closed on Mondays. I ended up at Iovine Brothers, where I limited myself to foods that could be eaten raw and were marked with a green "local" tag. Somehow rolling into work only about an hour later than usual, I got some strange looks from my fellow cubicle-dwellers while scrubbing radishes in the office sink. But I chopped them up with the handful of mushrooms and the tomato I bought, threw it all on a plate and felt pretty satisfied with my haul. Then I tallied it up: an hour and a half of work – for a whopping 42 calories.
And that's without the hunting and the foraging.
I decided to scrap the whole not planning thing and check out what I. Goldberg Army and Navy supply had to offer. After a half hour of cluelessly scanning the aisles, I picked up a propane lantern, and a package of emergency candles.
The emergency candles came in handy.
Returning to the office, the gravest error I'd made yet dawned on me: failing to plan for my daily caffeine fix. And so, less than eight hours into the experiment, I cheated. I bought a sugar free Monster energy drink from 7-Eleven and guiltily chugged it in the alley next to my work, feeling the whole time like a relapsed alcoholic swilling a forty in a brown paper bag. With no cell phone, I had nowhere to even pretend to avert my eyes when a man stumbled into said alley, pants already at his knees, and began to urinate on a pole directly next to me.
As I proudly showed off the propane lantern to my coworkers about an hour later, I came to the part on the back that read, "propane tank not included." Back to Goldberg's I went. I also picked up a propane camper stove for good measure. And a travel mug with a French press.
I left work in the middle of deadline to buy something to cook for dinner. Another trip to Iovine's, where I picked up potatoes, zucchini, onions and corn. At the one butcher that was still open, the woman manning the counter fielded my questions about whether the meat was local with a grasp of the English language that was about as advanced as my survival skills. By that point, I didn't care. I just pointed to something that appeared pink and edible and paid.
As I got up to leave, stories filed well past deadline, I realized that the sheer amount of crap I had accumulated over the course of the day was nearly impossible to carry home, especially given the rain-slicked pavement and the impracticality of my shoes. But I tried. As I crossed the street about a block into my walk, the bag with the camper stove broke and I took an epic spill, the kind of fall where everyone on the street rushes over to ask if you're okay. I was. Physically.
I got home and opened the propane lantern and stove. The directions for the former informed me that propane could not be safely used inside. The directions for the latter, I realized, were still sitting on my desk at work.
Showing off the extent of my culinary skills.
After prepping our meats and vegetables by candlelight and fumbling to assemble the stove, Zach and I took to the parking lot of our apartment building to cook a stew. It took 45 minutes to boil water. We sat on wet cinder blocks, watched low-flying planes and drank.
We then realized the only place we had stored the numerical code to get back inside was in my uncharged, useless cell phone. We walked, stove and soup in hand, around the corner to the building's other entrance, passing a line of patrons waiting to get into a nightclub.
The interior rooms of my apartment have no windows, so it's pretty hard to wake up naturally at anything resembling a reasonable hour. In fact, after the first day, we pretty much abandoned the other four rooms in our apartment completely – save the bathrooms. Because nothing beats a cold candlelit shower.
Having slept on the couch to be closer to the sunlight, I woke up with Zach's elbow on my face and a half-eaten bowl of stew, overlooked in the shadows during cleanup the night before, perched above my head. No sun, though – it was blotted out by the clouds that accompanied the rain pounding down outside. And again, it was late. Then there was the above-mentioned fight, followed by the incriminating English muffins bag.
Our classy setup.
Once Zach left, I used the propane stove inside against all warnings, convinced the entire time that I might be dying of toxic fumes. Half-awake and haplessly trying to boil water on the small, wobbly burner, I spilled a giant mug of just-brewed, hard-won coffee all over my pants – twice.
I pre-cooked lunch to bring into the office – boiled string beans, potatoes and yellow squash. For the first time in my life, I found myself washing a disposable plastic bag. I had to put the food in something, and I was at the mercy of the daylight, which doesn't care that I don't get home from work until long after it's gone. Point being, I had been thus far unable to motivate myself to do dishes in the dark.
Prepping like a pro which, in all fairness, he is.
This time, I was two hours late for work. I noticed that people were staring during my walk in. It was because my eyeliner, applied by candlelight, was about a half an inch below my actual eyes. And my teeth were coated with a thin slick of dark brown coffee grounds because apparently, I don't know how to use a French press, either.
The itch to use my cell phone became worse. I used to think the constant scrolling and typing served as a barrier between me and others, who I always imagined were willing, if not eager, to engage in small talk. Far from it.
I actually felt like I was making people uncomfortable when I stood in the elevator or took a break outside with my gaze leveled straight ahead instead of fixed on my Droid. There was no diversion that gave them an excuse to not acknowledge me. Or, at least, it made things super awkward. The looks I got ranged from befuddled to the suspicious, as if because I wasn't staring at a handheld device, I must have been staring at whoever was closest to me.
Luckily, it wasn't cold out.
Or maybe, the combination of fatigue, frustration and an enduring sense of just being uncomfortable all the time had rendered me utterly paranoid at that point.
Again, I left in the middle of deadline. This time, the Fair Food Farmstand was open. And to someone who had eaten virtually nothing but root vegetables in the past day, it was like a pornographic cornucopia of choice. Three different types of pears, plums, cranberries, goat cheese, bacon, even popcorn – all local. I may have been ecstatic, had I had the energy.
When I got back to the office, I immediately wolfed down a quarter pint of raspberries and a peach. I felt probably the best I had since the assignment began. That faded soon enough as I hoofed it home while the rain came down in sheets, soaking my bulky bag that, heady with the variety of the Farmstand's offerings, I had filled with more produce than any two people could possibly eat.
If you cut it smaller, can you fit more on the burner?
We decided to use a larger charcoal grill in addition to the camper stove to cook dinner – a whole chicken, plus more vegetables. We soon ran out of charcoal. Then propane. Dinner was left mostly uncooked and untouched.
I went to sleep happy though, because I knew that when I woke up, there was a cold can of Monster waiting for me in the fridge and I could go about my day, phone in hand and headphones happily plugged in.
Heating up the "oven."
Tips for surviving a total grid meltdown from someone totally unqualified to give them:
– Buddy up. Doing things in groups multiplies your efforts exponentially and helps ensure your safety – especially when you're half-awake or delirious with hunger. Plus, it's way easier to laugh at the absurdity of the situation if you're not alone.
– Plan ahead. Speaking from experience, you don't want to be stuck in a dark room without a light source, still searching for sticks to light your grill at midnight or, in my case, crashing in the middle of the day with no way to boil water for coffee because your office building for some reason won't let you light a fire on the property.
– Get the right tools. Fire needs to be harnessed for both light and cooking (luckily, heat wasn't something I had to worry about in the perfectly temperate fall weather). Candles and a charcoal grill are good. Propane-powered lanterns and camper stoves are probably better, but if you use them inside, there's apparently this whole risk of death due to explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning issue to worry about.
– Stock up on alcohol. There's not much else to do, and you're going to need it. Trust me on this one.