Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Enduring the power outage: What would Thomas Edison think?

Day Four feels like Day Fourteen when the power is out and there's nothing to do but endure. All that's left in the pantry is a can of whole tomatoes, a half-sack of black-eyed peas and a box of Turkish Delights the neighbors brought back from Istanbul in 2013.

The pack of Oreos was the first victim of Hurricane Irma.

Survival sounded fun on the front end, exotic even. We dragged the Coleman stove in from the garage and remembered that camping trip to High Springs a few years ago when we brought the propane stove but forgot the pots or pans, so we ordered burgers from the Great Outdoors Restaurant, which at least felt rustic.

Living old fashioned — and that's what we call it, as in, "It might be fun to live old fashioned for a while" — is harder than Pintrest makes it seem. Butter churns are obsolete. The backyard chickens, the ones that didn't get disappeared by the neighbor's cat, quit laying during the storm out of fear or some biological necessity. It turns out that vegetables, while delicious, take a long time to grow.

HURRICANE ESSAY: Stay or go? The question on all our minds.

Our sister's friend knows a guy who used to work for the power company and he says it should be any day now. So we bide our time. We sweat. We catch ourselves habitually flipping impotent light switches when we walk into dark rooms. We stress-eat the rest of the mixed nuts, which are now just peanuts.

We commiserate, which comes from the Latin: com, meaning "with," and miserari, meaning "to lament." To have pity together, a communal lending of empathy, and doesn't that describe where we are right about now?

PREVIOUS HURRICANE COVERAGE: We can't help being looky loos

We take each other in. We mourn together when an elementary school burns down, even if our kids didn't attend. We offer a phone number for Metropolitan Ministries to the pregnant 17 year old at the end of the counter at La Teresita, just before midnight, picking at her pollo a la plancha.

Commiserate used to show up far more often in English literature, hitting peak usage in 1817, when Henry David Thoreau was born and when we started building the Eerie Canal. And while that very year marked the start of the First Seminole War, it was also the launch of the Era of Good Feelings, a period after the War of 1812 defined by national unity and the downplaying of partisan politics.

It lasted less than a decade.

Usage of commiserate fell sharply through the Victoria Era and the age of rugged American individualism, when nobody complained about anything, and it bottomed out in the early-1940s, during World War II. It has been on the rise ever since.

We know these things because the power came back on Wednesday for some of us, the lucky ones. More than 3.7 million customers remained in the dark. That's more than a third of the electric accounts in the state, powerless.

We wonder what Thomas Edison would think of all of us sitting around in the dark, 86 years after his death, his fruits hanging worthlessly over our heads. Edison didn't invent the lightbulb, by the way, he just made it affordable and long-lasting. Like many of his inventions, he made something smarter, better, more practical. What we did not know, though, was that Edison was as concerned with moving electricity around as he was with light, and he designed a prototype grid to supply Manhattan's Lower East Side with power.

He convinced the City Council to let him dig up streets to lay cable by inviting the members to Menlo Park at dusk, where he directed them up a narrow staircase in the dark. As they fumbled their way up, he clapped his hands and on came a flood of lights, illuminating the steps and a dining hall and a lavish feast catered by Delmonico's in New York.

By 1882, his electrical grid supplied direct current to a chunk of the city from a power station on Pearl Street, and the modern electric "utility" was born.

Edison bought a winter home in Fort Myers a few years later, and his home there is now a museum, displaying a vast array of his inventions, including quite a few that give us pause and eerily represent our own hurricane supply chests: electric lamps, storage batteries, generators.

Could he have been preparing for a hurricane?

Edison's long-time assistant, Dad Thomas, told a then-St. Petersburg Times reporter in the '50s that Edison was scared of water — "just as 'feered of water as a goat," he said. And Edison considered the threat of storm surge when he selected his property down south; it's elevated and features a small cove and well-placed gardens. And we know that Edison shot one of the oldest motion pictures in the world, in September 1900, a slow-moving "paper prints" panorama of Galveston, Texas, after a hurricane killed more than 6,000 people and decimated the city.

Is it possible that Thomas Edison gave us power and the tools to get by without it, because he was afraid of being stuck in a post-storm glut like us?

"During that time" — 1886 and 1931 — "there were lots of hurricanes that hit Florida," said Michele Wehrwein Albion, author of The Florida Life of Thomas Edison.

But he wasn't there for any of them.

"He was snowbird," she said. "He was gone by the early Spring."

Smart man. Genius.

Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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