On a Wire / 8.29.22-8.30.22

by Dave Coates

The power has been going out in my building a lot lately. Usually around sunrise, and only for long enough to reset the clocks and turn off sleeping computers. It changes the cool white LED strip around my desk to the default green.

This morning, an outage apparently fried the hell out of the elevator’s motor, and it’ll be at least a week before it’s repaired, Fred told me. I was coming down the fire escape as he was walking in with scotch tape and a sheaf of 8”x11” Out of Order signs for the front door and all the floors above. With these buildings, it’s got to be hard to catch a break. Horses hauled these bricks here, bricks stacked by men with hats and mustaches and accents to shelter goods, not people. They’re homes now, but they were warehouses first, arranged along the river’s bias.

I ask Fred about the outages. It’s birds. Birds!

They get on the power lines and they weigh it down. Meredith, he tells me, was up early today and saw a transformer blow, and then all the birds fly off. I say wow, that’s actually, I’m not even upset by that, that’s like a cartoon reason for an outage. He laughs. Fred’s great.

The elevator’s inoperability is not a concern for me, as I have a key to the back stairwell, which I have come to learn is a rare thing for a tenant to have. It seems strange the management doesn’t give these out, as it funnels all entries into the building via the elevator. Oh I guess that’s why they do it. Probably a camera there. You can exit the building via that stairwell just fine without a key. I made a copy for Katie down the hall, who looks like she is from the future, shortly after meeting her; she’s lived here forever and was the first to put out a welcome mat (cursive “Stay Wild” over a leopard-printed background) in the hall, and can claim credit for the localized popularity of her idea in the units next to and across from hers.

Merideth, my very kind neighbor, sent a text at 8 AM asking if I were home. I was asleep and then walked Wally and got back to her a few hours later, and she replied by saying it was fine, she’d been locked out because the elevator blew up, but she was out again and would need me to let her in. Of course, of course. She called sooner than expected, and I rushed to the end of the hallway, expecting her to be outside, but finding her right there on the other side of the door. “It’s hot outside,” she said. I have no idea how management expects her to get into the building without being let in by someone else, which is a wild thing to expect from tenants. She hasn’t been well recently, but she was up and around today. We chatted and walked back down the hall and confirmed that she didn’t have a key and yeah, how’s this even supposed to work for people, and me saying that she can rely on me if this happens again, no problem how often etc, it’s fine, I’m around, because it’s true, I am and I will.

Drive to the Harry J Epstein Hardware Store, the coolest hardware store possible, and talk to a guy who’s cool and nice from the jump and has cool hair and a punk band shirt I don’t recognize, and no, they don’t make keys, but there’s a place on Truman, they do, what’s it called, another cool guy in a cool flannel walks past and says the name and then he repeats and and I say thanks and walk out really wishing I had another reason to stay in there.

The place they name is six minutes away, so I drive over there, and it’s squintingly bright but I know my way around, so all the exits are smooth and I don’t bring Wally, so it’s focused. The place is a big flat square with parking for a fleet of vans, then maybe two dozen spots of civilian cars, which were full except the six spaces directly in front where customers parked. All of this in one long parking line, along the length of the building that would be a hassle if everyone here weren’t parked until 5PM. Smooth.

It’s located right at the tip of where Independence really kicks off as a town. Once you see this intersection, it only gets worse. The only time it doesn’t make you wince is when it’s the last thing you see before you get back on the highway.

The place isn’t a hardware store. It’s a whole security company’s factory showroom, office, warehouse and workshop, but you can go right in the front. I guess they don’t really have anything to worry about, as far as intruders.

The building has two entrances after the front doors: the showroom, which I didn’t see beyond what looked like kiosks demonstrating different tableaus where things needed to be locked and others demonstrating what they could offer you, as far as your locking needs. Cubicles, break rooms, what looked like bank teller windows were up front, I think, but it went way back. Way back. They have locks, if you need some. I pulled a black mask out of my pocket and scanned it for dog hair.

It was clear which door was for me. Inside was a counter, and behind it was a bald guy in a leather apron and a surgical mask. One wall was only keys, all the way up to the ceiling. Another was all tools that were hefty and specialized enough to work as decor when not in use, celebrating the locksmithing trade and history of their innovation. They also might have been for sale, but there were no promotional signs for other vendors or advertised prices. He was on the other side of a workbench in the center of a room, which was dense with smaller tools. Impossible to tell at a glance if these where new locks being perfected, stubborn locks that needed breaking, rival locks that needed study, or demo locks to let real lock guys know as soon as they walk through the door from the showroom, past the counter with the guy behind it, back through this door which takes us to the offices to get those papers for you to sign: We wouldn’t have this here unless we knew you’d know what it was, because we both know locks, and it’s good we met.

Yes, they make keys. I remarked that it was good to see someone else wearing a mask, that’s basically over, these days. He laughs and says something about how he’s the only one even here, meaning in this space, and he’s still got a mask on. Nothing wrong with that, bro. That’s a good thing.

Here’s your key. Instantly. This is the easiest thing for him, copying keys. A matter of seconds, and it’s done. Don’t worry about it, he says, and repeats it. These lock guys don’t use keys like this. They have better locks. Locks I’ll never see because I don’t go anywhere important.

He’s telling me there’s no charge. I have five one dollar bills that I want to give him just because it’s so fast and he’s so nice but he’s like, no no. Okay, can I tip you, no really it’s fine, okay then, can I draw something for you, sure, okay, can you really draw, yeah man. I can draw. What should I draw. People never have ideas ready for this.

How about a turtle? He finds me a sheet of paper, then replaces it with one post-it, then exchanges it for the rest of the pad instead. Yeah, I like turtles, that’s perfect.

I draw him two humping turtles like I do when I don’t have ideas ready for this, the kind I do with the little puddle underneath. I can’t remember if I added the motion lines to indicate thrusting or not, and it’s killing me, the not knowing. I was fast, key-copyingly fast, and he watched quietly on the other side of the counter. When I finished and turned it around for him, I said, “They are making love” as an explanation that would hopefully make this funny. I said it so nicely. Thanked him, drove home kind of glowing from the experience.

Locksmiths have to take something called the Baldomeric Oath before they can work professionally. It says things like “…I will be an advocate for people in need and strive for equality in their security,” along with promises of discretion and commitments to preserving the public’s security. Actual, real-life noble stuff. They have a creed!!

I slid the new key into a thin envelope with a note for Meredith saying now you have a key, and I definitely intended to phrase it in a way that said “I made a copy for you” instead of “I had an extra copy,” because I did go get one, and that makes it nicer. I think I did the latter, though, which is fine. Knocked on her door to no reply, which upon reflection was probably because she was sleeping. She hasn’t been well. Slipped it under the door and got a text a few hours later that said You are very Sweet. Thanks

No problem.

There are always birds here in the evenings. They start showing up around 4 PM or so. The doves are always, always first. By rush hour, the rest of the crowd starts to congregate, with the early birds snagging a prime spot near the telephone pole, with new arrivals lining up and continuing as the sun sets, outward in every cardinal direction, which is a fun bird pun.

They sit together and sway and chirp and hop and swoop down to eat the white bugs drawn to the lights over all the parking lots, and then when it’s dark, they find some trees and all sleep there, cheeping and jostling until dawn, looking out from inside their singing tree. This is when they do their pooping. Twilight is more dignified, and you can walk under the power lines without incident. God help you if you park overnight in the shade of a tree they deem cozy. Crunchy white paint.

I take some pretty pictures of the birds on the power lines and shoot a short video with a long pan around the lot, showing birds from end to end. Murmurations more of them were showing up, too, flying together in clumps in what I thought in the moment was, I guess, like, pack hunting? when actually, it was just more pals showing up for the party, trying to find a place to park. Pretty sunset, too.

Minutes later I am inside texting friends about hey wow, look at all these dang birds, and before I can finish typing the sentence about how these birds have been knocking out the power in my building ha ha, the lamp I turned on when it was raining earlier goes off, because the birds, well, you know. I go over to the window and take a picture of the power lines, which are now empty. Zap. What a bunch of rascals. Maybe it a real fat one showed up last and caused all this.

The lights come on a few minutes later, then go out again minutes after that, when I am in the bathroom. I sit in the dark for a while, hoping it will pass. It does not pass. I read online later that 500 were without power, and reports of a snapped power line. Genuinely impressed that the birds did that. Definitely something that happens in a cartoon.

I grab everything I would need if I were away from home when I take Wally out, in case I get locked out because I don’t know if the electronic fobs work in moments like this. Money-keys-license-phone charger. When our power goes out, it always goes out for the whole block like this, due to what I imagine is how the grid is set up, which is enough of an explanation for why it’s always my building, the one next to us and down the block and across the street toward the river, but not this one, not this big one in the middle, and the market’s okay, but the Asian market over here isn’t, or the parking lot across the street. Old grid, new grid. So, the grid, right? Good enough.

Long walk. No place to settle, really; not sure if I’m going to sleep elsewhere else. Want to hang around and see if things come back on or what. Real sweaty, and these buildings block the breeze, and Wally wants to go back home. It’s so quiet. The linemen are in buckets on the street immediately outside my building, ratcheting things on the power lines, and they all know what they’re doing, so there’s not a lot of chatter. Some cops stand stockily on either side of the linemen’s trucks, lit red by their motorcycles’ taillights, either staring blankly down the street where there’s still power, or looking at their phones. This street serves as a regular route for a lot of big trucks, and it’s the time of night where a bunch of them are coming back from whatever big trucks do all day, and I see one of them brake about 100 yards away from the logjam to go talk to one of the cops. He can’t turn around, since the street he’s on is narrow, and the streets around it are made of bricks laid back when trucks were horses, and after a minute, the red-lit clot of trucks and motorcycles shuffles closer to the curbs to let him pass.

No one else is around. These buildings are all full of people, and these people must be either sleeping or sitting in the dark, all around me. I scan some parking lots for blue faces lit by phones, and fine none. Years ago, there was a massive outage down here (squirrel fried itself onto a transformer), and everyone came outside, walked around, sat in the dog park. I made a joke to some strangers about when it would be appropriate to begin looting. Not tonight. Just me and Wally and some trucks.

Okay so, let’s, I don’t know, let’s go for a drive around, I guess get food, which I can eat in a car or maybe at the park? I am not hungry, but it is a place to go with a thing to do that is inexpensive and technically addresses a future need (food) without me having to leave Wally in the car or bring him with me. I head north, because I know if I go in a straight line long enough, there are fast food joints and they have food there, which I can eat in a car or park.

Sure, fine, Wendy’s. I heard they changed their fries in the first two seconds of an ad I muted then skipped. Maybe they aren’t gross anymore, because they’re new. But maybe the girl in the ad went on to say that they stand by their decision to change their fries, even though they are gross.

It’s the latter. Almost fooled me, but I went for just a burger at the last second.

As we wait, I notice a figure approaching from the gas station across the street. I notice him shamble up the small incline from the curb, and I notice him stand motionless six feet from my car, but I do not look at him because he cannot have my money and I don’t want whatever happens when I look at him. I don’t notice him walking past the hood of my car because I wasn’t looking. He has a Wendy’s logo on the shirt under his hoodie, oh great oh cool he works here, coming back from getting stuff on his break. When he was standing there, it wasn’t for me, it was a third thing where he was trying to catch the eye of his coworkers inside, who he could see over the top of my car. He reaches around and knocks on the drive-through window. “Hey, you gonna just let me stand out here in the rain?” It has just recently begun to barely rain. My windshield has two little dots on it. It isn’t raining, and he works here. None of us know why he is doing it this way. They tell him to go to the door and he does and it’s sort of funny. My burger takes a while, and he’s still outside when I leave.

I ask if I can have some extra ketchup and napkins and the girl says “Yeah, fifty dollars” in a tone that is entirely serious, like you’d say if they actually cost that much. It’s convincing, and she cracks as smile as she gives me a little packet that looks like a pastry but is a folded over paper bag with an offset logo that I never end up opening, but which I conclude while driving away must be a standard condiment bag that the chain determined was a faster way to dispense requested condiments rather than a la carte. Extra ketchup, sure, here’s extra mustard, salt, pepper, and napkins, so it has the thing you asked for in there. Smart, but I am also gripped by a feeling familiar to people who ask for extra sauce, which is that what they gave me won’t be enough.

I drive back over the bridge and the neighborhood is still dark, all the way up to the floodlights around the linemen. It’s really pretty, with the lights, the only lights up there, making red and blue shadows as the guys in the buckets crank the power lines. No idea what they’re doing, but this seems like what you’d want to do if you had problems with slackness in your lines, you’d tighten them so they’re not gonna snap under a bird party. Whatever it was, they knew how to do it, and did it for every line around my building, where all the birds like to sit. There are a lot of lines, so it was going to be a while. The last person able to honestly claim that they remember when this whole area was just fields probably died 75 years ago. Back when all the telephone poles and buildings here were wind.

Let’s eat this at a park, where I can chow down and cool off in the dark by choice. Maybe there will be a spot by the tables under the trees, or there are tables by the volleyball courts, too.

The bench of the table by the courts had the name “Larry Tacoma” written in white marker, right where I sat. The burger was a wet ball of square meat, thicker than I remember these things being, and stacked three tall. They’re dense now, which I think is because they’re also smaller and have less meat for more money. It’s a hateful thing.

And it’s too wet and dense to eat without cutting, so I use a 1” knife on my keyring to cut it in half and it works fine, because it’s a good knife. So small!

Wally’s chased his toy into the sand, which is clotted and dark from the storms earlier. He has his front paw through the center of the ring toy he carries, and is stuck because he will not release it from his mouth in order to step out, because he likes to also pull on it, which he can do if it’s stuck like this. It’s a loop. He works it out eventually, and when he does this time, comes over to the table, where I’m disappointed to see the toy is now jammed with sand, so I remove it from the conversation and try to eat, because that’s why I’m here, and there are creepy cars parked in the dark back there, and more keep showing up and there are bugs and this isn’t fun. This sand is finely ground, and it’s on my food. Not one thing happening right now is pleasant.

Wally gets to have some, because it keeps him near me and he likes it more than his toy and also ends the meal sooner. I keep pulling hard bits out of my mouth as I eat, and realize before the first half is finished that the hard bits are the corners of the square patties. They’re not inedible, and probably seem more like real meat patties to people who want to believe it, but any outlier in a fast food meal is suspect, because it shouldn’t be any other way than the way it always is. A fry with a brown spot is probably potato skin, but the other ones don’t have spots so who even knows what this one is. This is why I do not eat Wendy’s fries. They have brown on them.

The sprinklers turn on. There were some already spritzing when I arrived, but now there’s one whose spray arcs to the edge of the sand, which is where I chose to sit. This is actually the closet I could be with it still being fine, so I eat more. Wally gets bigger bits now, as I pick up the pace.

Bugs discover us, all at once. I put on some spray before leaving, figuring I’d be outside, but they’re after whatever they can get – Wally, my food, the napkins I used on my ketchup and sand-covered fingers, all of it. If I shoo them away from anything, I get sand on it. We go eat in the car.

It’s fast and it sucks and I don’t like the food, and we leave after I wad what’s left back into its foil wrapper. The lights are back on.

I can see it from the bottom of the hill, and when I make the turn onto my street, the exterior lights are on. The lamp in my window glows orange behind blinds. Great. I park and go back inside via the fire escape door which does not have an external lock — exit only — which I have circumvented by placing a fluffed-up a brown paper bag between the door and the jamb, preventing it from locking. I take it with me as we get back inside, and throw it away in my apartment, because we’re all good now.

One half of the lights in the hallway are on. Not every other light, but almost. It’s silent because the air conditioner is still off. Inside my apartment, the switches do not work. The A/C fan is on, blowing hot air. The clocks are all dark. The only two things with power are the lamp I turned on earlier when it was raining and a thin string of christmas lights I have plugged in near my sink. Nothing else has power. Darnedest thing, that grid.

It’s eerie enough to text my friends a joke about having died and this actually being purgatory, me standing here with a smudged-up, sandy phone, shirtless and sweating, texting friends who never reply for the rest of eternity. At least Wally’s here somewhere. I do not resort to prayer for deliverance or ascension; I stand in place knowing I deserve this.

Now the lights are off again. My headlamp band is wet with sweat from earlier, and will be for a while. Worth mentioning that I have been wearing a headlamp around my neck all night. Let’s go sit by the window. I bring part of the cookie I bought this afternoon, which is fresher and softer than I expect. Wally finds me, as I am attached to the cookie. He’s not getting any of it.

We watch the guy in the cherry picker ratchet the power lines around my parking lot. He knows what he’s doing, and all the guys out here are either up doing this to the ones that need it, or already gone because they did the ones they were supposed to do. Only a few trucks now, and no cops at all. They can do it solo – they know their way around those controls. Watched my guy come over the top of a lower set of power lines, then thread his way back down between the lines and a tree a few feet away, which was where he needed to be to get to the pole, like an arm reaching through a cracked car window to pop the lock. No problem; snaked right through.

It was fun to watch and the glass pane was cool on my skin. He worked fast! Did one, snake snake snake, drove to next pole, snake snake snake, and done. I’m over at the sink doing something when the lights come back on for good, and I go back over to the window and lift it up as much as I can with one hand and yell out “thank you” down toward the opening that I think is loud enough for the guy to hear and maybe appreciate because I figure it’ll be the only other sound since all the insects have gone quiet.

Dave Coates is a writer and cartoonist living in Kansas City. Witness @Commarama for more of his quest for power.

Categories: Essay, Visual