As the machines go silent, things get organic pretty quickly.
When our building’s myriad compressors stopped throbbing on Thursday, and the emergency lights went on with a single click, we were in the midst of things we typically do in the afternoons: preparing our back room for a rehearsal dinner, plating food for a local magazine photographer, sending pointed emails to a vendor whose accounting department operates in a fantasy world. Once we were in the blackout, email conversations would stop, and the photographer was forgotten about, but the rehearsal dinner would still go on, as would dinner service.
We were prepared…more or less. We’re aware of the reality of resource shortages, and we’ve noticed the declining reliability of the grid (except, perhaps, television, which it seems will continue broadcasting generations after the last human has gone extinct). We designed our restaurant to be able to operate indefinitely without electricity, gas or potable water: all we need is wood, food, and water to boil, and we’re ready to serve. It has long seemed apparent to me that, when the lights and fridges go off, us modern Americans — the least self-sufficient people in human history — would want to get together and talk about things, preferably over a meal and a beer.
In the event, our plan and execution were OK. We needed more lanterns and candles, we should have switched from table service to counter service, we shouldn’t have tried to make mixed cocktails, and we definitely should have closed El Take It Easy and brought that team over to help at the Linkery — without the machines, everything takes at least twice as much labor. And, with the power off but the gas still working, we would have been better off with a generator to power our exhaust fans so we could cook on our gas stoves like we always do. Using our wood-fired Santa Maria grills, which we did, was fun and delicious but that’s not required until the gas grid is as unreliable as the electrical one.
On the other hand, our team worked very hard under very challenging conditions, and to be a part of that was rewarding. And serving the community in that situation was marvelous, fascinating.
By about 7pm or so, we heard that our two restaurants were the only places in North Park cooking and serving meals.
From the little I saw and a lot of what I heard about later, the scene at the Linkery was magical — many of our longtime friends and neighbors, happy to be spending the evening with the ‘hood, eating and drinking. A chill, fun, loving crowd.
At El Take It Easy, where I was working with far too few colleagues, it was more of a mixed bag — many people who were grateful for a place to eat and socialize by candlelight, and also many people who were unhappy with the longer ticket times and slower service associated with analog service in the dark, or who were unprepared for the prices (though we discounted them for the nite) associated with honestly-raised food: more than they were used to paying at the taco shop or fast-food place they would likely have eaten at, had one been open.
For the people who know only consumerism and always consumerism, a breakdown of the grid that glues consumerist society together was not enough to relax their consumerist instincts. Power grid or no, zombies will always be the same. “That,” a friend says, “is what makes them zombies.”
As one party of zombies huffed off into the nite, I wondered what they would do when they got home and couldn’t Yelp. Maybe that’s what they use their generators for.
By 9pm, both restaurants were overflowing, and more and more people came in from ff the street. At the Linkery, Michael locked the door and people snuck in by climbing over the railings. Nobody was dangerous. Everybody just wanted somewhere to be, to be around people. We posted Katie at the door of El Take It Easy, turning back the tide, leaving person after person with nowhere to go.
A city without a Zocalo, without a town square, without a castle or plaza, does not function properly when its citizens need help, when they need each other. In the US, we’ve eliminated public spaces, instead substituting restaurants and shopping malls — just as Horton Plaza the mall replaced Horton Plaza the town square. In Thursday’s darkness the malls, of course, were closed; in the neighborhood, everyone went to the Linkery.
But the Linkery makes for a zocalo of very limited capability. By 10, we were overwhelmed and sent people on their way, clearing out by 11:30 or so. Had we been a simple plaza rather than a fairly complex cooking and service operation, we would have been chock full deep into the nite, or at least until the power came back.
Through the whole time, in the urban darkness, people were walking about, looking for friends, neighbors, company, a bite to eat, a place to drink. The only scary words I heard came from the cops, who told us gangs were on the loose, wilding — a warning which turned out to be false. It’s only natural that the authorities and elites, faced with the prospect of becoming irrelevant, will highlight every danger, will attempt to keep us apart from each other, keep us alone in our houses, through fear, when they can’t persuade us to stay there through entertainment on TV.
I didn’t try to find a working radio, I knew that most news being reported would be bullshit — utility executives pretending they understand how their system works; professional shut-ins, their minds seeded by crimes created for the evening news, initiating and enhancing rumors of social breakdown; radio hosts and experts assiduously avoiding the elephant in the room: that we no longer have enough cheap energy to sustain our population and infrastructure.
No matter how many Middle Eastern countries we subjugate, no matter how many deep-water wells and tar sands pipelines we build, we will inevitably, in the coming years and decades, learn to live like the “third world” citizens we deride, wall off., and invade. The rest of humanity has to live with the knowledge that America’s unmanned Valkyries fly above them, selecting who among them will die; but those same people — most of them, anyway — also retain the knowledge of how to live. They have public spaces, and legal street food, household gardens and neighborhood butchers. They know where to go when the lights go out.
We, on the other hand, are just learning what it is we need to learn. One dark Thursday was a good start.