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The Nightmare Before Christmas

A Retrospective


Sunday: 3am. It was the middle of the storm and the sky was shedding again. Icy raindrops hit the ground, bathed the trees, soaked the roof-tops, washed the cars, and swung upon the power lines. They clung to what they fell on, freezing on contact. Usually, I love night driving. The roads are vacant; the night is serene and enveloping. This particular evening, something peculiar was happening. In all of five years on the night shift, I had never seen the likes of it. The roads were iced-over and deceptive. Hydro poles and power lines slunk down with the arctic fluid, trickling first, then freezing, like liquid wax that rolls and gels along the sides of great big prayer candles. The trees, bared of leaves, but glazed in crystals glistened like diamonds and onyx.


I took a right onto Eglinton at Birchmont and veered the gliding wheels of my rickety car toward Kennedy Station. Right there, there is a bridge. It approximates the YRT lines and takes the traveler toward Markham Road, to the 401, and onto the city’s outskirts. As I approached it, a peculiar thing occurred. The lights on the power poles, each in turn, went out: an entire block of it. Where before was light, darkness descended. Not only the bridge, but also the nearby buildings melded into nothingness. It was the sort of thing featured in horror films. Pity, I thought, at the sight of it, those poor people; they’re going to have a pretty wretched holidays. But then I quickly forgot them. Once I ascended the bridge, passed the sight of them, and made it to the other end, all the streets and intersections glowed with good cheer. No loss of power there, no problem. In many places, the merry colours of the season blinked on and off, proclaiming peace on earth.


I got home in a few more minutes, brushed my teeth, washed up, and went to bed. Just like every mundane morning. But then, a thought occurred to me. Because of it, I rolled backed the sheets, climbed out of bed, and closed the air vents. The oncoming fever did not surprise me. Two days in a row, at 3am, I had spent the better part of forty minutes—in the middle of the storm—chiselling my car from the icy armour that had clutched it. This particular morning, I had even multi-tasked it: one hand manning an umbrella, the other, wielding the ice pick. Meanwhile, as I hacked and jabbed and scraped and scratched at my car’s frozen surface, winter blew its frosty breath, cut deep into my coat, lapped me down, and laughingly, hurled my umbrella away. I was drenched, and numb, and shivering by the time I managed to break the car free. And so, I caught the chills.


To tranquilize the thing, I tried to cool my room and myself, closing the vents, dressing down to my underwear. I went to bed in the most minimal habits. Two hours later? Imagine my confusion. An unusual draught awoke me. A darkness to which I was unaccustomed. Sometimes, the unfamiliar can be so strange. It can grip you. I climbed out of bed, felt along the walls, fumbled to the bathroom. I threw the light switch. Nothing. No lights. No power. No power? I have no power? Was this really happening? I doubled back from the bathroom, groping along the halls. In the living room, I peered out the great, big windows.


Darkness, starker still than yet I’d seen, glowered back at me.


Deep into the distance, the neighbourhood was bleak, black, iced over, still: like in the wake of some grim reaper. Trees along the curbs, so lush and verdant during warm weather, bent to breaking beneath the weight of ice that clutched them. The birch on my front lawn—decapitated. The old deciduous that had faithfully watched at the entrance—completely mangled. Many of its larger branches, as with the trees nearby, hacked off by the weight of so much fluid frozen around it. The fractured canopy of a maple slunk across the entrance, blocking the driveway. So many beautiful trees, mercilessly assaulted. And that was only the beginning.


The extent of the storm revealed itself in the hours and days ensuing.


Imagine the people affected. In the malls, moms and dads and children, infants included, huddled together on mats, seeking refuge. Once, a sight so surprised me, I had to look twice: a baby, so swaddled to keep it warm, I took it for a toy. People are thankful for community centres, if only for the warmth. I checked into one today and was grateful it existed. If only someone told them that sugary biscuits and bite-sized pastry, stuffed with sure-to-derail-your-liver, ooey-gooey frosting does not count as food. Food, in the midst of a crisis—a winter crisis—behind broken homes, and broken spirits, at the back end of an ice storm, should at least be wholesome. A little hot soup can soothe a soul, especially when it’s Christmas. And if you please, ‘twould be nice: a make-shift bed or cot or corner where one can lie down. Tables and chairs are okay, but it would be so good to stretch out for an hour.


Three days after the storm, many abided the darkness. Two hapless victims—a mother and son—succumbed to carbon monoxide. People, stranded in the cold, are desperate for warmth. Some use candles, some bring the barbecue grill indoors. But charcoal fires can burn a house down. Carbon dioxide fumes can squelch a life. Truly, it was tragic.


As for me, I never imagined that inside a home could get so cold, that fingers and toes could sting with the venom of pepper spray, as their blood-flow trickled to a crawl. Such magnitude of discomfort, inside a home. I could never imagine. That old chestnut about coming in from the cold? In the context of an ice storm, with no lights, no heat, no food, no hope, coming inside will hurt like being buried beneath mountains of snow—with no clothes. When the thermostat says minus one, but aching bones reveal it’s way below that, believe me, in only a matter of minutes, even though you’re wrapped in a goose-feather parka, complete with hood, which you’re wearing, even though you’ve gloved your hands and socked your feet and pulled on those knee-high specially-made-for-winter boots, within just minutes, your fingers will stiffen, your toes will burn. And covering beneath layers of blankets? That will only help a little. Partway through the tortured effort to sleep, winter’s frosty fingers will reach out for your throat. The endeavour to speak will reel you—cough, cough, cough, as if to hack up your lungs. It will teach you how winter on the streets must feel. It will knit you in solidarity with the street folk, as you pass them at the curb, curled up under rags and cardboard.


The folks on my neighbourhood’s periphery were saved from the worst. Throughout the storm’s siege on the rest of us, their Christmas lights twinkled on and on. Many a night, in the aftermath, I drove up the path, thinking optimistically, enthused by the glimmer of those homes, that the power on my street was back on. Well, I was wrong. So tonight, a gentle fire ignited in my bosom when Hydro Toronto finally arrived on my block. All the homes were reconnected to the power grid. But the line was cut from mine. There it lays, lifeless on the snow. The man said that they’d only reconnect it after I had had the meter checked and repaired the pole. How long will that take? How long: to find a meter man, to repair the pole, to call the ESA, to inspect the job, to advise Toronto Hydro to come out again. It’s the weekend now and Christmas is here. Peace on earth. To men good cheer.