The Great Unwashed
Four kids, six days, no power.


Jennifer Graham

RICHMOND, VA.–Here in Richmond, six days after Isabel roared through, we are all the Great Unwashed.

At the local McDonald’s, where everyone with small children converges shortly after the sun goes down, it’s not just the tri-pierced, tattooed counter babe who has greasy, slicked-back hair. We all do. No one in line has showered adequately since Thursday, and the heavily perfumed air betrays our efforts to disguise this fact of post-Isabel life.

The hurricane, or what was left of it, hit Thursday. It is now early Tuesday, and 60 percent of Richmonders are still without electricity, and the government school system shows no sign of taking our children off our hands anytime in the foreseeable future. Our collective personal hygiene is so bad that local fire stations are encouraging us to come take showers at their place.

It’s not that we weren’t warned. For days before Isabel arrived, we were told that Richmond would lose power when the storm lumbered ashore, even though we’re a good two hours away from nearest eroded sand dune. Somber power officials–are there any other kind?–predicted that we might be without power for a week. But knowledge, desirable as it may be, is never as good as experience, and experience doesn’t come easy.

Thursday, noon: I call my husband at work to report that I have purchased our Hurricane Supply: a single 9V battery, enough to power a radio for a couple of hours. I find this very funny.

Actually, we did already have some emergency supplies, plural, left over from the last Code Orange: six jugs of water, AAs for the Game Boys; ravioli to feed the masses. I am from South Carolina; I was at work at 8 A.M. the day after Hugo; experienced the Floyd evacuation from a Jeep Cherokee parked on I-26. I know hurricanes, and Senator, Isabel will be no hurricane, at least not by the time she hits Richmond. What a bunch of weenies.

Thursday, 2:45 P.M.: Hmmmm. Power gone already. Isabel still four hours away.

Thursday, 9 P.M.: See, that wasn’t so bad. We–four children, two cats, and a mommy–lit six candles and one flashlight, occasionally opened the front door to inspect the whiplashed trees and, frankly, tired of it all rather quickly. Everyone in bed by 9:05 and asleep by 9:30.

Friday, 12:30 A.M.: Husband arrives from work. Reports that despite 70 mph gusts, despite a mandatory curfew, the Virginia Department of Transportation still had real, live people sitting in tollbooths on the Powhite Parkway collecting 75 cents per car. Who says the government doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Friday, 7 A.M. Community inspection. Neighbors I’d only heard rumors of are out looking in my backyard, which is blanketed with pine branches and green acorns. Every tenth house or so, a splintered tree protrudes from a car or a roof or a boat. The 15 miles of bike paths in the planned master community we call home have been transformed from a jogging and stroller route for middle-aged soccer moms to an obstacle course for hard-bodied teenaged boys.

Friday, 10 A.M.: Go out in search of coffee. Beginning to feel remorse over that “emergency-supply” joke. Find one convenience store with power; wait 20 minutes for parking space. Join “coffee line” of 100, 25-pound baby on my hip. Fifteen minutes later, told it’s a one-hour wait for coffee. I want it, but not that badly. Abandon line. Note that I am the only one to do so.

Friday, noon: O.K., this is fun. Neighbor made me coffee on his camping stove. Fire up my grill, turn out scrambled eggs with cheese in a cast-iron skillet. What a woman I am! Pioneers are us! We don’t need no stinkin’ electricity!

Friday, 3 P.M.: Wait in the “ice line” at the Winn-Dixie for 90 minutes. Apparently all lines, like hurricanes, now have names. Develop lifelong friendship with man behind me. Score two bags of ice, which will be water within 12 hours.

Friday, 8 P.M.: Four children, two cats, real dark. Charades! What fun!

Saturday, 8 P.M.: More charades! More fun!

Sunday, 8 P.M.: Category: Movie. Twelve syllables. Chain…saws? Dominion…Dominion Power. Murder? Slaughter? Fiery, painful deaths of Dominion Power officials! Yes!

Sunday, 11 P.M.: Time that Virginia Dominion Power said we would have electricity: 11 P.M. Percentage of our beautiful planned master community that has electricity: 90. Amount of electricity flowing into Graham household: Zero.

Monday, 8 A.M.: Phone service, which had been restored 12 hours after Isabel, mysteriously vanishes. Phone company blames lack of service on cable company. Cannot explain why exactly.

Monday, noon.: Neighbor with generator observes me sitting on front steps, muttering to self, making noises like chainsaw. In effort to save children, lugs generator over. Intends to lend it to me for the afternoon. I thank him profusely and then, when he leaves, hiss, “Possession is 9/10 of the law.” He can pry it away from my cold, ravioli-stained hands.

Monday, 9 P.M.: Fun family outing to restaurant other than McDonald’s. Discover everyone else in Richmond has same idea. Hour-long wait at Red Lobster. Mere 40 minutes at Picadilly Cafeteria. Share dining room with 30 burly linemen from Georgia Power. Briefly consider thanking them for their efforts, but decide against it. Might sound insincere.

Tuesday, 8 A.M.: Early morning thunderstorms tear through Richmond, leaving 7,000 MORE households without electricity. (God? I know this is fun for You, but could You play Your cosmic pranks elsewhere for a day?) Still no power. Still no cable. But it’s a new day, and McDonald’s is still open, and because they have can’t serve soft drinks (the water’s still suspect), they’re giving out milkshakes with each Happy Meal. Is this a great country, or what?

Jennifer Graham is a freelance journalist who lives in Richmond, Virginia.