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Guest column / Generating the power of persistence after Irene

Published 12:30 pm, Tuesday, September 6, 2011
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It was Monday morning, and the news agencies here in Westport were reporting it could well be a week before power was restored.

Our refrigerator and freezer had been off since 2:30 Sunday morning, as was another refrigerator in the garage -- a commercial model with important perishables.

So it seemed like the right time to buy a generator. Having looked into buying one before Irene struck, however, I knew there was a serious run on them. None were available anywhere. Deliveries were due in at The Home Depot in Norwalk, although to get one, you had to be there when the generators arrived. Same at Costco.

So I decided to wait one out at Home Depot.

I left at noon Monday. When I got to the store, I was informed that a shipment of 5,000-watt generators -- 100 of them, selling for a reasonable $600 each -- was expected shortly from New York. Fifteen people were ahead of me when I joined the line. That was at 12:30 p.m.

The people in line were all quite socialable, so it seemed the wait wouldn't be too painful. The guy in front of me has a son my daughter's age, and we discovered they were in several classes together at Staples High School. A guy behind me was a Metro-North conductor I used to chat with on the train before he was moved to a desk job.

By 2 p.m., the line had grown to more than 80 people, and they announced the truck would be delayed because it had to make a stop in Port Chester. I asked my new buddies in line to hold my place while I went to get my fold-up chair out of the car. Then some of the others got the same idea. They tracked down some fold-up chairs that were for sale in the store and decided to borrow them for the duration.

At 3 p.m., they said I-87 was closed, so the truck with our generators had to take back roads. My iPhone was almost out of juice, so I found some Home Depot do-it-yourself manuals and started educating myself on tiling, woodworking and home design.

A number of characters who were not Home Depot staff moved up and down the line offering to sell us their own generators, touting the great advantage of not waiting.

Asked what brand he was offering, one seller replied, "Apache."

The guy who had asked said, "Oooh, Apache," like it was a great brand. After the seller moved on, I asked the guy in line whether Apache was a good brand. "Never heard of it," he said.

At 4 p.m., the line had more than 100 people, and Home Depot staff said they didn't know when the truck would arrive, but it could be hours.

A store employee filled a shopping cart with batteries and flashlights -- commodities which were impossible to find before and immediately after Irene struck. Now he was moving along the line like a ballpark peanut-and-popcorn vendor, shouting "batteries! ... flashlights!" I grabbed a couple of flashlights.

The truck now was who-knew-where, so I had some time to think about what was needed to get the generator going: extension cords, gas, gas cans -- which had to be certified models to get them filled at a gas station. Home Depot had been sold out of extension cords and gas cans since the week before, so I knew I'd have to hunt them down elsewhere.

At 5 p.m., they said the truck would be there in 30 minutes. As we got closer to the ETA, store employees dramatically set up two orange fences to separate the buyers in line from a nearby checkout counter. This production must have involved 15 employees.

Due to line attrition, I was now sixth from the front.

But as the truck finally was arriving, a Home Depot official announced that the deal had changed. The 5,000-watt generators now coming in were a newer model that cost $800 -- not the $600 model we'd been waiting five hours for.

Also on the truck was still another model -- an 8,000-watt generator for $1,299.

I decided to go for one of the bigger models, which were going to be the first ones off the truck and would get me out of there sooner. Strategically convenient, I thought.

They tried to give me one in a carton that obviously had been previously opened. I refused to take that one, and that caused some confusion. Finally, two employees helped me put the 250-lb. machine in the back of my car.

Now I had the generator but desperately needed extension cords, gas cans and gas.

I went to Costco looking for extension cords. None.

Best Buy, PC Richard, Walmart (boarded up), Walgreens, Staples, CVS -- none!

After an hour of hunting I decided to try another Home Depot -- the one in Fairfield. I called first, asked if they had extension cords, and the woman said she'd check. She came back on the line and said there were two left. I told her I was on my way from Norwalk.

When I arrived and got the extension cords, I asked if they had gas cans. No, the woman said, they hadn't had them since before the storm. But just then, another employee walking by overheard us. He said two gas cans had been returned, and just a moment before he had put them on a shelf.

I ran and got the cans.

So now, with the generator, the cords and the gas cans, all I needed was gas.

Heading back to Westport, I stopped at the first station. No gas. The next, no gas.

Station after station had signs on the pumps saying "No Gas." I drove all along the Post Road with no success until finally a station near Main Street in Westport had gas. I filled up my two containers.

I had all I needed to get my generator humming.

I drove home and backed the car up to our basement-level garage, got out and was about to open the garage door manually.

I looked through one of its windows and saw the lights on in the basement.

Bruce Borner lives in Westport.