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Hot Enough for You?

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By Michael Dirda

July 6, 2012


 

So I’m sitting here, in the dark, at 10 P.M. on July 2, 2012, of the Common Era, sweating and thinking evil thoughts about the upper management of Pepco. For those of you who don’t live in the so-called greater Washington, D.C., area, Pepco is the Potomac Electric Power Company. Three days ago a violent storm stomped D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and wreaked havoc, knocking over trees and telephone poles, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.

I, needless to say, am one of those hundreds of thousands.

From the moment the winds died down Pepco immediately “began to assess” the devastation and announced that it would be a week, or possibly more, before power was restored to everyone.

Now, I dislike being without electricity as much as the next man or woman, but it’s not as though this outage was something unprecedented or totally unique, once in a lifetime, never to be repeated. Every year, in summer or winter, the same thing happens—storms hit, followed by days without electricity—and I’m really tired of it. Over the past weekend, with temperatures reaching the 100 degree mark, you couldn’t sell your soul for a hunk of dry ice. I know because I tried. As a result, the Dirdas—and many, many other people—have had to throw out a huge quantity of good and costly food. Since last Friday night it’s been impossible to work at my desk—i.e. to earn money to pay my bills, including the one from Pepco, which naturally instituted a rate increase on July 1—because my home has become the kind of hothouse that the orchid-growing Nero Wolfe could only dream about. Not least, my beloved books, stored in the basement because there is no other place for them, are growing spongy and mildewy and could well be irrevocably ruined unless the dehumidifier starts running again soon. I know this because 30 years ago I wrote a little monograph called Caring For Your Books. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my books—mere agglomerations of pulp, glue, and ink—mean more to me than living, breathing human beings, it’s a near thing. I mean I’d rescue the baby, not the Mona Lisa, from a burning house. But that baby had better grow up to find the cure for cancer.


It’s now two powerless days later, Wednesday, the Fourth of July, and my evil thoughts about Pepco haven’t grown any more benign or forgiving. Are its overpaid corporate officers suffering in this record-setting Washington heat and humidity? Have they thrown out good food? Are their possessions growing mildew? Somehow I don’t think so. Talk to almost anyone “served”—laughable word—by this apparently inept company and you’ll discover the same disdain. Even the Maryland regulators admit that they’ve fallen down in keeping Pepco up to proper standards (see the front page of The Washington Post, July 4). I remember an earlier Post article that pointed out that this company had one of the worst, or possibly the worst, service record, and the highest rates, for any comparable public utility in the country.

Okay. You’ll say that’s just the heat talking or that Dirda—once known as Mr. Sweetness and Light—has inherited the curmudgeon persona formerly owned by his friend and Book World colleague Jon Yardley, who has, in his turn, now become a Grand Old Man of Letters (albeit one in terrific shape). Perhaps. But Cossack blood runs in my half-clogged veins, and I don’t take well to excessive heat. Fortunately, this is only an early July heat and not “August heat”—those who remember W. F. Harvey’s classic short story of that title will know what relentlessly high temperatures can lead to.

Fact is most stories about high temperatures lead to violence. There’s the blazing Algerian sun of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and the long hot summers in Faulkner stories that culminate in rape and lynching, and all those “hot Santa Anas” you get in Raymond Chandler murder mysteries, and the kind of psychologically debilitating oppressiveness that Mr. Kurtz contended with, rather unsuccessfully, in Heart of Darkness. Then, too, one mustn’t overlook my favorite science fiction short story: Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”—a dazzling tale of a robot and his master, of schizophrenia and murder: “It’s no feat to beat the heat, all reet, all reet!”

But let’s not veer too far away from Pepco, which I just realized is the kind of name you might find in a 1950s science fiction novel. In a just world, in an honorable world, the men and women who run this company would voluntarily go without electricity until they had restored power to everyone they “served.” But given the slowness of the restoration, I suspect that Pepco has adopted Milton’s motto: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Not that I blame the linemen and the workers out on the streets, who are doing their best: they’re only human. I’m not so sure about their bosses. At all events, I picture the company’s officers sitting in their air-conditioned great rooms, watching DVDs of Lawrence of Arabia, answering email, listening to hot jazz on their stereo systems, and sipping cold beers, in cool and beautiful comfort, probably even putting on a sweater vest against the AC chill.

Years ago, my steelworker father—a lifelong Democrat—announced that he would be voting for our hometown’s Republican candidate for mayor, a fellow by the name of Woody Mathna. Being taken aback at this shocking news, I naturally asked why. Dad answered, “Mathna lives in our precinct.” I wasn’t smart enough to know what that meant. My father, shaking his head yet again over his idiot-child, said, “That means that when it snows the streets around Mathna’s house will be plowed first. And ours will be one of them.” All politics is local, sometimes very local, and Realpolitik is the most local of all.

Oh, well. As my father also solemnly used to say: this too shall pass. A fount of wisdom, my Dad. During my college years he would regularly intone, “Kid, I want you to get rich, have a house on a hill, drive a Cadillac, forget about stupid workingmen like me, and become a Republican.” Sigh. I loved my father but, like sons everywhere, I never listened to him.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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