Starving in the Dark: septuagenarian faces flash flood

Last week, a Calgarian, worn out by the flooded Bow River perhaps, wrote a letter to the National Post in which he invited Torontonians to starve to death in the dark. Alberta has the oil after all. I thought “yeah, yeah” that’s an old one – 40 yrs at least.

On Monday, I am reading with my feet up, worn out by my negotiation with a Toyota salesman. It is all but pitch dark at 4:30 p.m. but I’m used to that. It has rained torrentially at that hour many times this year. It starts to pour. I keep reading – a fictional account of the London blitz as it happens.

On Sunday, I got caught in one of these downpours. I huddled in a doorway for 15 minutes, watching water 4 in. deep race down the street. The rain got steadily worse. I put up my umbrella and set out for my car, two short blocks away. I met a guy with a clinging wet t-shirt, who smiled ruefully. My pants were soaked up to the knee and by the time I got the umbrella down, so was my the car seat. I sat in the car reading, waiting until I could see out the windshield. When I could, I chose my route carefully, avoiding the deep dip in the road to the south of my place where it floods. I’ve learned at least that much this year.

As I read about the horrors of rescue in the London blitz, lightning flashes through the window. Okay, supper time. As I walk toward the kitchen, I observe that I cannot see out my windows.

Full disclosure – I still harbour a 2 year-old within, who found herself with an unconscious baby sitter in the middle of a hurricane. By that I do not mean ‘inattentive’. I mean-down-for- the-count and never-right-again unconscious. It was only one long hungry day before I was rescued, but of course it seemed like forever. I am actually reassuring this hysterical inner-child when the carbon monoxide alarms scream, various things beep and the lights go out.

No problem. Right? It’ll come right back on. GIve it a minute. Fortunately, I do not know that the underground transformer that feeds the west end is now 30 ft. deep in water.

So it begins.

I activate the CBC app on my phone and discover the subway is flooded and shut down. The streets are jammed with wet pedestrians. The traffic lights are out and rush hour is at a standstill.

Frank, my landlord, emerges from his own underground lair to watch the storm through the front storm door. (So that’s why it doesn’t have a screen.) An hour later, the upstairs tenant arrives reporting that she was the last person allowed south on the Don Valley Parkway. She drove through the river, which was already over the road. The cars behind her were turned back, driving the wrong way to exit in the middle of the city. Her trip took twice the usual time, she is all but out of gas and there are no working gas pumps.

I leave my apartment door open and consider food.

Besides the screaming inner-child, I have dietary limitations. The list of things I can’t eat is far longer than the list of those I can. I cannot, for example, eat bread. I can eat brown rice and there is some in the fridge and there is cold chicken and salad mix. No problem. The trick is not to tarry in front of an open fridge door.

I haul the lantern out of its closet and discover the D cell batteries still work. I light the available candles -beeswax of course. Regular candles make my eyes burn. I eat my cold dinner. How I long for tea -herbal- you guessed it. Sitting there, I decide that if civilization starts coming apart, with these ‘refined’ needs, I will be among the first to go. Well, there’s some good news.

The rain has more or less stopped. Using my CP24 app, I find that a train is sitting in the expanded Don River and 120 commuters are awaiting rescue by boat, tiny zodiacs as it turns out. They have had to scramble up to the upper deck and some of them will not get off until 12:30 a.m.

Meanwhile geysers of sewage have exploded out of utility holes. Cars have been abandoned, including one Ferrari. Fireman are rescuing people. Then my fading phone declares that it cannot access the internet. It’s only 9:30 but it’s time to go to bed.

I have a lovely dream. The carbon monoxide alarm has beeped and the room has been suffused with light. I wake up. Not.

In the morning, the second hand Twitter rumour is- power back by noon. This will change throughout the day and I will gradually lose my initial desire to join Twitter. Hope is not a winged thing that perches etc. Hope is a canard, a con. It misleads and keeps you from acceptance and necessary action. It takes me 24 hours to set up a rescue for my freezer goods, e.g., and in the meanwhile I lose over $50 worth of stuff.

How to live now?

Take inventory. There is still hot water. Most of the city has its power back. With all the blinds open, I can more or less see. No paper and the phone can no longer get a signal, too many others already on the system. I warm breakfast up in a pan of hot water, milk for cereal, green soup. I take a hot shower. I drive to the tai chi club where I can make tea, exercise and charge my phone. I even do 2 sets of tai chi. During tea break I go down to the basement restroom. What is this brown residue on the floor? I call for volunteer help and grab a mop. Patty joins me. The other, much younger class members, do not. In fact, one of them waxes outraged because she has to find another toilet. Meanwhile in a search for a pail and hot water, I have stumbled wetly into the downstairs practise hall. The carpet is soaked and a little pool sits in the middle. We give tours hoping to drum up help. Not so much. We phone a report in to an actual employee, wring out the mops and carry on with our lives.

I, for example, have to call on two cats whose mom is away. They are glad to see me and a note on the counter invites me to make tea. What a great idea! I plug the kettle in. I give one cat her medicine. I feed them. Hey, what happened to my tea? I know the power is on up here. But, the thing is, it isn’t. It’s what you call a rolling black-out. These black-outs roll with me as I roll westward. I see the traffic lights fire up behind me and go black in front.

By dinner time, I have been without hot food 30 hours and my weak digestion can’t take any more and besides, the food in the fridge is now inedible. I set out for a restaurant. First, I have to get to a place with power. This involves waiting 20 minutes at just one non-functioning light. Once there, I find the parking meters on the street don’t work and I know our parking officers will give tickets on Judgement Day, so I search out working meters. There are now only 22,000 householders without power and all of them have converged on Bloor West Village for food. Cash only. I found I had raided the hidden money envelope but still had $100 left, so that’s all right. I stand in line for 25 minutes. I can see empty tables. The maitre d’ can too, but he keeps handing out menus and bustling off, leaving us there. Very hungry.

Eventually, I am seated, single and wasteful though I am. I read to keep from raiding adjacent tables and when I finally get food, I nearly weep over the mashed potatoes.

In the evening, Blake, who has never lost power, shows up to take my freezer goods into custody. I serve him a warm beer while we sit in semi-darkness.

By next morning I discover that I get tea and ice at the super market south of me, which must have a generator. I am there by 7 a.m. and soon have an ice chest set up with lunch stuff. Should have done this yesterday. Why didn’t I? No idea. Hope precluded it? Or was it mental dysfunction? I note that we all seem to be suffering it.

At non-functioning traffic lights, you stop, look, take your turn. Do this 10 times and when you come to an actual red light, you start to do it again. The woman upstairs locks her keys in her apartment, fails to pick the lock and decides to kick it in. So much noise! And it doesn’t work. Our door locks have steel plates! I lose my glasses, find another pair and come back to discover the first pair right where I lost them.

We are all suddenly very neighbourly, except to the old guy who brags that he has power just 10 houses away. People share their barbecues, carrying pots across the street. We no longer share the estimated time of (power) arrival. We are cynics, one and all.

On Wednesday afternoon, I get gussied up- poppy red dress, leggings, good sandals and set off for a second round at Toyota. I am just pulling into the parking lot when Frank calls to tell me the power is back on. I can’t say I believe it will last, but I finish the car deal and go to the green grocers and the butcher shop, pretending I believe it.

It is indeed on. I have light and a kettle that comes to a boil. I do manage to set the fire alarm off, having apparently forgotten how to cook, but after two days, it is over.

Thursday morning, I assume it is life as normal. I get to the tai chi club late. I’m still so discombobulated it takes me ages just to do a simple task like get dressed. I go through the club’s back door and an odour like something burnt sends me reeling. I know that smell. Mould! It’s okay, I’m reassured, the water has been vacuumed up. It’s fine. Try the upstairs class.

Listen if you take a canary down a coal mine don’t try to argue with it. If it falls over, get outa there. In this case, it is the canary that escapes.

By now, my head is aching badly, very badly. I can’t go back there, I reason on my long drive home. Maybe never, at least not until cold weather.

At home, I decide to try one thing. I email the location leader, telling him that mould is a health hazard not just a bad smell. Then I call ma soeur, Georgia, who listens to me rail. When I get off the phone, I see the message light flashing. The location leader has called our contractor who said hell yes, the carpet has to come out and the floor has to be treated with fungicide. I call our leader back, full of gratitude. Now my exile is down to a week or so while the place gets cleaned.

Now if only this headache would quit….

Stinky Flower – a personal reflection on Amorphophallus titanum


Last week ( Sun April 21) an Amorphophalus titanum or corpse flower bloomed in Edmonton, a noteworthy event. There are only about 5 such cultivated blooms a year, world-wide, and an individual plant does not bloom for several years. In its natural habitat, the jungles of Sumatra, there are probably more.

The one at the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta was the first to bloom in western Canada. It grew from a dormant 225 lb tuber flown up from Boston last fall. The bloom lasted for a little over 24 hours, attracted 3,500 visitors and smelled like rotting flesh.

It was my privilege to be in the right place -within driving distance of the Huntington Library- at the right time -August 6, 2002 – to see the Amorphophallus titanum in full bloom and redolent of corpse.

People actually do fly great distances to witness this miracle. One of those was Jen Gerson, the National Post reporter, who wrote “Thousands Come for Rare Bloom”, (Wed. April 24, 2013) But, alas, Jen arrived Tuesday by which time the flower had wilted and its perfume abated. I can attest to that short life span. I went back to the Huntington on Saturday, August 10, 2002 and found the 6 ft spadex or”phallus” wilted and even more amorphus (ill-shaped).

The tallest specimen on record appears to have been 9 ft. tall. Even the one I saw dwarfed all viewers as they huddled leeward.

My encounter with the Stinky Flower occurred at a low point in my life. I had fallen into one of those black moods where you can’t remember how to put one foot in front of the other. It did seem like a reckless plan to keep my 8 year-old grandson, Leo, out of school and set out from Culver City. It’s easy to get there I was told: go to the end of the 110 where it turns into South Arroyo, turn right onto California and then Allen. This advice for a person who could no longer master left, right, left.

Leo’s safety seemed to concentrate my mind, however, and we found ourselves waiting in a long line in the hot sun, being plied with free bottles of water. Leo was very excited by the prospect of a really bad smell. The Huntington had thoughtfully called it a Stinky Flower so as not to upset childish sensibilities by calling it Corpse Flower. Sir David Attenborough had invented his own name when he featured the plant in his series “The Secret Life of Plants”, feeling that repetition of Amorphophallus titanum would be inappropriate. He called it titan arum.

As we waited, we boned up on why it smells so bad. It’s all a question of the birds and the bees, wouldn’t you know or, more precisely carrion beetles and flies which pollinate the plant. These flies, children were told, fed on decaying meat. Leo, being Leo, got the straight goods out of me by careful questioning.

The Post report described the smell as a diaper pail that’s been left out in the garbage in hot weather or minnows forgotten on a boat. The closer we got, the more people covered their noses. Even Leo began to wonder if he was up to it. Despite the still hot air, the porch where the plant stood seemed to have an air current and we kept circling until we could stand the putrid odour. It was definitely trial by smell.

The spadex apparently has a velvety texture, is shaped, according to one report, like a French loaf and is purple, a visual imitation of putrefying flesh. The huge cup-shaped flower is also purple inside and green outside.

When we had had all we could take (and out of deference to those out there waiting in the sun) we retreated to a cafe table with an sun umbrella. By chance the docent who had given the “tour” talk sat at the next table. Where, demanded Leo, could he get some of those seeds. A lively discussion ensued about possible places where he could grow such a plant.

He was not so interested in the HUntington’s other offerings – a first folio edition of Hamlet, a Guttenberg Bible or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

That night, I dreamed I was a young woman, very depressed, and I had been asked to a formal dance by Blake. I knew he would get me a floral corsage and that in the course of the evening, it would die and get repulsive so that I would have a hard time wearing it. Indeed when we met for the event, he was no longer the tanned, trim, athletic boy he actually was but slightly over-weight, soft and -how did I know- hopelessly behind in technology. When I woke up, I felt as if I had created something of great scope and beauty, which had morphed into something noxious and ugly. And that was before I went back and saw the wilted titum arum.

I said I was going back to peer at the old books, but I made for the stinky flower right away and while I spent time with the books, I also spent much time just sitting in the garden.

Our Stinky Flower had previously bloomed in 1999 and an offset seedling from that plant gave rise to a new plant that bloomed at the Huntington in 2009 and again in 2010.

Then last week, as depression lapped around my edges, I came across the Post article. Amorphophallus titanum had come back into my life. Things are greatly changed. I am far from the Huntington. Leo is as tall as the spadex of our Stinky Flower, an adult and very much his own person, but then he always has been. He did not follow through on those early biology interests. He’s more of a troubadour. What hasn’t changed is that, what Churchill called the Black Dog, is still dogging some of us.

Well, so be it. The Stinky Flower has its own amazing beauty and its stink can be endured.