Monday, June 13, 2005

Manhole Explosions in Central Square

Some blog journalism on an action-packed afternoon in Cambridge...

More Lights Out

"In any case, you welcome the US to the fun of the Third World"

I had just written those words when the lights went out in my apartment. The monitor went dark as the computer died and the music stopped. It was around a quarter to four in the afternoon.

Today was a hot day especially in my uncooled bachelor pad. These are strange days and it is air conditioning season as I pointed out just last week. Unfortunately the windows in my apartment are not congenial to air-conditioners; there are bars obstructing something or other and I can't see installing an air-conditioner in a kitchen which is the only possible location. Thus I rely on lots of liquids and take it easy when working from home in the hot summer. Indeed I had just turned up my fan to get a stronger breeze. A thought crossed my mind that perhaps I had caused the power failure.

In any case it was the usual routine. Switch outlets off and check the fuses (nothing had blown). I started hearing a beeping sound outside the apartment and lots of people loudly asking "What's going on?". "Are you okay?". "Lights are out". "No... Electricity". Having satisfied myself that this wasn't just my apartment affected, I picked up my laptop bag and decided to head to the office, there'd be air-conditioning and I could drop off a roll of film to be developed.

Lights Out is nothing new, indeed one of my most heartfelt pieces of writing is about a case of Lights Out a couple of months ago and how it precipitated a community to come together and gain perspective.

Outside my door, the building was on generator power and emergency lighting - the reason for said beeping noises. I met some concerned neighbours who were also stepping out and we commiserated about the lights. "Is it just our building?" "This happened just months ago." "This electrical company..." "Frauds". "Incompetent". "I've got a baby here, we need the air-conditioner" etc.

Once outside the building I met a friend who lives a couple of blocks or so away. He had stepped out to mail some letters and then decided to take a walk. He also didn't have any electricity at home. This news meant that this was a bigger deal than the last Lights Out. It was likely that most of Cambridge was affected. I decided to walk to Central Square, pick up a shwarma at that Syrian Falafel joint in Central Square before heading to the office.

Manhole Explosions in Central Square

There was no electricity in Central Square (8 blocks from home) thus the traffic lights were not working. The police seemed to have cordoned off 5 or so blocks. There were fire engines streaming towards the place and helicopters circling above the square.

street closed to traffic

Drawing closer I noticed plumes of smoke. This must have been an electrical fire. There were lots of people on the street all heading to the source - we're all ambulance watchers.


The smoke seemed to be rising from the McDonalds. I remembered that that restaurant had incredibly been the target of an arson attack 5 years ago. I vaguely wondered if that was the case this time.

smoke at mickey d-s

Drawing closer still, it became clear that it was an explosion in a manhole that was the cause of the outage.


The News trucks arrived and began setting up for their broadcasts. One cameraman saw my vantage point and came to stand next to me. At that I left. "The professionals have it in hand", I thought. Besides I needed air-conditioning. It was rush hour.


The guy on the right tried directing traffic for a while but no one paid him any mind. It was chaos.


Since Mass Ave was closed, there were a few diversions but the buses kept running. The T kept running with the loud sound of the emergency generator at the Central Square subway station providing a mid-afternoon soundtrack. Bus drivers stopped checking fares but there were still too many people trying to get home.


The air conditioning in the new electricity-powered, eco-friendly buses (on the right) is much stronger than that in the old diesely ones (on the left) so some smart folks waited for the appropriate one to come along.


When it's hot some people just strip down and sit down to cool off. Teenage boys being teeming masses of hormones, a crowd quickly gathered around that exhibitionist young woman who was shedding layers outside Blockbuster Video. A cop yelled something before they dispersed and left the poor girl alone.

it-s too hot. Imma sit down

Almost every shop had closed down due to lack of electricity but the Indian grocery kept its doors open and took cold cash. I managed to pick up some much needed ice cold water to cool off.

indian shop stays open

Heat. Conversations. How to head home? Would the subway be running? Or would it be another bus journey to work? The bus stop is outside Jax Liquidation Outlets which normally dispenses street-smart bargain basement clothes that will last for one club outing before disintegrating. But at $5-10 dollar a pop, Central Square chic is hard to beat.


This woman was having a moment in the hot sun, she was seemingly writhing to some inaudible song and doing a quite lascivious dance oblivious to the alternatively bemused and lecherous glances that were coming her way.


It takes all sorts in Central Square.

Manholes Explode in Central Square: a photoset

See also:

The blurb on George Packer's seminal Central Square should be noted and pondered:
In the face of yuppies' plans and transients' dreams, the poor and affluent alike strive for change while Boston's Central Square finds its own purpose for them all... Any big city offers its inhabitants both magic and mayhem... a haphazard mixture of therapy and activism to thwart inner-city depersonalization... Central Square... this hauntingly rendered hibernal wasteland...

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