Friday, August 5, 2011

Who Turned Out the Lights?

On Monday, August 1st, at around 7:30 in the evening, I was at work on register one, the express lane. Suddenly, there was a beepy wail, and the lights dimmed. Our faces were illuminated by the glow of our register screens which were puzzlingly still operating. We've had the power flash before, and there is a backup generator to ensure that the registers don't freak out and reset during such occurrences. Still wondering when the lights would come back on, we plodded along with checking out customers.

But the lights didn't come on, the warning beepy wail of the freezers losing their cool continued, and I have never been more aware of the in-store radio than when it was no longer playing. Someone was sent to the front door to turn away new customers, apologizing that our store was without power. And soon, many of us cashiers noticed something amiss with our registers: certain items were no longer scanning, and we couldn't punch in PLUs (those 4-5 digit codes on your produce).

Irritating, yes, but not completely problematic. I didn't realize how many prices of products I had memorized! And people were called up front to become runners, dashing all over the store to find the prices for the items that wouldn't ring up.

And then the registers started to die. I believe mine was the first to go. I had just finished ringing up a young man and the drawer had popped out so I could hand him his change. Unfortunately, the screen went dark just as it was about to tell me what to count back to him, and there was so much going on that I couldn't remember what the total was. I knew that I owed him less than a dollar, so I gave him that much and apologized for the problem. He smiled apologetically himself and wished me luck. Thankfully, the woman behind him was in good spirits, told me not to worry about it, and moved to the next cashier.

About this time, I was due to clock out, but I offered to stay as long as they needed me and joined the runners getting prices. One by one, the familiar hum of technology winked out. More registers died. So many, in fact, that we ended up putting teams together of two or three per station, one to make a list of the items in a person's cart and run around copying down all the prices, another to add them all up together on a hand-held calculator, and sometimes another to bag.

Then a new problem arose. Many people were completely understanding and dug into their purses and wallets for cash, but inevitably there were customers (like me when I'm on the other side of the counter) who didn't have cash and had to use credit cards. And almost none of the cashiers knew how to use a manual credit machine. As one customer put it to me, "Wow, the last time I saw one of those was in an antique shop!"

Strangely, I have used them before, but evidently there are multiple models because I couldn't figure this one out. With the help of a manger, we managed to puzzle it out and get enough information on the carbon copies to punch them all in by hand later when our computers were once again operational. This apparently gave me superior status to the people who had originally been running that "register," because everyone scampered off and left me to take over. (Thanks, guys.) One stayed and became my runner, copying down all of the prices that I then punched into the calculator and copied down onto the handwritten receipts.

I have to say, the customers were blessedly good-natured about the whole thing, and told us repeatedly what a great job we were doing and tried to be as helpful as possible. Two girls even took turns making their own lists of what they were buying while they waited in line to save us time and resources. Until the blackout, I would have called it a slow night, but it took over half an hour to get everyone checked out on their merry, if confused, way.

At quarter after eight, we still didn't know what was going on. One coworker who lives near me texted her roommate to see if our apartments had power (they did not), and another coworker who had come in to shop on his day off reported that the lights were out all the way to the highway. A few people, customers and employees alike, complained that their cell phones wouldn't let them dial out, though those of us on Verizon, at least, had no trouble. One woman told me that every time she tried to call her sister, she got a computer voice telling her that only emergency calls were being allowed at that time.

Since I was supposed to leave at eight, I was allowed to go home after the store was empty of customers, and I promptly opened all of the windows in the apartment in hopes of coaxing in the evening breeze. I managed to read two short stories before the daylight also died, when I switched to watching old episodes of Doctor Who on my laptop, which was mostly fully charged.

By the time my roommate arrived home, I had located my flashlight and a lighter and lit one of my Bath & Body Works scented candles (the apartment smelled wonderful). We were both hungry, but our stove is electric and I didn't want to open the fridge anyway, so we headed to Ypsilanti, where my roommate assured me there was still power. We ended up dining at Sidetrack in Depot Town.

On the way home at nearly midnight, I was happy to see lights on in Ann Arbor. Kimmy and I could not help noticing, however, that people go crazy during blackouts here and try to suicide themselves in front of cars. I don't even know how many people tried to throw themselves in front of her car! Too many. Far too many. Some on bikes!

According to people at work, this is only the second time the lights have gone out like this in the store's history. The first was during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, during which I personally had been delayed an extra couple of days in Northville visiting a friend. Kimmy and I searched multiple times on the internet trying to uncover the source of this widespread blackout, but have come up with nothing. It's as if it never happened! Which makes it even more fun. ;)

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