The following essay appears in our current issue (Winter 2012).
Night runs deep and quiet in Eastern Connecticut.
The first time my big-city sisters came to visit I switched off the car headlights at the foot of our driveway. Both women gasped sharply, their breath pulled into their lungs like a turkey baster sucking hot fat from a pan.
They’re from Chicago. They hadn’t seen the dark for a long time. It startled them and made them feel vulnerable, perhaps slightly afraid. Real darkness can do that.
When Hurricane Irene lashed Connecticut in August of 2011, my family and 700,000 other “nutmeg staters” fell into a twilight zone that split the difference between the modern and say, the 18th century. Things were fine during the day.
At night things changed.
Powerless for six days, it was not long before my small Connecticut town morphed into places that I have worked or lived–Pristina, Bucharest, Kabul, Sarajevo–where power was often fueled by gasoline-fired generators and night pulled itself tight around a house until morning, festering like an untended wound.
Pristina flopped like a fish on a dock in 2002-03 when I lived there. Power quit without warning, whipsawing sections of the city from a 21st century life of warmth, light, refrigeration and television to flashlight living or darkness. No one knew when the power would die. Its return brought simultaneous relief and annoyance that it had suddenly disappeared in the first place. I kept water in plastic jugs in the bathroom after my shower abruptly quit while I was washing my hair. I used the water from the toilet tank to rinse out most of the shampoo. It provided a valuable lesson.
There was no generator at my house, despite my monthly $1,500 rent, its high cost the result of well paid European and American “internationals” working in the city. When the power fled, I read by flashlight under blankets until I went to bed. Usually, lights, heat and water returned by morning. Occasionally they did not and I would wake up to see my breath circulate small white clouds in the bedroom.
We all complained to each other–expats, locals, government officials nominally in charge–but we knew nothing could be done.
On the other hand, Pristina, Kosovo, was also the safest place I ever lived. Property crime was negligible; muggings and murders unheard of.
Still, I made it a point to return to my house in the hills of the city’s Taslixhe district before midnight. Light from homes that lined my unnamed road shone rarely after 10 p.m. Hard-working people go to bed early in Kosovo. My walk uphill at night through the last two cobblestone blocks frequently put me on edge; in the day the walk was a mixture of distant mountain beauty and fetid water streaming down a gutter that ran through the middle of the road.
At night, in the bleak and unblinking darkness, I wished for night-vision goggles and an M-16. It was best to be inside after full darkness fell.
Street dogs formed packs at night. Strays joined mutts let loose by their owners to roam the hills in my neighborhood above the city, wild and unfettered. They were not to be trusted. In the day, Kosovo’s feral dogs were skittish and fearful. They kept to the edges of the streets and knew their place in a secular Muslim culture that is not fond of pets. They looked furtively over their shoulders at pedestrians; loud noises turned them sideways in fright, their bodies forced into a cringing, U-shape of submission.
The dark of an unlit night altered the equation. It was not wise to wander alone through the streets of Taslixhe when true darkness reigned after midnight. I paid attention and I was lucky. Once, trailed by three dogs in a growing group of yapping animals, I was forced to slip into my landlord’s yard through his sturdy iron front gate instead of walking to my usual entrance at the back of the house.
I took few chances walking the streets of Pristina after dark. That’s because I lived in Pristina after I had lived in Bucharest, where I first learned about street dogs. Pristina is not Bucharest.
Bucharest is a far bigger city with many more feral dogs. Many, many more dogs.
When I lived there in 1991, not long after the “so-called revolution,” as my Romanian friends called 1989’s late-December end to Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the city had little heat in its buildings but enough power for lights. Few Romanians could have then afforded gasoline-powered generators, had they been available.
It was cold by mid-fall that year; evening dropped with a thud in late afternoon. Dec. 11, 1991 brought Romania one of its biggest snowstorms in years; 30 inches of snow fell on Bucharest in 24 hours. It lingered for weeks.
Snow piled up and stayed on the ground, clogging sidewalks and streets; pedestrians and cars packed down paths along their respective avenues. The radiators in my Berceni district apartment were cold by the middle of the night and stayed that way until five a.m. when they turned from frigid-to-the-touch to slightly less than that.
My Soviet-style bloc apartment was five miles from the city’s central square, Pieta Universitatii, part of a complex that rose up five stories; it looked like a concrete-gray fortress and housed thousands of people over several city blocks. Streetlights were sparse along Bulevardul Metalurgei, now called Bulevardul Alexandru Obregia, the main road that ran outside the complex. Street lamps were spaced yards apart inside the maze of apartment buildings, but few contained light bulbs. What light there was spilled out residents’ windows and from the small flashlight I carried. The later it was, the darker it was.
The building’s hallways were unlit, the light bulbs stolen long ago.
Towering trees that I took to be elms stood in the dirt courtyard outside my building. Before the December snow fell it was also home to about a dozen feral dogs. Bucharest in 1991 had tens of thousands of street dogs, a number that’s estimated today at 50,000, according to local media. They still cause problems. A Romanian woman died in 2011 when she was mauled by a pack of homeless dogs. A survey conducted in 2011 by the National School of Administration and Political Science found that in Berceni today, residents cited a lack of cleanliness and stray dogs as the districts two biggest problems.
Then, as now, street dogs mostly ignored pedestrians. Despite frequent territorial fights, much barking and sidewalks littered with excrement, Bucharest residents mostly seemed unbothered by the animals. Romanians say it’s “good luck” to step in dog crap, which is not hard to do in Bucharest.
In the darkening days of fall, before the December snow, the dogs in my complex sought the thin sun in the empty center courtyard or stretched out alongside the building. They paid little attention to people walking by.
But like Kosovo a decade later, things changed at night.
More often than not that fall I returned home on the late side. Eventually the dogs recognized me and began to follow me if I entered the courtyard when it was quiet and empty after midnight. They ignored me if other people were around, but later on they stalked me soon after I stepped from Aleea Ciceau, the smaller road that ran alongside my apartment complex, until I reached the door of my building. Perhaps they smelled my worry, which bordered on fear; maybe they were only curious or hungry. One or two dogs would follow at first. On more than one occasion, by the time I reached the door of my building several were on my heels, growling, shoulders hunched low, trying to surround me. I would swing my canvas briefcase off my shoulder in a wide arc, sending the dogs back a foot or two as I backed toward the door of the building. I was careful to keep them in front of me.
I was never attacked in full force or bitten, aside from a nip once on the heel of my shoe, but I dreaded returning home late at night and began to curtail my pub crawls, begging off when friends asked. I kept candy bars in my bag and unwrapped them as I walked to the door of my building, throwing chunks as far away as I could. It bought me time to walk briskly. I had the sense not to run.
My dog problem evaporated when the December snow arrived; their numbers dwindled sharply and the cold seemed to take the sport out of trailing me. I flew home to Virginia for Christmas and saw them rarely until spring, when they took no interest in me.
Perhaps the pack had changed; more likely I had begun to understand Bucharest and better knew the measure of the city at night.
I thought of Kosovo and Bucharest when the explosion rang out in my powerless eastern Connecticut neighborhood in early November of 2011. It sounded like explosions I had heard in Kabul in May 2010, where unexplained blasts and small arms fire were not uncommon across a city filled with weapons.
But those explosions typically arrived during the day. This blast–from a residential propane tank that destroyed a house about a mile away from ours–was as loud as the destruction of a munitions cache north of Kabul that I heard one morning. My Connecticut explosion arrived, surprising and unbidden, in our darkened neighborhood about 9 p.m., rattling windows for long seconds up and down the street. Our sprawling neighborhood of acre-and-a-half lots was still in the dark a week after a late-October storm had dumped ice and snow and downed power lines across the Northeast.
The explosion brought men out into the street with flashlights. They walked briskly up and down the block, plying their lights along the side of the road. We know each other by sight and wave as we drive past; otherwise, we rarely get a chance to talk to one another. Newcomers who came out after the explosion asked the same questions, “Did you hear that?” and “What the hell was that?” My neighbor across the street kept repeating, “I thought the pizza delivery guy had run into my garage with his car,” as if that made sense. What everyone meant was, “Jesus, that scared the crap out of me. What was it?” I thought it was a bomb, which made little sense either but was the only thing that accounted for the night-splitting noise.
We formed a small group near the end of the block, shining flashlights onto our feet as we talked. One guy came out in slippers. Occasionally someone sprayed a flashlight into the surrounding darkness like a child’s light saber, checking to see how deeply it cut. Gasoline-powered motors clattered mindlessly in the background; the power they generated spilled infrequent light from windows.
We stood in the street, these neighbors who did not really know each other, and speculated about the cause of the explosion. Mostly we waited to find out if the first one was the last. It was. After a while the guy in the slippers who lived somewhere around the corner and who I had never met waved and headed home, signaling to the rest of us that it was time to leave.
We split up all at once and walked down the dark street to our driveways, carrying our flashlights and a vague uneasiness that the night was not yet over.