Every now and then I carry out a little night time ritual that includes hopping in the station wagon, driving down the hill into the commercial district, and wandering around behind the wheel while I listen to a local radio program called “The Nightside” for no particular reason.
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Tonight the radio show was interrupted by a test of the emergency alert system and a series of electronic tones, along with details about what the EAS does.
First, it struck me how odd it was to hear this message. I don’t think I’ve heard anything like it for at least a decade—to me, it belongs to the era of OTA (over-the-air) broadcast television, something that seems like a hazy relic from my present life perspective.
Second, it led me to picture what an emergency might be like in this area—say, a series of warnings and an evacuation order.
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This mental picture stopped me cold; I lost track of what I was hearing and, I’ll admit, drove on autopilot all the way home.
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Thing is, I was out of these endless suburbs, these hundreds of miles of suburbs, for a long time before coming back. I’ve experienced stressful and semi-emergency public situations in other places, and come to take the experience of them in these other places for granted.
But an emergency situation here? In the suburbs? It wouldn’t be tense, it would be menacing. Frightening. Wild.
In non-car-based metropolitan areas with reasonably high density, what happens in an emergency is that everyone hears about it at about the same time. You can hear your neighbor’s radio, or the ambient level of talk amongst pedestrians outside your window. Even if you don’t here these things, your neighbors will come to ask you if you’ve heard “what’s going on.”
Then, everyone makes for the subway, or for their cars, together—in the former case because there are only a limited number of stations, so you all converge on the same point as a community, and walk together on the way there, or in the latter case because there’s so little free parking space and such high density that wherever you do happen to park, there are fifty other neighbors’ cars, bumper-to-bumper, on the same block, and you chat on the way to your vehicles, then stand 10 feet apart at each of your respective open car doors and chat some more, an assortment of drivers making conversation amongst themselves before leaving together, likely taking the same path (there are limited major streets, most of them only one or two lanes) toward the same freeway exits.
In the suburbs?
(1) You wouldn’t find out, and nobody would come to tell you. The silence surrounding your house would remain the same as it ever was. Anyone that does know is preparing “indoors,” and this isn’t a shared “indoors” like an apartment building or an apartment lobby, it’s an isolated “indoors” in which neighbors have no idea what the other is doing. You simply wouldn’t find out unless there was a door-to-door.
(2) Even if you did find out, you’d do all the prep alone. Your house is attached to your driveway, both in the center of your yard. No matter how frenetic the preparation, you wouldn’t have occasion to encounter another human soul as you prepared unless you specifically sought them out and then traveled the distance necessary to interrupt their preparations, something that’s probably fuzzy with respect to social norms in an emergency situation. So you’d be alone.
(3) You’d get into your car and drive. You, the atom. Perhaps with your family. You managed to hear about the emergency, you got your stuff packed without making contact with anyone else in the neighborhood, and you ventured out in your vehicle. All of the other drivers are now your competitors—for gasoline, for freeway access, for the right-of-way to escape whatever emergency it is.
(4) Once you managed to get on the interstate, there’s darkness in all directions. Say you had to leave the metropolitan area. There is nothing but desert and mountains all around, for hundreds of miles until the next suburban-metropolitan area. It’s not like the eastern seaboard or the west coast. It’s the great middle.
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This is really scary stuff. To recap, in a major emergency that required that you escape the metropolitan area, in a middle-American suburban city, you’d:
(1) Never know and simply die or get caught up in the event.
(2) Not encounter another soul to talk about or comiserate with.
(3) Head out in your car alone, knowing that it’s you against the other cars.
(4) Achieve success when you are even more isolated and essentially disconnected from civilization altogether.
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In short, hearing the EAS message sent a shock of foreboding and awareness through my system—awareness of just where I was, and recall of all those messages of “self-reliance” and “preparedness” that I got as a young person growing up here.
They don’t want you to be prepared so that you can help others, as they suggest. They want you to be prepared because they know very well that nobody is going to help you.
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When I got out of the car after arriving home, the scent of the air outside was strangely out of place, unusual, yet unmistakable.
Anyone that has ever lived in an alpine area knows the scent of either morning or evening air near a high-altitude stream, nestled amongst pine trees and filled with fish.
That was the scent—only down here, not up on the mountain, in the burbs, surrounded by Wal-Marts and chain fast food restaurants.
Strange capper on a strange evening.
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Oh, and we’re out of beer.