No power a reminder of those who do without

Mitch Albom - Detroit Free Press

I was starting to write this column when the lights went off. The computer died. The heat stopped working, and the house fell silent.

I exhaled and threw my head back. I cursed and stomped around. How long this time? Should we bother to call the service providers? Who wants to sit on hold for an hour?

I was annoyed, to be honest. This was a huge inconvenience, I felt, brought on by a massive windstorm, and now everything would be delayed and the simplest things — light for getting dressed, hot water for showers — would have to be adjusted.

And then I stopped.

And I remembered something.

Some of you know I operate an orphanage in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. There are 40 children there, nine nannies, another dozen staff members.

And every night we lose our power.

Every night.

Not because of windstorms. Not because of earthquakes or hurricanes. The power just goes out. The city’s electrical grid is overtaxed, the equipment old or poorly maintained. Eight hours a day, on average, Port-Au-Prince has no electricity.

And that’s the capital!

Yet somehow, when I am there each month, this doesn’t bother me. I know the routine. A little bulb on the wall goes out, meaning city power is gone. If it’s nighttime, suddenly it’s pitch black. The fans stop spinning. Sweat pours down your forehead.

One of our staff members is assigned to the generator. You wait to hear his tired footsteps clomping through the dark. It takes a few minutes. Eventually, you hear a revving motor.

Unless that doesn’t work. Or we’re out of diesel fuel. In which case, you wait in humid darkness. You sweat. You listen to your breath. You hear stray dogs howling. Eventually you hear roosters.

And another hot day begins.

I remembered that last week, when I was one of more than 800,000 Michiganders to lose power, and I scolded myself for being such a baby. Why did I so readily accept inconvenience in one place and get so bothered by it in another?

It speaks to how spoiled we can get in this country. And how easy it is to forget the rest of the world. Which is sort of what I was writing about when the power flamed out.

The original theme of this column was water. Bottled water. I read a report that said for the first time ever, bottled water is now the No. 1 purchased beverage in America. More than soda. More than juice or Gatorade. Our annual bottled-water consumption is nearly 40 gallons per person. That means the average American will buy the equivalent of 53 little 8-ounce bottled waters every single month!

This is eight times what it was just three decades ago. But it’s exponentially what it was 50 years ago, when the idea of buying water in bottles was laughable.

Remember those days? You wanted water, you filled a glass from the sink. Or you drank from a fountain. You wanted water in a store, they filled a cup and gave it to you. Selling water would be rude.

Somehow, somewhere, we got hooked on the idea that water in a bottle is purer (thanks to clever marketing by beverage companies) and now, amazingly, we’ll pay $4 a bottle at an airport. Never mind that nearly half of bottled water brands come from municipal water supplies — same as what comes out of your sink. Hey, it’s what we’re used to. It’s what we want.

This is not just a colossal waste of money, it’s pretty tone-deaf to much of the world where finding clean water is a huge challenge. A billion people on this planet do not have access to safe drinking water. A billion. That’s three times the size of our country. One in seven people on the planet.

If we took the money Americans spent on buying bottled water each year — over $21 billion — we might make a small dent in how we preserve, manage and distribute our most precious natural resource. (We could start in Flint, where we witnessed a water crisis firsthand.)

But we won’t. Even writing that sentence, I hear the coming screaming over global warming, overpopulation, politicians, ecology and free markets.

So I’ll just revert to my original point. What terribly annoys us here is the norm for many places on Earth. What we struggle to do without for days is what people elsewhere do without for a lifetime.

And while we live, in my opinion, in the greatest opportunity country in the world, we often forget that fact. Losing power here is an anomaly, not a way of life. And whenever we want to, we can go to a sink and replenish our bodies. It’s a concept we should never take for granted. When the power returns, I hope that lightbulb stays on in my head.

Mitch Albom

Detroit Free Press

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via email at [email protected]

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via email at [email protected]