Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2000 / 11 Elul 5760
Leave a light on for us
children of the pioneers
KANSAS CITY | On the night I arrived here I was
told, in this order:
1. To boil water before I tried to drink it.
2. Not to eat any food that any restaurant in my
part of town might be serving, because the
restaurants had been told to close, and those that
disobeyed might be imperiling the public health.
3. Not to expect to eat any food in my hotel,
because any dishes that had been washed might be
4. To forget about ice -- the ice in the icemakers
was considered suspect.
5. Go ahead and shower, but don't swallow any
water that might splash in my mouth.
But this is not a column of complaint -- far from it.
If any city is made for dealing good-naturedly with
a water emergency in the middle of a hot summer, it
is Kansas City, which has the nicest people in
America, and which is undoubtedly the most
underrated large city in the United States.
Instead, this is a reminder of how much we take for
granted in our advanced culture of the 21st Century
-- and how much worse off we might be.
The Kansas City water emergency happened when
a 48-inch water main broke, and cut off service to
150,000 people. City officials called the
water-main break the worst in local history; in the
center of the city, water pressure became
nonexistent, air-conditioning units shut down, and
all buildings more than four stories tall were advised
to evacuate because of fears of problems in the
event of fires.
Water pressure was restored within hours -- but
the boil-water order remained in effect for an entire
day and night because of the possibility of
contamination in the wake of the breakage.
So no water, no prepared food, no ice was the rule
in a big portion of Kansas City -- including the
portion where I was staying.
And -- the next afternoon, when it was all over --
here is what I figured out:
We are all lucky beyond imagining. We count on
certain things, because as Americans during our
time in history we have become accustomed to
We turn a handle, and fresh, cool water, safe for
drinking, comes out; we turn another handle and
the water is as hot as we want it.
We pick up a telephone receiver, and within
seconds we can reach family and friends in any part
of the U.S., and in most parts of the world. It's
We flick a switch and lamps illuminate our homes
and offices. We flick another switch to cool things
down, yet another to warm things up.
Fresh food -- meat, dairy items, produce -- is
readily available wherever we are, conveniently
packaged and guaranteed safe to consume.
If we want to be on the other side of the United
States, we can be there within a few hours -- jet
airplanes are regularly scheduled so that if we leave
by the middle of the day, we can be on either coast
We become frustrated and angry when any of these
things break down; when the water stops flowing,
or the lights stop working, we act as if the world is
coming to an end. The reason we behave this way
is because we have it so good -- these amazing
facts of our lives have been with us for so long that
it strikes us as outrageous when they are taken
away from us for a day, or for a week.
Thus, when Chicago has had its problems with
electricity in recent seasons, the rage has been
understandable: When you become accustomed to
something being there on demand, you will not
accept its absence -- you are more perplexed that
it is gone than you are astonished that it is always
so easily available. When airplane flights are
delayed for five or six hours, or are canceled, you
say you can't believe it -- when perhaps the truly
unbelievable thing is that the planes are usually there
to take us to so many places so quickly and so
Now . . . I am able to bring this kind of perspective
to all of this because, as I write these words, the
water crisis is over. I don't think I could have been
as calmly reflective during the boil order, when no
one knew when the water would be back.
As for food: For dinner the first night I had a bag of
spicy peanuts from my hotel room mini-bar. For
breakfast the next morning I had a Butterfinger
candy bar. The pathetic thing is that I realized later
these were probably the two most nutritious,
well-balanced meals I have eaten in
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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