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In Defense of Strawberries And Cream

What separates barbarism from civilization? About 96 hours without power, it turns out. The plight of a few New Yorkers left without food, fuel, or power -- and increasingly without public services -- has provided a cautionary tale into what happens when the infrastructure which supports 21st century megacities collapses. It shows what occurs when the design margin runs out. The signs in the disaster area abound. "Looters will be shot." "Block proteced by Smith and Wesson."

"We booby-trapped our door and keep a baseball bat beside our bed," Danielle Harris, 34, told the New York Daily News.

The woman added that she has been hearing gunshots likely fired in the nearby housing project for three nights in a row.

Meanwhile, local surfer Keone Singlehurst said that he stockpiled knives, a machete and a bow and arrow.

"I would take a looter with a bow if a felt threatened.  I would definitely use it," he said. "It's like the wild west. A borderline lawless situation."

The New York Times describes what life has become in public housing. The residents dread the coming of the shadows with the same intensity as the Eloi feared sundown. A-woo.

It would be dark soon at the Coney Island Houses, the fourth night without power, elevators and water. Another night of trips up and down pitch-black staircases, lighted by shaky flashlights and candles. Another night of retreating from the dark.

On the second floor of Building 4, an administrative assistant named Santiago, 43, who was sharing her apartment with five relatives, ran through a mental checklist. Turn the oven on for heat. Finish errands, like fetching water for the toilet, before the light fades.

“We don’t dare throw out garbage at night,” she said. “We make sure everything’s done.” ...

Perhaps more so than in any other place in the city, the loss of power for people living in public housing projects forced a return to a primal existence. Opened fire hydrants became community wells. Sleep-and-wake cycles were timed to sunsets and sunrises. People huddled for warmth around lighted gas stoves as if they were roaring fires. Darkness became menacing, a thing to be feared.

In H.G. Well's story the Eloi marvel at the instinctive ability of the Time Traveler to defend himself against the Morlocks. What was ordinary for a man of the 19th century had become unthinkable to the child-like inhabitants of that dismal future. The ability to resist had been bred out of them. Perhaps in time it will be bred out of the hapless denizens of public housing, waiting as they are for "someone" to restore order. It now no longer occurs to them that this "someone" was once them.

But where the memory of the human birthright had not been wholly extirpated, the residents looked to themselves. Gone in an instant was the idea that "guns" are bad. Unmentioned was the once sacrosanct principle that nothing is settled by force. Few things transform a surfer -- like the man above -- into a caveman faster than need.