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I just put toilet paper on my shopping list for the first time in over a year. Since Jan.1, 2000, I’ve been demobilizing, breaking up my camp like the Red Cross leaving after a flood. In preparation for Y2K, I’d done most of the things recommended on TV: filled the bathtub on New Year’s Eve in case there was no running water, bought a supply of nonperishable food, pulled a little extra cash out of my account, and bought a flashlight, batteries, candles, and extra paper products.
One year later, my bedroom bookcasesonce stacked with rolls of toilet paper and bars of soapare nearly empty. I’m down to my last two rolls. As the real millennium begins, I have to ask myself: Were the preparations I made for the threatened Y2K meltdown sensible and responsible, as I used to thinkor did I just go mental?
Y2Kthe threatened breakdown of civilization, not the calendar yearstarted for me in the fall of 1999, when a man from the Pentagon, Walter Benesch, spoke to my D.C. Libertarian chapter on behalf of the Northern Virginia Y2K Community Action Group. The problem, Benesch said, was that there were 25 billion to 30 billion microprocessors in the world, 3 billion of which had embedded date functions, 300 million of which would be likely to fail when the ball fell. And the fun part was that no one knew where the failures would occur or what might happen when they did. He told us stories about aircraft carriers that wouldn’t steer, nuclear missiles that might launch, and water-treatment plants that wouldn’t know which chemicals to add to the Potomac to keep the water from killing us. I walked Benesch to the Dupont Circle Metro and decided then and there that I had to get myself informed. I had to help. I had to spread the word.
The next morning, my head had cleared some, and I decided to load up on supplies only for myself and my nearest relatives. Water was the big thing. I started picking up 10-gallon boxes of spring water on weekend jaunts to BJ’s Wholesale Club andby Y2K minus oneI had 56 gallons stacked around my tiny Dupont Circle living room. I also stashed 10 gallons each at an aunt’s in Fairfax and a friend’s in Alexandria, with the idea that I might not be able to reach them for a few days and that they’d have to fend for themselves until then. The streets of D.C. could be clogged with riotersor commuters trying to maneuver without traffic lights.
The direst predictions didn’t seem to forecast disruptions longer than six months. And Benesch had said the good thing about living in D.C. was that we’d get “fixed” first. So six months became my survival time frame. I laid in 80 pounds of kitty litter and swung by the veterinarian’s for a six-month supply of cat food. For myself, I decided to stock up on nonperishable foodstuffs I could eat even if nothing went wrong: 30-plus cans of tuna, a pepperoni, a Hillshire Farm Yard-o-Beef sausage (a bit of a rip-off at only 16 inches), and, for greens, an 8-pound jar of pickles. Inspired by A Stillness at Appomattox, which I was reading at the time, I added a six-month supply of multivitamins and minerals to my list. A third of the Union army’s soldiers suffered from scurvy during the Civil War, according to the book, and I was determined to avoid their fate.
Sometime in mid-November, my friend John advised me to quit telling people I was stock-piling water and to buy a gun to protect my precious stores. I didn’tbut only because I thought I should really practice using it first and I was too busy foraging for supplies.
On Nov. 26, I got an e-mail from one of my lunatic-fringe friends. More Y2K predictions and survival tips. She estimated a 20 percent chance of D.C.’s being without water for at least five days, a 10 percent chance of a partial or full nuclear meltdown somewhere in the world, and a 20 percent chance that the food-distribution chain would be disrupted.
That’s when I turned the bedroom into the health-and-beauty-aids staging area. I bought a 20-roll pack of toilet paper and 16 bars of Ivory soap. The e-mail also suggested buying lots of trash bags”Toilets could stop working!”but I realized that that’s where I had to draw the line. If the toilets stopped working, I’d take the cat and the pickles and start a new life in Fairfax.
Not many preparations were left by Christmas 1999. I withdrew $200 in small billschange might be in short supplybut in a worst-case scenario I suspected I’d get more for a can of tuna than for so-called U.S. currency. On Christmas Eve, I stocked my car with a trunkload of firewood, purchased from recent immigrants who’d bought a house in the suburbs andto the annoyance of their neighborscut down all the trees and chopped them up for sale.
Finally, the big day arrived. I see scant reason to leave the house on any New Year’s Eve, and I saw even less reason in 1999: The World Wrestling Federation was running a year-end special, “Eve of Destruction.” I was on the phone with a wrestling crony when the great moment came and passed.
The celebratory fireworks around the world were not augmented by thermonuclear explosions, the drinking water in D.C. was no worse than usual, and trash bags were needed only to clean up litter on the Mall. But my apartment was now a fully stocked mini-Red Cross relief camp, lacking only the sand bags.
Gradually, I started eating, drinking, and otherwise disposing of my stash. The bathtub of water was the first thing to go, although I drained it only when I had to shower to go back to work on Jan. 4. I ate all the tuna and preserved meats over the course of the spring. I actually forgot about the pepperoni for the first few months, but when I found it in a cupboard in late spring, it was still edible. No such luck with the pickles: In late March, they began to stink; then they turned to mush in their giant jar. (In my defense: If I’d had to rely on them for food, they’d have been eaten before they went bad.)
That left me with boxes and boxes of bottled water in the living room. My goal was to drink it all before my new couch arrived in mid-July. But 56 gallons is a lot of water. I poured a last, bittersweet glass just a couple weeks past my deadline, on July 29.
Apparently, I’m right in tune with the cat’s metabolism, though. Like clockwork, the food and litter both ran out at the end of June.
By the eve of the real millenniumthe year 2001I had whittled my stockpile down to half a dozen bars of soap, two rolls of toilet paper, and the trunkful of firewood. I never suffered the slightest symptoms of scurvy.
So were my preparations sensible? I’d have had a hard time smuggling logs in from my car past any kind of angry mob, and I knew from the get-go that the car was beyond my ability to defend if there had been civil unrest. The logs, in fact, have remained in the trunk all year long. And, much as I like canned tuna, dried sausage, and pickles, this diet would have gotten old pretty quick if I’d had to have it day after day.
As for the water, I’m so stingy by nature that I might very well have died of dehydration, still surrounded by 56 untouched gallons of spring water. And let’s not even contemplate what would have happened during any kind of sewage emergency.
On the plus side, had something happened, I would have been a lot better off in my little bunker than people who did nothing to prepare. And I might have gotten to do my savior act if things had gone awry in Northern Virginia.
Many people have asked me if I’m disappointed that nothing bad happened last New Year’s. I’m really not. But I confess that if things had gone a different way, I might have enjoyed a twinge of schadenfreude as I looked down on some scene of chaos while gnawing on a Vlasic, washed down with clear spring water. CP