The relentless hum of utility trucks, the occasional screech of police sirens, and a steady stream of conversation: That was the morning-after soundtrack to the recovery from a billowing fire that knocked out power to thousands in Boston.
Signs of a blackout lingered Wednesday in the Back Bay and South End, typically the pulsing heart of the city. Handwritten notes and typed messages dotted display windows of health clubs and parking garages and just about every shop on Newbury Street from Massachusetts Avenue to Clarendon Street. The wording may have been different, but the message was the same: Closed due to power outage.
"We had to lose a lot of frozen stuff, maybe $300 or $400 worth of stuff,'' said Dilip Dis inside a darkened City Convenience store on Dartmouth Street, near the Back Bay T station. "We sell maybe $4,000 to $5,000 a day. Today, maybe we sell nothing.''
If Tuesday was the day the lights went out, then Wednesday was the day they didn't come back on. The outage delayed midterms and left residents with cold showers. Those feeling suddenly disconnected went searching for some place - any place - with a signal and functioning power outlet for their smartphones.
The blackout quashed business along Boylston Street, the commercial spine of the Back Bay; shuttered salons along Boston's high fashion promenade, Newbury Street; and caused logjams at the few establishments open with auxiliary power, such as the Finagle-a-Bagel at Boylston and Clarendon streets. Its customers were quick to plug in cellphones but slow to complete their meals in order to recharge as much as possible.
Dis was not that lucky. He and Morshed Alam stood alone in the center of a store usually filled with the sound of humming lights and refrigerators. The two were bundled against the late winter chill, but closing the front door wasn't an option. With no power, the ventilation system was not working properly. They could not leave.
"If power comes back,'' Alam said, "we need to open right away.''
By midday, some 12,000 homes and businesses remained without power, among them the 600 residents of Tent City Apartments.
Residents did not have to worry about walking up stairs - there are at least 11 floors - and emerging into dark hallways. A backup generator powered the elevators and common areas.
After charging her cellphone at a nearby kiosk, Robin Thompson was rushing back inside Tent City to check on her diabetic 80-year-old aunt, with whom she shares an eighth-floor apartment. In the courtyard, she spotted an 11th-floor neighbor and stopped to ask how Lovenia Thomas, 73, was getting along. Both were home Tuesday night when they heard two large booms and saw lights flicker before going out completely after a transformer fire in the Back Bay.
"I was coming from playing my numbers,'' Thompson said.
"And I was getting ready to leave to go to church,'' Thomas continued.
Thompson checked on neighbors who use wheelchairs or oxygen machines. Everyone, she said, was OK.
Thomas went to church as planned and returned to a dark home after 10 p.m. Her only concern is her brother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and lives nearby. "I've got my cellphone, and I've been calling him, and I can't reach him,'' she said.
At a Berklee College of Music dorm on Commonwealth Avenue, this is how students spent hours: "We spent the time jamming in the dark, playing board games, and doing homework, until the emergency lights went out,'' said Molly Sauer after buying snacks at a CVS on Boylston.
As the day wore on and power gradually returned, outages were hit or miss, affecting one block but not another.
Newbury Street from Berkeley to Clarendon streets buzzed with activity, as customers packed into cafes with electricity and shopkeepers stocked shelves.
"When I left, we had power, and when I got here, we had power,'' said Melissa McGill, manager of The Blues Jean Bar. "We just happened to be fortunate.'' Stores to the west on Newbury were not so lucky, with few pedestrians and even fewer cars.
Some businesses used the day to accomplish tasks that either would go undone - or done only after a long day. Shellee Mendes, owner of Salon Monét, caught up on payroll.
At Ben & Jerry's, Jonathan Sanchez and Kasey Buono had already packed the freezers with 300 pounds of dry ice to try to save as much ice cream as possible. Now, it was time to spray-paint chairs and tables, instead of making smoothies or scooping out chunky monkey.
"You have to have something to do,'' quipped Sanchez, a can of silver spray paint in hand.
Generators buzzed at some shops as the diminished crowds stepped over thick black power cords snaking across sidewalks from generator trucks and into businesses.
At the PourHouse Bar and Grill on Boylston across from the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, the race was on to put perishables into a refrigerated truck.
On Tuesday, the lights suddenly went out, leaving customers in darkness and preventing the staff from performing their usual nightly cleanup. Power was not expected back on until late Wednesday night, leaving the restaurant thousands of dollars in the hole.
"On a regular Wednesday, we'd make about $7,000 to $10,000,'' said Karen Hoffman, the restaurant's event coordinator.
Not this Wednesday.
Hoffman and others were simply trying to cope. Michael Lemanski, general manager at Trident Booksellers and Cafe, said he helped a regular customer look for a magazine by flashlight and offered to fire up the gas stove and boil a cup of coffee for another. As for the loss of perishables?
"I guess that's what insurance is for,'' he said with a shrug.