If not for the neon "Open" sign, the hardware store might as well have been a speakeasy on Monday morning.
A middle-aged man in a heavy-hooded overcoat thumped his umbrella on the counter of Dupont Circle's True Value Hardware and said, "Flashlight. The most powerful one you have."
True Value had sold out of flashlights by Friday, even selling out of the $39.99 drill kits that had mini, attached lights on Sunday. But as owner John Spalding turned customers away that day, he also gave them a tip: The store was expecting an emergency shipment of 50 flashlights late Sunday night. Come Monday morning. Come early. We're the only ones getting them, and they're going to go fast.
Losing power seemed inevitable as Hurricane Sandy moved into the District Monday with winds expected to reach 90 mph. Pepco had requested more than 3,700 extra units before the rain started falling Sunday night, as region President Tom Graham warned, "This is going to be an unprecedented, destructive and dangerous storm."
And so as the rain began to pound the sidewalks on Monday morning and the wind turned umbrellas into battering rams, Washingtonians did what they do best: They scoffed, although their actions told a different story. Their power lines were buried, they said, buying half a dozen flashlights. They lived too close to the White House to lose power, they said, hauling sand bags, batteries and duct tape to their cars. The store was packed before it even opened. No one was buying Turtle Wax or double-sided mounting tape.
"I called Safeway and they told me they had flashlights, but they didn't," said Kelly Josiah, 37, grabbing two. "I've lived here for 14 years and never lost power, but they're kind of freaking out about it, like never before."
Ana Aguilar, 27, picked up an 18-hour LED flashlight and extra batteries. "I came here yesterday and asked for a flashlight and the person behind me was laughing, like, did you think you were going to get a flashlight this late?" Aguilar ordered one off Amazon -- "You never know" -- but returned to True Value Monday morning for an 18-hour Rayovac.
Spalding believes his shop was the only one with flashlights Monday, after turning away hundreds of customers over the weekend. "It's the most basic thing. Power goes out, you need a light," he said.
After the shipment arrived Sunday night, two employees slept on the floor of the back room. Tom Ripley was worried he wouldn't be able to get in Monday from Waldorf, Md., while Darian Crouse knew he couldn't commute in from College Park without Metro.
Ripley brought a change of clothes, pretty sure he would need them. Crouse said he brought deodorant, "so I'm good."
True Value, possibly the last merchants of light in the District, sold out of flashlights before 10 a.m. The last one sold was half-broken, in an open package, and without batteries (it went for half-price). They even sold out of MagLites, the most powerful brand they carry -- but it takes D batteries.
"Sorry," Spalding kept explaining to customers, "but we're out of D batteries."