Powerless Connecticut families and commuters seek unlikely refuge to stay working

Beau Brendler

DANBURY, Conn.—Sit down, plug in, power up, log in.

It's a morning work ritual for many, but not usually practiced steps from a blaring antique merry-go-round and an AstroTurf fantasyland with 3-foot-high shiny worms and fire engines—not to mention an Arby's and two Chinese restaurants if you count Famous Cajun Grill.

A fellowship of the wireless—about 100 people—bonded here Wednesday in order to work. These focused, coffee-chugging, laptop-hammering, people sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a setup reminiscent of a call center. Tips were traded: McDonald's signal was strongest; Sephora has comfortable seats nearby, but connectivity faded as more people showed up; no, you didn't need a password.

Together they turned the second floor of southern Connecticut's Danbury Fair shopping mall into a satellite office where a corporate titan of Manhattan might have plugged in next to a copy-shop manager. Many were in "hurricane casual"—some freshly showered, others looking not, some sol0, others with full families in tow.

"I have a deadline at work, no power and three kids home from school," said Alicia Dempster of Danbury, a 17-year employee of research firm Gartner.

She heard about the mall setup—a dozen cafeteria tables put end-to-end with chairs and power outlets—from a friend who read about her dilemma on Facebook. Sandwiched between the mall's well-known antique carousel and the food court, the setup allows young ones to occupy themselves at a playground in the line of sight, while older ones work or hit the stores.

Actual shopping, however, seemed fairly low on most priority lists. Brother and sister Rachel and Ben Grannis, 21 and 17, respectively, of Ridgefield, came here with their mother. They were taking things easy—the power was out in their home, the family's three phones needed charging and Rachel was getting cabin fever. "After we charge up we may walk around here," she said.

Craig Laurer from Danbury got to the mall early. The mobile employee works for a big telecom firm and is used to disruption.

"This is the epitome of mixed blessings," he said. "Right there, there's McDonald's, but can I just walk away and leave my corporate laptop here and go?" He struck a bargain with a neighbor to watch his gear while he headed off and then returned with coffee and a burrito.

For some of those stranded commuters and folks who normally work from home, setting up shop at Danbury Fair is not unusual. A year ago, Hurricane Irene swept Connecticut, leaving Laurer and thousands of others in the dark.

"I had no power for eight days," Laurer said. "They set up this same kind of thing back then, and I just assumed it would be here."

Melissa Eigen, Danbury Fair's marketing manager, said the mall can accommodate about 200 people needing a place to connect. Mall management has set up the power and work station three times after similar storms.

"We had power all three [times], so we were able to accommodate a large number of people and assist the community to stay connected," said Eigen. "We've also had a lot of people just be able to work from the mall and continue to manage their businesses." The carousel and play area, she noted, are added bonuses for parents.

On Wednesday, the kids' areas were packed, with an added atmosphere of surrealism thanks to it being Halloween. Many kids were in costume. Two toddlers on the playground were dressed head-to-toe as dalmatians. A furry green lizard shambled past Charley's Subs. The mall puts on a special trick-or-treat every year and, on Wednesday, it was being planned for 4-6 p.m.

But despite the costumes, the vibe was not George-Romero-Dawn-of-the-Dead with zombies shuffling up the down escalators. Rather, it was sort of, well, nice.

"I like to believe that kindness comes out in people in times like these," said Dempster, who kept an eye on a workmate's belongings for a moment while he used the bathroom, "and that they will look out for each other."