Scenes from a Blackout

Blackout 2003Here’s my collection of notes from the big blackout of 2003, but first a few thoughts on context: when I was growing up, I thought that the rough and tumble of American history was more or less behind us, and that the modern America of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century would be remembered as a time of calm, of society in repose.

Clearly, I was wrong; in the last five years, we’ve seen an impeached presidency, a stolen presidential election, the attacks of September 11th, an avalanche of accounting scandals, an impending gubernatorial recall in the sixth largest economy in the world, and now the largest blackout to beset urban America, like, ever. This is crazy!

New York Blackout

Thursday Afternoon

The power goes off and a woman working in the office next door to us at Behavior gets stuck in the elevator. Jeff and I walk down twelve flights of steep stairs in pitch blackness to find the building super. We manage to buy a pair of flashlights from a wholesale business on 27th Street; they’re cheap and flimsy and the name on the batteries is “Duraking,” but the merchants still try to gouge us on the price.

After an hour of waiting around, we decide to call it a day and walk home. The streets are flooded with people leaving their offices; it looks as if a rock concert, a football game, a parade and a political convention have all just let out. We pass a Subway sandwich shop where they’re hawking half-priced sandwiches. One of the employees is yelling at the top of her lungs, “Blackout special! Half-priced sandwiches! You can not miss this opportunity!”

Above: Workers pour down Broadway, at 23rd Street, an hour or so after the blackout hit.

Thursday Evening

My girlfriend and I wait in line to buy groceries at the market around the corner, where they’re letting customers in one by one. Inside in the darkness, there are store clerks stationed strategically throughout the aisles with flashlights, to watch for shoplifters. Between us, we had just six dollars when the power went off, so we can only afford a box of pasta, a couple of small tomatoes, a loaf of bread and some grapefruit juice.

As the night wears on, the electricity-free East Village becomes a street party. People are out and about everywhere and enjoying themselves. Most of the hedonists have gathered at Tompkins Square Park, where a battery of drums and a bonfire convince me that if power isn’t returned soon, it’s going to turn into a postmodern “Lord of the Flies.”

Blackout Blow-Out at Subway

My sister and her six year old son, who had been planning for months to come and visit me on this very Thursday, manage to procure a taxi after a long, long wait at JFK airport. Because the wireless telephone coverage is so spotty, I’m not even sure when they’re arriving, so I camp myself out in front of the building around 01:30a and wait for them to show up. They finally do shortly after 02:00a, and I lead them into our dark, hot and humid apartment.

Above: Desperate times call for desperate measures. A Subway sandwich artist hawks the blackout clearance on their tasty sandwiches.

Friday Morning

I can’t sleep past six o’clock, because my girlfriend and I are out of cash and my sister spent the last of her cash on the taxi — I’m deathly afraid that we won’t see power again for days and our money situation will become a major problem. At 06:15a, I’m on a bus uptown, where I hear that some power has returned to some neighborhoods. I head all the way up to 72nd Street and First Avenue when I give up on the Upper East Side, seeing no sign of electricity.

Taking a bus south again, I happen to see some lights in Midtown West, and make my way over there. Fifth Avenue is deserted but it has power, and I’m appalled by the luxury stores with electronic displays running in their windows, with no inkling of the fact that hardly anyone anywhere has power.

All the automated teller machines in the Midtown Citibank branches are down, and I wander around that area for a while hoping that perhaps a Chase or an HSBC ATM will be working. A police officer tells me that he just got some cash at a deli ATM, so I find two of them and withdraw US$200 (the limit) from each. These delis are crowded with tourists and insanely dedicated office workers trying to get a head start on their day. I buy some more groceries for my girlfriend, sister and nephew and head back to the East Village.

Friday Afternoon

To kill time and get relief from the heat, we all head uptown, to Times Square, where they have air conditioning and some restaurants are open. We wander around for a while, ending up at a T.G.I. Fridays where we eat an absurdly over-priced lunch. Everybody seems to be in good spirits, though, and you almost wouldn’t know that there was a crisis going on. We walk over to the movie theaters on 42nd Street, hoping one of them will be open but no luck. We head back to the apartment, where we play board games and try to keep cool.

Friday Night

My girlfriend cooks some pasta for dinner, which turns out to be a kind of mistake — the apartment becomes irretrievably hot. We eat together and talk, and I’m struck by how amazingly patient and tolerant my little nephew is. Me, I’ve really had it, as we’re hearing on the radio that most of the city has come on line already. We keep listening for some indication of when the lights will return to the East Village, but everybody — the radio announcers, the Mayor, the Governor — they all act as if the crisis was a thing of the past. We’re feeling desperate, frustrated and angry, as if the entire East Village has been forgotten.

The apartment is so hot, we decide to go out to Tompkins Square Park, where the night air is much cooler. We sit around for a while and talk, enjoying the fact that the air is just warm, and not stifling hot. By luck, we’re out there only twenty minutes when we see the lights start to come back on around the park, and people everywhere begin cheering and clapping. Suddenly the blackout seems like a thing of the past, too. My girlfriend, my sister, my nephew, my dog and I all rush back to the apartment, where we close all the windows, blast the air conditioning and turn on the television.