Saturday, August 14, 2004

Happy Blackout Anniversary!

One year ago today, August 14, 2003, was the biggest, baddest blackout to ever hit the east coast (well, baddest for the 21st century, anyway.) What were you doing that day? Did it affect you?

Here in NYC, lots of people didn't get power back for two days or more. Given the high-rise situation, that meant no water, no relief from the high 80 / low 90 degree temperature trend we were dealing with at the time, no nothing.

It also meant a lot of bonding - you met the neighbors you'd lived next to for years but never spoken with, strangers on the street shared the news with you, and a lot of bars and restaurants in Manhattan gave away an awful lot of free perishables, thus making it kind of a candle lit camp for hot, sweaty, beer swilling grownups.

I had just finished my first day of work for the famous asshat ex-employers. We were about to eat cake for a co-worker's birthday at 4:30 pm when the lights flickered and then shut down. A senior consultant happened to have a battery powered portable television on hand, through which we found that this wasn't just the building - this was the entire east coast.

I was new to the city and proud of my subway skills, but the trains (electrically powered) weren't running. I figured out that I could possibly catch a bus to my home in the Bronx (upwards of 8 miles away) on 3rd Ave., across town (I was in Chelsea, West 19th Street). I was wearing new heels to my first day of work, and they'd been giving me blisters without even walking that much. I made a beeline for one of those street vendors selling the $5 Chinese net & sequin slippers, and started on a hike that eventually led all the way up to the Upper East Side - roughly four miles, in business casual, on a day that was a good 90 degrees. I had plenty of company.

The streets were this incredible swarm of office types, marching in front of the impossible traffic jams on every corner. Bars were full of people brandishing beer bottles and candles, and there were opportunists selling bottled water at an egregious mark up everywhere you looked. The mass just kept moving north, looking for buses (they kept passing by, full to the brim with Wall Street commuters from way, way downtown.)

Finally, at about 88th and 3rd Ave., I encountered a mass of people waiting for buses to the Bronx. I was worried - the ATMs had all shut down with the power, and I had no cash should an express bus pull up (they don't take the standard MTA metrocard.) I shouldn't have bothered. Everything was free. An hour later, when a bus finally stopped, the sticky mass around me piled on and started to voice their worries. Was it a terrorist attack? Most of these folks had been through the same thing on 9/11 - I wasn't here yet then - and it hit too close to home. Every twentieth person or so was covered in grime, refugees of the downed subway system who had had to crawl through the gritty tunnels when their trains stopped short.

Hours and two harried, confused transfers later, my bus wound it's way through Morris Park, the neighborhood we called home until we found our current humble abode. On one block, the lights were on, and the whole bus cheered. (Apparently, it was only the one block. We realized our power was back when, at four in the morning, our fans suddenly churned into action and woke us from a fitful, sticky attempt at sleep). I passed Kiernan's daycare - empty, blackened, deserted. There were candles all along the street, and even folks up in the Bronx seemed to share a sense of adventure and camraderie. The local bodegas were open, guarded by SUVs shining their headlights into the stores. I made my way around the corner, up the block - to a shrine of candles all along our stoop, a radio blaring news, a case of beer and bottled water on ice in a cooler, cold chinese sesame noodles, and Tim and Kiernan, my favorite boys.

Tim had walked all the way from 86th and Lexington, through Hunt's Point and Soundview and all of the other questionable south Bronx neighborhoods, the neighborhoods that had seen looting and arson during the last big blackout in the seventies. Despite this, he made it home an hour before I did. But here we all were, and we were all good.

So, what happened to you that day? Share your stories! It was surely my initiation into New York City. What was it for you?


At 6:03 PM, Blogger Me said...

I was actually at Cleveland Hopkins airport, and was waiting to fly to Montreal. Of course, I was on the side that HADN'T gone through the screening yet. Which meant I wasn't going anywhere. So we decide that we will drive to Montreal. Not thinking that no electricity means no gas...until we are about 2 1/2 hours away and are running low. Not one of my smarter moments.

The other interesting thing was being in Canada - watching Canadian TV - as the US and Canada kept blaming each other for the power outage in the beginning. It makes you realize just how "slanted" the media actually is, all while not seeming slanted (with the exception of Faux News that couldn't not seem slanted not matter how it tried).

At 5:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember that day, it was sooooooooooooo hot! I was at work when it happened and it took about three hours to get home (normally 20-30 minutes). We spent the night outside with neighbours, having a few drinks and talking. For us, the blackout lasted 24 hours, for my sister it was a week before she had power again.

At 9:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was returing from six weeks of touring with 'Porgy and Bess' in the UK, and I got stranded in Toronto for three days. If I had been in the mood to sightsee, it might have been fun, but as it was they were awful, bitter days spent trying to find any possible way out of there and back home. I learned a few things though- I found out that there is only one train per day from toronto to NYC and that it sells out quickly. I also found out that you can't rent a car in canada and drive it to new york.

Anyway, after two more bookings and cancellations, I finally got myself booked on another flight that actually took off. By then all the fun was over in the city...


At 4:24 PM, Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

I was trapped in the NYC subway, and had to trudge to freedom through the subway tunnel. A joy. Truly. But got an article out of the whole thing...a writer's silver lining to every cloud, if I'm lucky!


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