This is a personal account of the blackout of August 14, 2003. It’s not a reported piece. And not very much happens in it.
These are the places that I would not want to be stuck during a blackout: an elevator, the subway, a ferris wheel, an MRI machine. The place I’d most like to be if another blackout fell across the city would be an airplane. I’d like to be in an airplane descending from the clouds; I’d like for the captain’s voice to scratch its way over the speakers and into the cabin and I’d like to hear him say, “Well, look at that. That’s something you don’t see every day.” I’d like to drop down with a thump into a darkened city, and make my way home, past the softening skyline and the sharp relief of the city’s sounds. When one sense falters, another rises up. But I wasn’t in an elevator, or the subway or a ferris wheel or a hospital or an airplane when the blackout fell across the whole northeastern corridor ten years ago. No, I wasn’t in any of those places. I was in a bar.
For better or for worse, New Yorkers get asked a variation on this question a lot: “Where were you when [insert event here] happened?” And unless the answer is “Well, I was right in the middle of it,” then you don’t really have an answer at all. The day of the blackout—August 14, 2003—I was right in the middle of it. I was 22, and I had been drinking and smoking and laughing all afternoon with my friend and my husband was out of town and my one-year-old son was in daycare, and I kept checking my phone, knowing that I had to get on the F by 5 o’clock so that I could get back to Brooklyn and pick him up. I was in a bar on Spring Street and we knew the bartender and she kept pouring us drinks. Even when the lights went out—they didn’t flicker, they just went out—and the bartender saw that her cash register wouldn’t open and the owner of the boutique next door came in and asked “Did you lose power too?” we didn’t panic. We had one more drink and my friend and I shared a cigarette and decided to get a falafel from Bereket before heading back to Brooklyn on the F.
It was only once we got to Houston Street that we realized the power outage might not be confined to a small area after all. All the lights were out. Regular pedestrians were directing traffic at major intersections. One guy stood right in the heart of Bowery and Houston, moving his arms and his body with a balletic grace that, I remember, brought tears to my drunk, drunk eyes. “It’s so beautiful,” I said to my friend. “No one is even honking.” They were, I think, probably honking a little. But not very much. Instead, traffic was flowing as it always did during rush hour—slowly, but surely. We got to Bereket but they couldn’t make a falafel because the deep fryer and all the electrical equipment were shut down. So I had shawarma. And we tried to get on the subway.
It was only as we stood at the mouth of the 2nd Avenue F station and people streamed up from its depths that we finally learned that this blackout wasn’t just in downtown Manhattan. This blackout reached all across New York. This blackout was even in Brooklyn. “Even in Brooklyn?” I asked. “Everywhere!” some guy shouted. I started to sober up. We decided, as did thousands and thousands of other New Yorkers that day, to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. But we had walked no more than two blocks when a gold Lincoln Continental pulled up beside us and the 80-year-old woman in the passenger seat asked me, “Do you know how to get to Brooklyn from here?” The driver, who was maybe 90 or maybe 60 or probably something in between, confirmed, “We’re lost.”
“Will you give us a ride?”