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?”
We inched our way through the streets of Chinatown, listening to the radio and learning that the blackout was regional, but that terrorism was not suspected. This was important to hear, especially back then, but probably also now. People were advised to stay indoors and be careful with candles and were reminded of the riots and looting and fires that happened during the blackout of 1977. But this was not that. Driving through downtown Manhattan and over the bridge and into Brooklyn, there was no sign of anything except camaraderie and good humor. The people in the streets were laughing and talking and I felt bad about being in a car. I was also losing my fuzzy, drunk happy state and just wanted to see my son. I asked the women (who were going to Bay Ridge) to drop us off in Park Slope, even though we were going to Windsor Terrace (“It’s very nice there,” one of the women had said, “so good for families.” “Well,” I said. “I guess so.”) I wanted to walk. But the women—and my friend—wouldn’t hear of it, and they dropped us off in front of the daycare and that was the last I saw of them. My son, and the other kids, didn’t know a thing was wrong, but then one-year-olds don’t know everything, and we went home and climbed up the 6 flights of stairs and had a cookout with our neighbors on the roof and, I don’t know, met new people but made no friends and I drank some good wine and then we went back to our apartment where I made sure there were no candles burning and I let him sleep with me in my bed that night, wishing that my phone worked so that I could talk to my husband.
The streets were quiet that night. There weren’t any more sirens than usual. And then in the morning, everything was working again. I was woken up by the phone ringing and didn’t even think there was anything odd about that, and picked it up and heard my husband’s voice and he told me he was coming home later and was annoyed that he missed all the fun.
“Yeah, it sure was fun. I would have hated to have missed it.” I don’t remember why I was spiteful, other than that I was maybe lonely. But that is always reason enough.
There were t-shirts made. “I survived the blackout of 2003!” But then, so did everybody. I was talking about the blackout last week and someone who wasn’t here for it (and what’s strange to me now is how many people I know who didn’t live here ten years ago) said, “Oh! Wasn’t it really dangerous? Weren’t there lots of riots?”
No. It was not really dangerous, and there were not lots of riots. It was a quiet night of talking to people you were never going to talk to again and getting into cars with strangers and drinking too much because there was nothing else to do and feeling unconnected and connected to everything all at once, and the big deal of it was that it wasn’t a big deal at all. So it was pretty much like every other night, and it was pretty much what you made of it. The big deal about surviving the blackout was that everyone survived the blackout. Long considered a tough city that chews you up and spits you out, New York proved in one night that even if it chewed you up, it had no teeth anymore. You’d be just fine.
Here is the one thing, though, that I learned from the blackout. Never go day-drinking in Manhattan. Little old ladies in Lincoln Continentals aren’t going to save your ass every time something bad happens.
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