Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Long Day’s Journey into Another Long Day’s Journey: Blackout 2003

(article originally published in the Stamford Times, September 2003)

For 24 hours, no hearts were broken in New York City

Thursday, August 14, was progressing nicely. I got an excellent year-end review, raising hopes for continuing employment as a writer for MAF (Major Accounting Firm) and a bonus and a raise. I was looking forward to my vacation the next week.

In retrospect, signs abounded that Something Was About To Happen. Just before 3 pm, I pondered my American Express bill. Should I pay it online Thursday, or Friday, when I got my direct deposit? Did it matter? Which would hit my checking account first (given the perilous state of my finances, such timing is a major concern). I could wait, I could act, I could wait until later in the day. Finally, with the madcap abandon that so often marks my actions, I decided to pay on Thursday and at 3:01 pm I pushed the button to send American Express its latest cup of blood. Done.

Mrs. Ex-Wallach called me around 4:10 pm. She had driven our son and a friend to the Science Museum in Queens, a good summer vacation activity. We were chatting when the lights in my office suddenly died. My computer stayed on via battery power but everything else just stopped. The room stayed light because of sunlight from nearby windows. “Gee,” I said, “The power just went out.” In a matter of seconds I realized Mrs. Ex-Wallach had vanished, remaining only as a cellphone number frozen on the display of my office phone.

My officemates on the 15th floor of our swanky midtown Manhattan office building and I thought this was a glitch in our building, similar to the occasional false fire alarms. Our hopes evaporated as cell phones failed, lights remained off, and we began to sense a bigger problem confronted us (beyond not being able to submit our timesheets by midnight).

A designer plugged his Walkman into a small stereo speaker and we gathered to listen to updates on WCBS. It was bad and spreading. The pattern across Canada and the U.S. did not, at the time, make sense. Some of us went to a roof outside our offices to watch traffic congestion build below on 3rd Avenue. Large groups of people gathered outside buildings. What I found most unnerving were sights of people looking out their windows, watching, wondering what would happen next.

The dumbest thing I heard came from a young mail room employee, who groused that the blackout was “worse than 9-11. At least then the phones were working and I could call my girlfriend.”

Ultimately everybody in my group hiked down 15 flights of stairs to their apartments, friends, wherever they could go. I got down seven flights, then turned around and decided to stay in my office, because the floor had a bathroom and a refrigerator – amenities I would not find so easily on the streets of New York. Back upstairs, I finally got through, via cell phone, to my friend Beth in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, near where I used to live. She and her husband, Phil, would be happy to put me up, especially since one of their sons was at sleepaway camp and I could flop in the bottom bunk bed. I hadn’t decided to head in that direction, but at least I knew I had the option.

Building security people, finally checking my floor, made the decision for me. They were evacuating the building. I had to leave. I packed my Lands’ End bag with a liter water bottle I kept at work and two apples, my digital camera, and, for some bizarre reason, the new issue of New York magazine, so I could keep my lifestyle in high gear. The security guys pointed me down a flight of stairs. “Keep your hand on a rail. It’s kind of dark,” one said. He was kind of right, especially for the first levels I groped down. I could see nothing. Finally emergency lights helped and I emerged into the dim lobby. I dutifully signed out at the security desk at 7 pm – habits die hard.

I could see natural light beyond the lobby, along with people on the streets. Emerging onto 3rd Avenue, I felt like a salmon fighting against the stream, as most people were walking uptown, while I was heading downtown, toward the far distant Brooklyn Bridge. The density, of both people and traffic, was unlike anything I had ever seen in New York. Streets that were usually crowded were extraordinarily congested as buildings emptied out. The masses who typically would be on the subway were on foot, on the move.

I couldn’t get myself to beeline downtown to Brooklyn; rather, I drifted over to Grand Central Terminal on the off chance trains were still departing for Connecticut. They weren’t. Instead, thousands of people milled in front of the station on 42nd Street, hot, frustrated by the non-working cellphones and uneasy about their inability to leave for the suburbs. Grand Central was closed. No trains were going to move. With a finite amount of daylight remaining, I had to commit myself. The office was barred, Grand Central impossible. I was trapped in Fun City. Memory-haunted Brooklyn became my destination.

I struck out east on 42nd Street, snapping a photo of a man playing the trumpet in front of a sign. I think he was playing “Amazing Grace.” Grey-uniformed police academy cadets already worked the streets. They would become a welcome, common sight over the next day.

I turned south on 3rd Avenue, fighting against the heavy traffic. Deli operators had set out tubs of ice water with beer and soda for sale. The bars along the way were going full blast. I stopped several times to listen to radios playing, either boomboxes on the street or in cars. Traffic had a nightmarish quality, cars stopped, people standing on them, buses trapped in traffic as they tried to turn from streets onto avenues but were unable to complete the swing. It reminded me of “The Stand” by Stephen King.

By 34th Street the pedestrian crowds thinned enough so I could quicken my pace. I clomped down 3rd Avenue, then Bowery, where residents poured out of the single-room occupancy hotels and missions, moving their party to the streets. I just kept walking. The crowds picked up as I approached the bridges across the East River to Brooklyn. I had to smile as a mitzvahmobile (a Winnebago outfitted as a recruitment center/synagogue on wheels by the Lubavitcher group of Orthodox Jews) approached the Williamsburg Bridge headed for the Lubavitch home territory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I thought to myself, the Lubavitchers were the people least affected by the blackout since, as we all know, their Rebbe’s teachings provide all the light they need.

After that bit of merriment, I continued the slog, through Chinatown in the gathering dusk. By the time I maneuvered onto the Brooklyn Bridge, night had arrived. I joined the thousands of people trudging across the bridge. In the darkness I could just make out people around me. I stopped to call my friends in Brooklyn and let them know I was on my way.

From the bridge I had a great view of the FDR Drive, an unmoving river of car and bus lights snaking along the eastern edge of Manhattan. Feet were slow, but at least they moved more than those vehicles. As I crossed along the bridge, I was amazed by the ability of women to walk – briskly – in high heels and other footwear that looked terribly uncomfortable. My feet hurt, and I had on walking shoes. How could women move fast in those shoes?

As I neared the bridge’s exit I heard a portly man bellowing into a bullhorn. At first I thought he was a New Yorker driven berserk by a lack of air conditioning, then I realized he was the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, welcoming footsore residents of the Borough of Homes and Churches back to Brooklyn. I liked his gesture a lot, combining humanity, smart retail politics, and New York-style showboating. I cheered and took a photo of Marty with my digital camera.

Downtown Brooklyn was so dark I could not read the street signs. Fortunately, I remembered my way around from the years I lived there. I soon found Clinton Street and walked past my old haunts of Brooklyn Heights, Middle Eastern restaurants on Atlantic Avenue, Amity Street, where I had my first apartment ($300/month in 1981); Kane Street, location of Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, the synagogue where Mrs. Ex-Wallach and I were married on Sept. 16, 1989; past darkened stoops where people sat and talked, sometimes illuminated by candles. I saw flashlights beams moving on the walls of apartments. I could only track my progress down Clinton Street when car lights flashed on the numbers on brownstones. Once I almost impaled myself on an iron fence in front of a brownstone.

Finally, I found Beth and Phil’s distinctive building, a former church. People clustered outside in a festive mood. Beth had just gone in, one man told me, and he let me in and took me to their apartment.

Finally, I could sit down, grab cold pizza and warm soda and relax after three punishing hours on my feet (and I wasn’t even in heels. Honestly, I don’t know how you women walk in your shoes. Gosh, I’d be a total failure as a cross-dresser). As we dined by candlelight, I related my adventures, then caught up with my friends.

Beth, an editor turned stay-at-home-mom who holds the world’s record for working for and being laid off by the most Wall Street brokerage houses, said people outside the building were saying, “This is what Brooklyn was like in the old days. People went outside and sat on their stoops.”

“There’s no law that keeps them from doing that now,” I observed. “They just need to get up off their duffs, stop watching ESPN and go sit on the stoop.”

Phil had been on a subway when the lights went out, but managed to get aboveground before the hordes of rabid tunnel rats began their merciless attacks on humans (just kidding). Phil, IT wizard by day and bass-guitar god by night, told me about his new, unnamed five-player country band. The three of us amused ourselves by concocting names for the band. Among my suggestions (which will make no sense at all to people unschooled in the fierce and feverish byways of U.S. Southern culture):

The Five Hemorrhoids of George Wallace
The Secret Shame of Pat Robertson
Five Remaining Teeth
House on Wheels (our favorite)
Stone Mountain Scholars
Lester Maddox Dance Party!

We also kicked around “Squeal Like a Pig,” from Deliverance, but that’s such a cliché.

I woke up the next morning to see a nightlight shining. Brooklyn had the juice, again. Everything was getting back to normal, sort of. I called Connecticut, where the Westport Wallachs arrived safely after a two-hour drive from Queens. I commandeered my friends’ computer to let friends know I was holding up well in the situation. My main concern was returning home to the Nutmeg State. Metro-North’s website was overwhelmed. I called Greyhound, which was running normal bus service to Connecticut, including Stamford.

Fortified by cold pizza and ice cream, packing a strawberry-creamcheese bagel (thanks, Beth! It tasted great!) and water, I finally set out the next long day’s journey at 1 pm. This time I used public transportation, starting with a B75 bus that got me to the Brooklyn Bridge and saved 45 minutes of walking. I walked across the bridge one more time, with lighter traffic in the 90-degree weather. On the Manhattan side I gratefully took a water bottle from a Red Cross emergency vehicle, telling the volunteers I was a regular blood donor. I took a picture of the news crews under tents outside City Hall Park, directly in front of the bridge.

Then, more walking. The Red Cross lady said I could get a bus a few blocks over, by Ground Zero. I walked to Church Street, but found no buses, so I headed uptown, my pace geared to getting the 4 pm Greyhound bus from the Port Authority at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. The streets were hot and empty, the trash bins overflowing with discarded water bottles. Most stores were closed, although I could tell power was returning by the functioning traffic lights.

I finally got on an express bus at 16th Street and 6th Avenue, unexpected but welcome as a way to get me uptown faster (no subways were running). The air-conditioning felt wonderful as the bus sped through Herald Square (you know, home of Macy’s, Bullwinkle balloon on Thanksgiving Day, etc.).

Exiting at naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty Forty-Second Street, I decided to check Grand Central Terminal before committing myself to a bumpy bus trip. The main entrance to Grand Central was closed, but people could enter elsewhere, into an unnerving, grotto-like darkness that showed electricity was still lacking here. I had little hope of a train, but plunged in anyway. Around a corner, I found the magnificent central concourse, full of natural light and crowded with hundreds of people standing and sitting. The schedule boards were dark. Still, the massed bodies told me travel was possible. I took photos of the famous clock, stopped at 4:12 pm, the instant the power failed. After that I staked out some floor space, plopped down, opened the Times, and munched that bagel.

My mazel was holding. After 20 minutes hundreds of people suddenly arose and moved, lemming-like, toward a door to a track. Well, heck, I decided, I’d better join that herd, so I stood up and moved with them. Before long, a Metro-North official with a bullhorn squawked what was happening. The next train to leave would be a diesel making all local stops to Stamford. I pushed through the entrance toward the precious train, disheveled and dirty like Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds, although no Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant emerged from the throngs to approach me. I moved to the front of the train, which had plenty of seats and the blessed air conditioning. On the 90 minute trip, I listened to a young Wall Street type tell how she found herself in a hotel sharing a bed with the head of her firm’s fixed-income securities trading desk. The horror, the horror.

As the trained inched northward, I knew the lights were flickering on, from Grand Army Plaza to Times Square, Coney Island to City Island, Jackson Heights to Brooklyn Heights. For 24 hours, New Yorkers for the most part behaved admirably in the dark and heat. Indeed, I did not see a single episode of violence or even ill-temper. A song from 1915 came to my exhausted mind, “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway.” Reversing the song’s logic, I fantasized that lights-out on Broadway protected New Yorkers and their hearts for an entire day. By Friday evening, that special day was ending and the lights returned to Broadway. What passes for normal life began again.

Finally I arrived in Stamford, in time to fetch my car from a repair place a few blocks from the train station. From there I drove to my silent apartment for a very welcome shower. My vacation could finally start.

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