Discovering Power Points

LETTER FROM NEW YORK CITY

By Lisa Keys

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.

Thursday, like every day in New York City, was busy. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up; the Mets had won; nobody was watching “Gigli,” and everyone was still talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger running for governor of California.

But seconds before 4:11 p.m., the lights went out — and everything stopped.

The thrill of being in an instantly dark office soon gave way to apprehension that spread as immediately as the power failure. Yes, the phone lines are down, but why won’t our cell phones work? Does anyone in this office have a battery-operated radio? And — what? — the lights are out in Connecticut? New Jersey? Ottawa?

The undertow of fear that New Yorkers now endure threatened to transform into full-fledged panic. People flooded the sidewalks and tried frantically to reach loved ones via lifeless mobile phones and out-of-order pay phones. Crowds gathered around car radios and co-workers comforted one another on the steamy sidewalks. Everyone asked the same pressing question: Could it really be happening again?

Just as my Brooklyn street had greeted me on the morning of September 11, 2001, with incredible rumors of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, news about the blackout spread fast. But within minutes, the talk on the street was of lightning, an act of nature — or possibly human incompetence — that had inflicted the darkness upon us. Our worst fears hadn’t been realized, and with that knowledge came a collective sigh of relief.

So we did what we have learned to do: We walked. We walked until our feet blistered, until the bridges, creaking and swaying, almost threatened to give way to the throng. It didn’t matter if we lived in Brooklyn’s dilapidated East New York or on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, whether we were janitors or lawyers, or if we were wearing battered sneakers or $500 Manolo Blahniks; we walked until we found our way home.

Suburbanites and out-of-towners who couldn’t walk home mostly stayed put; some spent an uncomfortable weekend on their office floors; others created makeshift beds out of newspapers and cardboard and bedded down for the night on sidewalks and library steps.

Yet despite — or, perhaps, in spite of — the collective discomfort, the blackout was a restorative experience, a non-tragic tragedy that somehow cleansed us of the poisonous ashes of the World Trade Center attack. Yes, some scenes resembled September 11: The subways weren’t running, office buildings were closed and the entire police fleet wailed down the streets. But as the city shut down last week, there was no anger, no horror, no feeling of quiet desperation. In fact, the mood in New York City was almost buoyant — the summer equivalent of a snow day, but absolutely no way to work from home.

Released from stress, we helped one another. The words tikkun olam had a tangible, real-life meaning as we shared water and helped those less able to make their way home. The chasidic Hatzoloh EMS volunteers helped exhausted and dehydrated New Yorkers of all stripes; residents throughout the boroughs had impromptu block barbecues, and some well-intentioned citizens even helped direct traffic. Don’t worry about us, Con Edison — we’ll tikkun the olam, as long as you tikkun the power grid.

By dusk, the hipsters in my Williamsburg neighborhood were sporting homemade “Blackout 2003” T-shirts, and hand-scrawled signs announcing the “Blackout Bike Ride” told would-be riders to meet at the bridge at 8 o’clock. Ice cream was half price, flashlights only 99 cents and sips of water were free. The members of the Polish social club beneath my apartment — something I had, remarkably, never really noticed before — lent me a battery-operated lantern so I could locate my candles.

All told, the complex lifeline of modernity known as the power grid — I prefer to call it “the matrix” — became overloaded after 4 p.m. last Thursday as the power flow in the Midwest inexplicably reversed, causing an enormous surge throughout the system. Like little Switzerlands, local power grids responded by disengaging themselves from the system; in a matter of minutes, eight states and areas of Canada went dark. Nearly 62,000 megawatts of power were lost.

In truth, that doesn’t mean anything to me. So let’s just say that, for millions of people, it was dark. Really dark.

The night resembled a surreal time warp; left to our own devices and without the numbing blue light of television, what would we do to entertain ourselves? Suddenly proper candlelight seemed more important than owning a “classic 6” on the Upper West Side. The desire for a nice bottle of wine superceded the need for “Must-See TV”; face-to-face conversation replaced hurried cell phone chats, and garden apartments became gathering points for sweaty friends.

Neighbors who had never done so much as nod at one another were suddenly sharing food, wine and commutation horror stories. Friends gathered in the city’s parks to sing or play charades; strangers shared taxicabs with strangers.

By the light of morning, I located an “old-fashioned” plug-in phone; my first successful call was to my grandmother in Detroit, who, like me, had spent the night in the sweaty darkness with no respite in sight. Instead of one of us watching distant events on CNN, the blackout was an experience we had, incredibly, shared. It was a rare example of the state of Michigan rising to meet the well-deserved adjective of “Northeast” and an even rarer example of how New York City, beneath it all, is connected to that land mass known as the United States.

As the hours ticked by, the juice in New York City starting running again. Neighborhood by neighborhood, cheers erupted — in Forest Hills, Queens; Park Slope, Brooklyn; the Bronx’s Riverdale; Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and, finally, throughout the five boroughs by 9:03 p.m.

When the familiar wail of a burglar alarm sounded the end of the blackout in my neighborhood around 4 o’clock, I too, joined the celebration as I crossed the street to the sight of a blinking “walk” sign. Once again, we were living in a plugged-in world of alarm clocks, MTV, cell phones and, of course, spoiled milk.

But I’d be lying if I said the return of the electricity didn’t resemble the return-from-holiday blues: that desperate clinging to fascinating sights and exotic flavors when the sight of your own bed makes you wonder if it was all a dream.

And the blackout did feel like a dream. Perhaps it was from a fitful night sleeping on my patio illuminated by the nearly full moon or perhaps it was from the launch into survival mode when, truthfully, there was really very little at stake save some rotten meat. Sure, New Yorkers were hot and we were tired — but we were resourceful, we were helpful, we were respectful, and we were lighthearted. Perhaps during those rare, quiet hours, we had more power than we realized all along.



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