Blackout in New York City

Thursday 14 August 2003: Scott was not having the best day and he was beginning to feel conspired against. We got home just after 4pm feeling hot and tired. Scott turned the fan on. It sputtered pathetically into action, slow and half-arsed.

"Great, now the fan’s broken too."

In the bathroom the lights were so dim the filaments were visible.

"Brown out," said Scott.

I was sitting with my laptop watching every mail browser spin looking for a signal. At the same time we both had the genius idea of looking out the window. No traffic lights. No power on anywhere. People were starting to leave the restaurants and stores nearby. Sirens blared (though, this being NYC, not noticeably more than usual).

The revelation that it wasn’t just us transformed Scott’s mood instantly. He went into action, finding his battery-operated short-wave radio:

WNYC reports that the power’s out in all five boroughs and parts of New Jersey and Westchester county. A million people—foot traffic—are on the Brooklyn Bridge. I try to imagine this. Apparently if everyone leaves all the buildings in Midtown and downtown during the day, there isn’t enough room for them all on the streets. It doesn’t look very busy here in the East Village.

4:40PM: I have enough battery for an hour on my computer. Enough time to start this musing, but not really enough to do any of my paid writing work.

Scott says we have to go get supplies in case the blackout lasts for a while. I think that’s silly, but don’t say so. It’s true that there’s very little food in the house. We just got back from a week in Dallas. The day before we left our fridge died. So it stands unplugged and completely empty in our kitchen.

On the way down we check the (tiny as a matchbox, built in 1912) lift. No-one is trapped in it. I very rarely ride in it myself on account of it being tiny as a matchbox and built in 1912.

The girls who were moving in on the 3rd floor are grateful to be told what’s going on.

"Does this happen a lot?" they ask. They are sweet and southern and brand new to the city.

"No," we assure them.

"Last one was 1977," says Scott. This is news to me. Though by the end of the day I know all about the great blackouts of 1965 and 1977.

They don’t look very convinced.

There isn’t an unusual amount of people on the streets. The supermarket across the way is dark and shut up. But most of the small shops have stayed open. The organic food store on our block is open. There’s only one other customer. It’s incredible how dark it is, even in broad daylight. We stumble around, wishing we’d brought a torch, and eventually find water and food.

By the time we get to the counter, there’s a line and more people are coming in. The woman behind the counter has to add up the totals by hand. It takes time. We learn that the power is out in Detroit and parts of Canada too.

Everyone who comes in asks about water, matches, candles, torches, batteries. Being a health food store they have no matches, torches, batteries.

On the way back up the stairs the woman from the floor above tells us that the Niagara power grid went out and that they’re sure it wasn’t terrorists. She seems very relieved. Terrorism hadn’t occurred to me. Probably because I wasn’t here for 11 September 2001 (though my mother later suggests that maybe it’s because I’ve been through blackouts in Sydney and elsewhere, but then who the hell hasn’t?).

5:15pm: After an hour of blackout the traffic is backed up along Second Avenue. There’s music playing and more people out on the street than on a Saturday night. Civilian volunteers have declared themselves traffic conductors and stand at most of the big intersections, trying to keep the box clear, and the traffic moving as much as it can. Scott realises we don’t have C batteries for our Maglite torch and runs out to get them while I fill every container in the house, which sadly is not many, with water. It occurs to me that the Liberty game against Houston might not be on. (Later I discover it had been cancelled at 5pm.)

Scott returns with apples and batteries. There are now queues out on to the footpath. Scott got the last C batteries in the store. When he asked for matches or a lighter the guy behind the counter shook his head, then simply gave Scott his own lighter. A woman came in asking for matches or a lighter just after this transaction. She had an unlit cigarette in her hand and looked quite desperate. Scott played gentleman and lit it for her.

There’s gridlock on Second Ave as far as I can see from the roof. Some of the vehicles are overflowing with passengers, the back of pickup trucks are full. It looks like the end of the world with people fleeing the city however they can. A very slow exodus: it takes about forty minutes for a vehicle to get from Sixth Street to Houston. Normally this would take no longer than forty seconds.

Every two blocks or so you can see the glitter of lights from emergency vehicles. Up above dozens of helicopters hover like dragonflies over Manhattan.

The stream of pedestrian traffic is so swollen that people are walking on the street as well as the footpath. Many are walking in suits, their ties pulled loose, jackets draped over arms. Several of the women hobble along in high heels.

The people who work at Global 33, one of the bars on Second, have put out a table and are handing out free water in plastic cups to passersby. They seem to be letting people use their bathroom too. They do this for several hours.

7:30PM: (when the Liberty versus Houston game would’ve started) we’re still up on the roof watching and talking to neighbours who work up in Midtown. They tell us about the incredible crush on the street once they’d made it down the stairs of their tall office buildings.

Now I’m thinking about all the people trapped in the subway system, and in elevators. I hope all the hospitals have generators.

We’ve been able to phone Sydney and Dallas to leave messages and talk to our families, letting them know we’re fine and all stocked up and ready for the duration. I narrowly stopped myself from putting on a Winston Churchill voice as I said this. When we try again later, we can’t phone anyone outside the city.

We go out on to the streets to check out three regular haunts: Counter, Veloce and Ike’s. First Avenue is much much quieter than Second. Hardly any cars. The people all seem to be locals. No-one looks frazzled or desperate to get home. At Counter they let us in, but only because they know us. They’re operating by candlelight, trying to close before dark. The place looks eerily beautiful.

The bartender points out that his Maglight is bigger than mine. I am plunged into a soul-crushing sadness for about .0004 of a second. We wish them luck closing before the sun sets completely (at this point they have maybe twenty minutes) and reject their offer of a free drink. They look exhausted.

All the cross streets are full of locals who, like us, are finding this more of an adventure than a trial. Getting across Second Ave, despite the crush of pedestrians, is not too bad. The vehicle traffic is not moving at all.

Veloce has burst out onto the street. People have dragged their stools onto the footpath and are chatting with the weary passsersby struggling to get home, many of whom momentarily give up the struggle and join the Veloce crowd, drinking the still-cold drinks while they last.

Veloce is long and narrow. Stools on one side face the bar and on the other side face a ledge wide enough for drinks and plates. There are mirrors on both walls that somehow manage to make the place look bigger than it is.

Without fans or aircon it’s hot, so most people are drinking on the street. Like Counter the place is transformed by candle light into something almost magical. Everyone looks young and happy. Though I don’t think the normally calm, cool bartender appreciates the magic. He has stripped down from his usual attire of natty Italian suit and is without jacket or tie. He looks hot and frazzled and as more and more people come in his frazzlement grows. I wish there was something I could do to help.

We pull up two stools at the bar, not too far from the entrance and the bartender gives us the coldest drinks he has. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted although normally I only like much heavier beers. It’s SO icy cold that momentarily my mouth is numb but happy. Very happy.

I thank the owner for staying open and he grins. "What else are you going to do?"

He tells us that they’d just gotten their supplies for the weekend. Thursday is the typical supply day for restaurants. The sushi places are doing it bad, he says. All that fish. They’re coping by staying open and slashing their prices, desperately trying to get rid of as much seafood as they can. The only fish Veloce serves is preserved anchovies. They do have a lot of meat and cheese. The cheese he’s not too worried about, but the meat . . . "This better not last more than a day or two."

Even better than the cold cold beer: Veloce is serving food. We’re starving. We devour two eggplant tramezini in seconds. Superb. (At least I think they are—there’s only momentary contact with my tastebuds.)

A woman next to us looks lonely and annoyed. Scott asks her what her story is. She’s been trying to contact her friend who lives round the corner, but her mobile isn’t working, and the buzzer to his apartment uses electricity. Scott’s mobile still has a signal, so she uses that, and her friend joins us at Veloce. Another happy story in the dark city.

Second Ave is still ridiculously packed, so instead of heading south to Ike’s we head east.

Tompkin Square Park is overflowing with people. The party is in full swing. The park is so unbelievably dark we can’t see each other. We hold hands to avoid being separated. About 10 metres from us Scott recognises an Aussie accent.

"Are you Australian?" I call out.

"Too right," comes the reply.

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" I start the chant.

"Oi! Oi! Oi!" They complete it. We all laugh. Sounds like there are at least six of them.

Further into the park a bonfire blazes in a metal trash can, surrounded by a big crowd. We move closer to see what’s going on. Tompkin Square Park Olympics: the trash-can-with-bonfire leaping event. One boy sails over with half a metre to spare. His shirt flies up revealing a very cut stomach. Everyone screams and claps and stomps.

Elsewhere in the park there’s a percussion band. I’m pretty sure I hear glockenspeils. Lots of people are sitting on blankets, laughing, talking and only occasionally making out. In the distance you can hear fireworks. New York City in a blackout is fabulous. (But then I wasn’t stuck at the top of a ferris wheel in Toys R Us, or in a lift, or down in the subway.)

People are promenading with glow sticks, kerosene lamps, high-tech glowing lamps and torches. I start saying, "Happy Black-out" to people we pass. They all laugh.

Most of the bars in the area are open and candle lit. At Vazak’s we get carded. The lighting is pretty bad. We don’t have ID so the bouncer won’t let us in. We point out that in addition to us being a million years older than twenty-one, they’re unlikely to be busted on a blackout night. After all, people everywhere are flouting the no-smoking-in-bars law. He points to the cop car parked outside. The cops are standing around having friendly chats with people holding beer bottles. Drinking alcohol on the streets of NYC is illegal. These cops do not look like they’re going to bust the law-breakers or come into Vazak’s demanding to see everyone’s ID. But the bouncer at Vazak’s remains adamant.

On the way to Ike’s we come across people sitting on their stoop dripping glow sticks from every limb. The sticks are left over from a huge party. They immediately hand us each a glow stick of our very own. We wear them on our wrists. We wish them a happy blackout too.

The glow sticks are excellently bright and we feel less vulnerable to being hit by a car. Not that it’s that likely, everyone is driving amazingly slow and cautious.

Ike’s is full. One of the owners treats us to beers and vodka shots. They’re not serving food. When the blackout hit they packed all the meats with lots of ice into the freezers and then locked them. "Should keep them for a few days," he says. "I can’t imagine we’ll have power out for longer than that."

Back home those glow sticks continue to earn their way. We only have the one torch, but we can see well enough by the glow sticks for most things. Still can’t phone anyone outside New York City. Nor can we contact any of our friends in NYC. Phones ring out (answering machines not working) and we’ve lost mobile phone coverage.

We go back up on to the roof. Mars is up and glowing orange. It’s just as bright as when we saw it outside Dallas a few days ago. Quite a few of our neighbours are up there too. Some with friends staying the night who’ve given up the fight to get back to Brooklyn or New Jersey or where ever. Nobody believes the blackout will last much longer. At the very least we expect the power to be back on in the morning.

In two different places fireworks go off. Apparently there are firework caches all over the city. And a good thing too. What a waste of a blackout night if there’d been no fireworks.

Seeing only dark silhouettes of the Empire and Chrysler buildings is so bizarre, though the scene is not as end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it as I had expected. There’s a glow to the west, clearly New Jersey is back on and there’s a sprinkling of buildings in Manhattan with some lights on. Mostly down in the Financial District, but hospitals as well. There are more stars than usual but not so many that we can’t count them. This is disappointing and blows Scott’s theory that the whole blackout was a scheme of amateur astronomers determined to see the full glory of Mars while it’s at its closest to the Earth for the next zillion years.

Friday 15 August 2003, 8:30AM: I had expected the power to be on. It’s not. Still can’t phone anywhere other than New York City. The traffic outside is like on a slow Sunday. Almost everything’s closed.

When Scott wakes we’ll go for a wander, hoping to get breakfast somewhere. Last night most restaurants were doing good business. I guess we’re not the only ones with not a lot of food at home. Surely some cafes and restaurants will take pity on us poorly-stocked Manhattanites and provide us with breakfast too?

Right now I’m annoyed neither of us is a survivalist. What were we thinking not having a pantry bursting with enormous supplies of water and plenty of bottled, tinned and dried food?

While Scott sleeps I do an inventory:

Dried lentils, brown & jasmine rice, a head of garlic, raw peanuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, soy sauce, fish sauce, salted duck egggs, tin of pineapple, Carr’s Water Biscuits, Vegemite, apples, dried pasta, jar of pasta sauce.

There’s enough for the two of us for a couple of days. I guess I could also make a pineapple and garlic stir fry. I feel very resourceful and virtuous just planning the meals that I may not cook.

WNYC says there’s power above 52nd street. It’s slowly coming on all over the city. They say it will all be on by Monday morning. Hmmmm. It’ll be in the 30s today. This is going to be less fun, I suspect, than last night. At least we’re not in Cleveland where they don’t have water.

I have maybe twenty minutes battery left on my computer, which I use up with the crucially important task of writing this musing. I contemplate continuing with paper and pen. Shudder! Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Scott wakes up and we go foraging for the drug to which Scott is shakingly addicted: coffee. He asks a girl clutching a disposable coffee cup where she got it. Place up the street has a generator. The queue goes out the front door. An MTV camera crew interviews the manager; a print media journalist interviews the customers. I think about all the places around the world that never have a regular supply of electricity. Scott says the coffee is terrible.

We run into a couple of people we know, neither of whom has water in their building. Not just Cleveland then. Other than that they seem to be doing fine. Everyone’s Thursday was a blast, but today is getting wearing.

The farmers’ market at Union Square is up and running. The crowds are much bigger than usual. I get everything I need for several stir-frys. When we get home we feast on a tinned pineapple, onion, green & yellow capsicum, yellow wax beans and peanut stir-fry, accompanied by rice and steamed salted duck egg. It’s better than it sounds.

Walking around the East Village there are open fire hydrants on almost every cross streeet. Dozens of kids run in and out of the water getting drenched and spraying their less-anxious-to-get-wet friends. They cack themselves as cars drive past and get an unexpected wash.

The parks are full of people reading, hanging out, being very chill. One woman gives us her copy of The New York Times which was sold out everywhere we tried. It’s full of stories of how people survived (or in two cases, didn’t) the blackout. All about how well NYC has behaved, particularly compared to 1977. I wonder if other blackout cities are congratulating themselves on not being populated by arseholes.

Our friend Mike, we found out later, spent the day roller-blading around the city. Deb went in to help at the hospital where she normally works, though she had time off to study for her boards next week. For twenty minutes the hospital lost their generator and had to do everything by hand. There were no casualties. Kathleen saw people emerging from subway grates looking utterly miserable. Other friends cheated and went to stay with friends and relatives with power in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

I finally get through on the phone to friends, but they are all above 52nd Street and have power. Have a lovely long conversation with Chip, catching up and generally killing time. He observes several times that other than having no email access it isn’t too bad. "At least the fans are working now."

"Mine aren’t!"

"Oh, right," says Chip. "I forgot."

6PM: The lights come on above 14th Street. Gazing up First Avenue we see the green, red, and yellow of traffic lights, the distinctly different yellow glow of the mercury vapour street lights. At 14th Street the south side is dark, the north brilliantly lit, with garish advertising. It is an assault to the eyes. Very glary and scary.

We cross back to the dark zone, not wanting to eat a meal in electric land. We buy a slice of pizza from Stromboli’s and eat it walking along the unlit glory of Seventh Street. We decide to go back up on the roof and see the spectacle of the East Village in the dark while the rest of the city shines.

9PM: While we are still in our apartment, Scott says, "What the hell is that?"

Our cable modem is flickering. Outside people start screaming. Cars honk their horns. It’s like New Year’s Eve. Scott and I whoop, though moments before we’d been rabbiting on about how much we enjoyed the darkness and how everything above 14th Street was vile.

The mobile has a signal again. We meet Mike and Kathleen at Ike’s and talk about our 29 hours without power. Mostly good experiences, even those without water, but we wouldn’t have been thrilled had it gone on too much longer.

"What would this have been like," Kathleen wonders, "if it had happened before September 11?"

New York City, 17 August 2003