NYC Black Out

The message I’m composing disappears like a genie in a bottle. Words vaporize into the monitor, the unfinished sentence tilted in the air like an italicized question mark. I look up and see the fluorescent lights flickering, punctuated by the sighs of nearby librarians. The mustard brown air conditioners rattle like arthritic snakes, then drone to a dull stop.  Co-workers are standing around the fourth floor in the dim light of a hazy mid August afternoon, breathing in the dust of old library books and the fumes of construction, wondering what’s next. We learn of a major power outage affecting the whole of the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and even Canada. The news spreads fast and we are released, free, but uncertain, to the urban elements.

Subways aren’t running, as overcrowded buses heave their weight to avoid cars in the absence of traffic signals. Police officers waive their arms and direct pedestrians to the curb. With little or no breeze, the heat and humidity are intense — the concrete baked like rock cakes. Everyone is in a rush, but everything has come to a standstill this day, August 14, 2003.

It’s a long hot walk four miles across town, and I’m thankful to have a reliable form of transportation. My feet hurt in high heeled sandals, but as long as I can get home it doesn’t much matter. I am remembering my aunt’s vivid accounts of 1977  – the looting, destruction, and violence; the stories of smashed windows and muggings in Greenwich Village, not to mention Brooklyn. How long will this one last and will it be dangerous? Will glass be broken and people hurt? I fear the worst a quarter of a century later.

I reach East End Avenue and borrow a flashlight to climb four flights, feeling my way up the railing, counting fifteen steps to each landing. The hallways are pitch black, though it’s late afternoon. I gather water and candles in preparation and cook using gaslight. The ice in the cooler is melting fast – the ice cream now a sweet soup of vanilla swiss almond. Our baby is crying, and we can’t sleep, another on the way. With herculean effort, my husband carries the stroller down the stairwell. I am hugely relieved when he returns, telling tales of Second Avenue parties, tables of free food on the sidewalks, and people lounging on front door steps.

The lights click on the living room, and the ac’s start humming again. Sixteen hours later we are the last restored neighborhood in New York City. I marvel at modern science, thinking of Benjamin Franklin’s kite string and dangling metal key, as well as Thomas Edison’s carbon filament bulb. I catch a glimpse of the lanterns on the balcony terrace — their etched glass suffused with candle smoke –and contemplate the mischievous genie dancing in the air around us.

Referencing Our News Display: Major New York City Blackout, Tuesday, 7/13