What I Did During the Great Blackout of Aught-Three

What follows below was originally posted over at Mike Whybark's website as I couldn't access my blog until rather late at night the day after the lights went out. Enjoy:

Well, as I write this, some twenty-five-and-a-half-hours after the lights first went out, things still aren’t entirely back to normal in the big bad city. Part of the city are still without power, and, more importantly, I still don’t have email or a website.

I left my office at about five, after some 50 minutes or so of trying to figure out what was going on. Terrorism was the elephant in the living room — no-one was talking about it, but at the same time, everyone was thinking about it. My co-worker lives up in Connecticut, and he was short of cash. I loaned him some money, either to get a hotel room or to try to get a taxi up to Greenwich.

I just assumed (correctly) that the subways were going to be out of service. Walking up Park Avenue, I saw men in very expensive suits holding up manila folders with the words “Westchester — Will Pay Big Bucks” written across them in bold marker. Traffic northbound on Park was at a standstill — a police SUV eventually gave up and headed up the wrong side of the street, siren bleating.

Central Park was strangely quiet; people were lolling about in Sheep Meadow, throwing footballs and frisbees around. After leaving the park, I stopped by a car that had it’s radio on. They were talking about a power failure up in the Niagara-Mohawk area that cascaded across the region. I got home and stomped up eight flights, flashlight borrowed from the super. Then I took a shower. I tried calling my family, but the phones were not really working.

I went back downstairs. A tiny little blonde girl who lives in the building was standing out by the front door. It was her twenty-fifth birthday. There had been plans for a big party. I told her that at least her twenty-fifth birthday was a memorable one. The bakery next door was giving out free cupcakes.

I walked down Columbus. The doorman at my parents’ building told me that they were out. Down at 57th and Ninth Ave., a lone soul was bravely trying to direct traffic. I jumped out into the middle of the intersection to give him a hand. A guy from the deli came out and gave the two of us bottles of water. You guys are New Yorkers of the month, he said as he gave me the water.

Drivers would come through the intersection, and give us the thumbs up. A lost trucker came through and asked me for directions to the George Washington Bridge. The hardest part of the job, aside from trying to avoid getting killed, was directing pedestrians. They don’t listen to anyone.

A woman came up to me in the middle of the intersection. She said she was a reporter from Ohio. She tried to interview me while I was directing traffic. I suggested that she talk to the other guy, as he’d been there longer. It was a bit distracting trying to talk to her and not get hit by cars barreling down Ninth Avenue.

Later, a fella on rollerblades came up and asked me if I wanted an orange vest. I said sure. He pointed out that I looked a bit like a pedestrian.

There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that goes on when two guys try to direct traffic. The other guy’s name was Nick.

Occasionally cops would come roaring through, sirens on high. They would slow and make a point of tipping their hats to us. I figured that they were off doing more important things.

The guy with the rollerblades came back later. By then, my arms were getting tired. You try holding up your left arm for 45 minutes. He had bright orange life vests. Turned out that he had participated in the dragon boat races out in Flushing last weekend, and just happened to have them around his apartment. I put one on, and he gave me a note with his name and address, so we could return them later. Then he shot off, looking for more people

My brother showed up not long thereafter, bearing more water. That was a good thing, as I’d gone through that first bottle rather quickly. People walking by stopped and took pictures of us.

After about an hour of standing out there dodging and directing traffic, some auxiliary police officers — in uniforms and everything — showed up to supplant the civilian traffic control. A guy with a red mustache and a mike came up and interviewed me. I noticed that Nick had a small gaggle of folks with small digital video camcorders surrounding him. I sauntered over there. As the cameras turned to me, Nick slipped away, glad to be away from the limelight. I guess I now know why athletes always repeat the same cliches over and over in locker-room interviews after games. I just said that I was just trying to help out as best I could.

After mumbling some more platitudes, I said that I had to go; time to return the life vest, time to go home.

After stopping off at my parents’ apartment (14 floors, and I don’t need to tell you that down is much easier than up), I went home. I hung out downstairs, talking with the other folks from the building as dusk settled over Manhattan, waiting for someone with a flashlight to go upstairs with me. I’m not afraid of the dark; I’m afraid of falling down a stairwell in the dark and breaking something important for locomotion, like an ankle or a leg. Once inside my nearly pitch black apartment, I found some matches by the light of a cell phone, and lit a couple of candles.

I heard an echoing guitar somewhere, so I grabbed a still-cold six-pack of beer and a candle and headed off in search of it. A kid was playing in the stairwell, taking advantage of the echo chamber. We drank our beer cold and just hung out, not saying much.

The lights came back on at 5:32 in the morning. I know this because I left the lights in my room on — I wanted to reset my alarm clock so I could get up in the morning and go to work if there was power. I had heard the mayor suggesting that power could be restored by 2 or 3, which is what gave me my ill-fated idea. Of course, the heat and the helicopter hovering right outside my window didn’t provide much in the way of a restful rest.

By 7 a.m., the radio was reporting that parts of Manhattan had power (which was obvious to me, since I was listening to an AC-powered radio), including parts of midtown, but that the authorities were urging people not to come to work if they had to. The subway system was down (and would be down until “six-to-nine hours after power had been fully restored to the entire city”); commuter rail was out completely; buses were running, but on limited schedules.

I got to work by 7:45 a.m. on my bike, only to find out that the entire east side was still without power. There was no work to be done though; the entire building my office was in was closed. I waited outside the building, sitting on the ground. A couple of other people from the office showed up. Small talk was made. We saw some buses go by on Third Avenue; they were all stuffed to the gills. I finally went home at about nine, concerned about the increasing rush-hour traffic and the increasing temperature.

A restaurant up the street had a blackout special: $10 all-you-can-eat eggs, bacon, and french fries. It was pretty tasty. Naps were taken, and once my cable modem returned, websites were surfed (Amy Langfield’s tale of being trapped in the subway is a must-read, among others). And now, thanks to future California governor Mike Whybark, tales are told.