By Brendan Loy
A day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, I’m finally ready to continue with my “Brendan’s Defining Days of the Decade” series. (Link goes to a page displaying all posts in descending order from #12 to, eventually, #1.) But first, let’s review where we’ve been:
And now, Number Ten…
August 14, 2003: The Great Northeast Blackout
Much like the Election Day 2000 — and unlike my Graduation Day three months earlier — the day of the blackout makes my decade list not because of some profound impact that it had on my life going forward, but simply because it was a really, really memorable one-off event in its own right.
But why so memorable?, you may ask. It’s a reasonable question. The three-word answer is “I was there,” but that still doesn’t really explain how it’s in my top ten days of the entire decade, for goodness’ sake. To understand that, you need to know a little bit of background about me.
First, there’s the generic fact that, as I put it in my 2005 retrospective, I’m “someone who really, really likes to be ‘there’ when interesting things happen,” and the blackout was “the ultimate ‘I was there’ moment” for me.
But it’s more than just that. The blackout didn’t merely appeal to my general sensibilities. It also satisfied a very specific desire that had been festering inside me for a number of years — namely, the desire to witness a massive New York City blackout. Yes, that’s right. If I’d had a “life’s to-do list” in 2003, this would have been on it, albeit in the subcategory of “stuff I’d love to do, but will almost certainly never get the chance.”
Sometime when I was a kid — I don’t remember exactly when, or in what context; maybe from a TV show, maybe from one of my dad’s childhood stories — I learned about the Great Blackout of 1965, which had plunged New York City (and much of the Northeast, but like in every disaster movie ever made, New York is the only city that matters) into darkness, resulting in an eerie night without lights in the City that Never Sleeps, and memorable photos of the darkened NYC skyline on the next morning’s New York Times, the next issue of Life magazine, etc.
As a news junkie and New York-lover, I thought this sounded awesome, and was insanely jealous I didn’t get to live through anything so cool. (I didn’t know as much, if anything, about the Blackout of ‘77, which resulted in considerable looting. The ‘65 blackout was peaceful.)
This odd feeling of jealousy was similar, and perhaps related, to my overall jealousy (referenced in my Election 2000 reminiscence) of my parents’ generation for having grown up in such interesting times. Darn it, I wanted to live during an interesting era in history. And darn it, I wanted to be in New York City during a massive blackout.
Enter the Great Blackout of 2003, which just happened to coincide with my exceedingly brief stint as a New Yorker. (I lived in Manhattan from July-October ‘03.) It was like divine wish fulfillment: I’d always wanted to see a massive NYC blackout, and here one was, falling right in my lap.
And I’d been correct in my juvenile assessment: it was awesome.
I’ve told the story many times before, both in blog posts as it was happening and immediately afterward, and also in retrospectives around the blackout’s anniversary in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. And of course, you can listen to my live, in-the-moment account, via contemporaneous audio blog posts, in the embedded audio player below:
Anyway, what follows is a edited version of my account the next day of what occurred.
When the lights went out at 4:15 PM that Thursday afternoon, I was up on the 13th floor of the building in Tribeca where I worked at the time. My workplace was a large loft apartment in which my boss, Lyn, and her husband, Richard, ran two separate small businesses out of their home, with a combined total of maybe 7 or 8 employees. When the power went out in the office where I, and the rest of Lyn’s employees, worked, I initially thought maybe it was just our side of the apartment. So I strolled out into the living room — which had a gorgeous view of the Midtown skyline — to see whether Richard’s employees were affected too. I quickly ascertained that they were; the whole apartment was without power.
Moments later, Richard proclaimed — I have no idea where he got his information — that the “whole building,” a 17-story structure that was also home to Mariah Carey, had lost power. This seemed like a pretty big deal. I went back to Lyn’s area, and started typing out a mobile blog post on my cell phone, announcing that our office had lost power, and that we had reports the whole building might be out. Hey: that’s newsworthy, right? A whole building in Tribeca without power!
As I was typing this, Lyn came in and said that, according to one of Richard’s employees, the whole city, plus Long Island and New Jersey, had lost power. My immediate reaction was extreme skepticism. But then, when I tried to upload my planned blog post, my phone wouldn’t connect. I proceed to dial the audioblog phone number, hoping to post the news that way, but I couldn’t get through. I tried this repeatedly, with no luck. Suddenly it began to seem a bit more plausible that maybe the whole city was indeed without power — and that, like on 9/11, everyone was reaching for their cell phones at the same time, jamming the networks.
Without TV or Internet, and with the cell networks jammed, we initially lacked a reliable source of information. (It took quite a while before somebody thought to get a battery-powered radio out.) But it quickly became clear from the glut of traffic, the honking, and the sirens that were visible and audible on the streets below, that something was most certainly happening, beyond just our building. Richard, Lyn, and all of their employees gathered in the living room, staring slack-jawed out the windows at the surreal scene unfolding 13 stories down.
The full extent of the blackout didn’t become clear, however, until I finally got through via phone to my dad, who still had power in Connecticut. In what one of my co-workers later described as a “surreal moment,” I repeated aloud, to everyone in the living room, the names of affected cities that my dad was reading to me from a CNN article: Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Albany, Toronto, Ottawa.
Holy crap. It wasn’t just New York, we all suddenly realized. It was the entire freakin’ Northeast!
Naturally, we speculated about terrorism a bit — indeed, one of the very first things I did after the blackout started was glance out the living room window, to be sure the skyline was intact — but for the most part, the mood in the office was quite light. Someone quickly suggested that we break out the liquor, before the ice melts. We also joked about price-gouging: Richard said he would drive any of us home for $10 per quarter-mile, or something like that. And we all looked on with amazement as an incredibly long line of buses began to back up further and further down Sixth Avenue, ultimately stretching all the way from Canal Street to Ground Zero and beyond.
Eventually we realized it was possible to go up to the roof, above the 17th floor. This seemed like it’d be fun, so the employees who were left — most of Richard’s people had already walked down the 13 flights of stairs and headed for one of their nearby homes — walked up there. It was a beautiful view, and we could really see the chaos: absolutely crazy traffic (even by New York standards), tons of helicopters flying overhead, pedestrians everywhere.
After traipsing up and down the stairs a few times, the rest of us decided to call it a day. I joined up with my co-workers Scott and Will, and started walking in the general direction of Greenwich Village. Scott was apartment-sitting for a friend there, and offered to put us up for the night, as Will and I both lived much further away. (My apartment was in Manhattan, but all the way up on 190th Street — almost 10 miles from Tribeca!) I was undecided on that, but decided to walk with them for at least for a while.
As we made our meandering way toward the Village, we stopped at a grocery store where they were giving away all sorts of perishables for free or very reduced prices, trying to unload their inventory before everything went bad. We got a ton of free milk, several salads, and a bunch of other stuff for a total of $1.90. We then headed over to the Hudson River, where we sat for a while, drank milk, and marveled at the incredibly long line of people waiting for a ferry to New Jersey. We also people-watched as the seemingly endless line of folks walking south, presumably from jobs north of Canal Street towards homes on the southern tip of the island, streamed by.
Finally, as the sun began to set, we started walking in earnest toward Scott’s friend’s apartment. But, despite some trepidation about wandering around a potentially lawless city on what promised to be a very dark night, I decided that I simply couldn’t hole myself up inside just yet. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an experience I had literally dreamed of, and I wanted to really experience it. Here at last, against all odds, was my chance to see New York City in the dark, and dammit, I wasn’t going to just hunker down and let it pass me by. So, without any clear idea where I would be sleeping, how I would guarantee my safety, or what I would do once it got fully dark, I started walking toward Times Square.
Along the way, I passed through the heart of Greenwich Village — which had turned, as one passerby put it, into a huge block party — and walked right past Penn Station, where literally thousands of people were just milling about, waiting for transportation, or for the lights to come back on. It was incredible to see that mass of humanity, just sort of wandering around aimlessly, unable to go anywhere or do anything except… wait.
Of course, as was endlessly observed in the blackout’s aftermath, the milling masses were totally peaceful. The better angels of human nature, and more specifically of New York’s nature, definitely prevailed that day. People were content to accept their predicament, and try to make the best of it. After all, we were all in this together.
All up and down Seventh Avenue, the same remarkable scenes — an ever darkening cityscape filled with thousands of stranded people — played out. I took my iconic Empire State Building photo, reproduced at the top of this post, during my walk north. Finally, just as complete darkness was setting in, I arrived at my destination, the Big Apple’s beating heart: Times Square.
Now that was an incredible scene. The always-on Jumbotron, off. The neon signs, unlit. I actually had trouble finding my bearings, and practically stumbled into the square, not even recognizing at first that I’d arrived. How do you know where you’re in Times Square when you can’t see all the gaudy lights?
Interestingly, I was most definitely not the only person who had walked to Times Square simply because I had to see it in the dark. I chatted with several other people who were doing exactly the same thing. We looked around in amazement, snapped some pictures, gawked at the various news crews, and generally just took it all in.
After maybe a half-hour of this, I finally started considering more seriously what to do next. Although it was totally dark, I felt quite a bit safer than I had anticipated that I might, thanks to the amount of light cast by car headlights, flares and generators; the masses’ generally tranquil disposition; the number of cops out on the streets; and the sheer number of people on the streets as well (there can be safety in numbers in a situation like that, when the vast majority of people are harmless). However, this feeling of personal safety didn’t solve my principal dilemma: where to go now.
My 190th Street apartment was roughly 150 blocks away — and of course, the subway wasn’t running, and I didn’t have enough money to get a cab, if I could even find one. (I had literally $1 to my name. I had been planning to visit the ATM after work that day, to take out some cash. D’oh. So much for that.) Alternatively, instead of going north to my place, I could head back south to Scott’s friend’s place in the Village, roughly 30 blocks away. I was torn. Part of me really wanted to get home, but although I’d heard city buses were free, I was also hearing all sorts of nasty rumors about very crowded buses and excessively long lines. And the Village was obviously walking distance, whereas my apartment clearly was not.
Ultimately, however, my mind was made up by the fact that my camera’s batteries were dying. They were AA rechargeables, but of course, I couldn’t recharge them without power, and I couldn’t buy any new AAs because of my lack of cash. I knew it would drive me nuts to spend any more time out in the city (potentially a whole ‘nother day), in the midst of this historic event, without being able to take pictures of what I was seeing. So I figured my best bet was to try and catch a bus home, where I could install spare AAs from the supplies I had there.
Unable to find the M4 bus, which goes directly to my neighborhood, I finally hopped on an extremely crowded M2 — filling what very little space remained in the stepwell — which I knew would drop me off approximately 25 blocks from home. That was okay with me. My main goal, frankly, was to get through Harlem on a bus, rather than on foot. This bus route accomplished that. I was willing to walk the rest of the way.
As the bus drove through Harlem, I saw several garbage cans on fire, but for the most part, things seemed quite calm. There were people on the streets, but they were mostly just sitting around with candles and whatnot, enjoying the outdoor breeze on a warm summer night. This held true throughout the city. And there were cops and firefighters everywhere, with flares at every major intersection (and some minor ones).
Meanwhile, on board the bus, a group of multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual riders did their best to help each other out. At one point, a white guy who clearly spoke no Spanish successfully managed to convey to a Latino family that clearly spoke no English that, at the next stop, they needed to get out and cross the street to get on a Bronx-bound bus that would take them home. That was a real New York moment.
Eventually, I disembarked at the bus’s final stop, and started my walk home — through a veritable street party, all up and down the Dominican areas of Broadway. People were outside with their battery-powered boom boxes, listening to music, talking with friends, even grilling some food. Although a few shops (those with generators) were open, most were closed, but the street was very much alive. And again, there were police everywhere, keeping the peace (though people seemed content to remain peaceful regardless). It was really pretty cool.
There was a final, dicey moment when I walked into the lobby of my apartment building — which, unlike the relatively well-lit streets, was pitch black — and proceeded to drop my cell phone, which I’d been using as a flashlight. When the phone hit the floor, the battery fell out, and I was forced to get down on my hands and knees and feel around for both phone and battery, so that I could put them back together and generate enough light to see the keyhole and open the door. But I found ‘em, I got inside, and finally, around 11:15 PM, I walked into my apartment, very glad to finally be home after the longest “commute” I’ve ever had.
The power came back on at 8:20 AM the next morning in my apartment. It stayed off much longer elsewhere, including my workplace in Tribeca, and in any event, the subways were royally screwed up for some time, so there was no possibility of going to work the next day. So the blackout’s after-effects essentially meant a long weekend for me.
I started the “weekend” by getting some cash, then going on a search for newspapers, wanting keepsakes of the historic day. I was successful. I then proceeded to blog extensively about the previous day’s events, as you can see in my old “Blackout of 2003″ category.
Power was restored to the rest of the city by Friday evening, and by Monday, I was back at work and life had returned to normal. And therein lies the beauty of the blackout as an “I was there” moment: it was that rarest of breaking-news events to live through, the kind that’s all-encompassing and overwhelming in its magnitude, that makes you feel like you’re truly living in an historic moment, but that isn’t a tragedy.
The cliché “no news is good news” exists for a reason: usually, when something truly newsworthy happens, it’s something bad. Thus, hoping to be at the epicenter of a big news story usually means, in effect, hoping for tragedy and calamity. Journalists and news junkies live with this tension all the time. But on August 14, 2003, for just one day, that tension disappeared. Here was an event breathtaking in its scope, yet almost totally benign in its results. The power went out for a while. Whole cities shut down. Millions of people were stranded. Then, eventually, the power came back on, and everyone went home. The End.
Of course, when I put it that way, it seems rather mundane. But in the moment, it was anything but. On the contrary, the Blackout of 2003 is, as I’ve said before, “one of my favorite events to reminisce about,” indeed “one of my very favorite life experiences, period.” And that’s why August 14, 2003 is on this list. It was the day the lights went out — and I was there.
Later today, or maybe tomorrow, or possibly early Wednesday — depending on how much free time I have — I’ll reveal Defining Day #9. Stay tuned!
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