Forty-seven years ago tonight, I witnessed my first major blackout. As the New York Metropolitan area continues to struggle with the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy
and the ensuing power failure--some places are still without electricity--I will commemorate this anniversary with my blackout memories.
November 9, 1965:
My family had recently moved to a new apartment on East 8th Street near Caton Avenue on the edge of Flatbush, in Brooklyn. My bar mitzvah was three days earlier, and our refrigerator was jammed to the bursting point with leftover food from the reception. I don't recall exactly how we found out that major portions of the Northeast and Canada had experienced a power failure, but I suspect that somewhere in the house a radio or TV was playing, and around 5:30 that evening the broadcast turned to static. Yet, the lights remained on. What I do remember most distinctly about that night was going up to the roof with my cousin Ellen, who lived in the building, and looking out at an ocean of darkness as far as the eye could see—except for our building and the ten or so surrounding blocks. We were in the middle of a little island of light, unaffected by the blackout. But I was sad because I didn’t get to experience a historic event. My mother, however, was thrilled because the food in the refrigerator was not going to spoil.
July 13, 1977:
It was the middle of a sweltering summer and I was living in an unair-conditioned apartment on Riverside Drive, in Washington Heights, with a roommate and a dog. Having recently finished graduate school and embarked on a career as a writer, I’d spent the day working on a book. The lights went out only in New York City around 9:30 that night, and I recall sitting on the couch in the candlelit foyer, listening to reports of nearby looting and arson on a portable radio. But we couldn’t see any looting out the window; Riverside Drive was quiet. However, we prudently remained inside until the lights came on the next day. Thirty-five years later, I somehow associate this blackout with the death of Elvis Presley, but that didn’t happen till a month later, on August 16.
August 14, 2003:
When the lights went out across the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada around 4:00 that afternoon, I was in my current apartment, in downtown Manhattan. It was hot, and the air conditioner suddenly died. I called Mary Lyn, who was working in Midtown—regular landlines remained in service—and asked her if she knew what was going on. There was a major power failure, she said, and she was going have to walk down 21 flights of stairs to get out of her office building. She got home about an hour later, just as Dee, a friend of ours who lived in the neighborhood, called. She wanted to join us to search for something to eat, so we went downstairs to meet her a few blocks away. New York was filled with people wandering around, asking each other, “What’s going on? Is it a terrorist attack?” Some people were listening to portable radios and many were trying to call—unsuccessfully—people on their cell phones.
As the sun went down, Mary Lyn, Dee, and I walked through Greenwich Village, feeling disoriented on familiar streets now shrouded in inky blackness. We found an open pizza place on Christopher Street and ate a couple of slices by candlelight. When we got home, our friend Laura, who was unable to get back home to Queens, was waiting for us at the top of the stairs. One of our neighbors has given her a little flashlight and somebody had bought her a glass of wine at a restaurant across the street. We went up to the roof and looked down at 6th Avenue, where a party at the restaurant had spilled onto the street. Laura slept on our couch. The power came on 27 hours later. Having kept the refrigerator closed the entire time, no food had spoiled.