The power actually browned out—gradually—in our section of midtown Manhattan on August 14 at 4:10 p.m. But before ten full minutes had elapsed, everything was completely gone.
Like for most of those affected, the information came in slowly. We assumed it was just our immediate neighborhood. Then we heard it was the whole City. Then: New Jersey and Connecticut too.
Soon we got our ‘D’ batteries from the local newstand and got the full report off the radio—fifty million people across the Eastern Seaboard up to Toronto and Ottawa in Canada.
New Yorkers, of course, remember the infamous Blackout of 1977, when looting caused panic and millions of dollars in damage. No one knew if a similar fate awaited us.
Nothing to do? Choose.
At the BustedHalo offices, we perched ourselves on the steps outside to avoid the confined mugginess of our rooms. I attempted to do some work in the fading sunshine but didn’t get far. There were periodic forays inside to listen to the news until the sun finally went down.
When the absence of phones, internet access, computers, lights, and other aids to contermporary work and living makes a lot of “normal” activity impossible, you face the inevitable question: “So now what do we do?” New York City faced that question squarely in the face on August 14.
It could have turned out rather badly. Yes, there was the usual round of bitching and complaining. After all, some people had it truly bad—trapped on the subway or in elevators, others with hours of walking to get home. But then there were also the rumors of spoiled millionaires or starlets or even professional types behaving badly at downtown hotels. A bit of price gouging here and there.
But most people in Manhattan seemd to deal with the unexpected turn of events admirably. At my house we fed an extra cadre of people who couldn’t get home; I heard many stories of others doing the same. Folks were wandering the streets in the dark, just wanting to see what was going on. Many people parked themselves on the pavement with a bottle of wine, candles, packs of playing cards, entertaining themselves and their neighbors. On 72nd St., a group of guys shot off fireworks to everyone else’s
amusement (except perhaps FDNY).
And all over the city, I heard tale of people checking on their elderly neighbors. Maybe more surprisingly, commuters unable to return home slept on the sidewalk and remarked more on their newfound empathy for the homeless than on what Consolidated Edison had put them through.
The reason for good behavior
Psychologists say that most human beings don’t deal well with unstructured time. There is a human need to have a rhythm to our lives, to know what comes next, to have activities and connections that parcel out the days and the hours. When that is disrupted, people can become bored or depressed, or anxious, even angry.
We did better than that this time around. Why?
There was one sentiment I heard bandied about a lot during the blackout. Maybe a sentiment felt in other parts of the country as well. “Compared to 9/11, this is not that bad.”
What happened to us then
The normally very comfortable, sometimes self-satisfied people of New York City, in September of 2001, knew firsthand what it was like to live through disaster, where the feel of death was all around (the posters of the “missing,” the grief of friends and acquaintances, the fears of children), where silence walked the streets, where no one knew what life would be like for us afterward.
Life has certainly returned, perhaps regrettably in some ways, to the normal speed and anonymity of New York. But the memory of all that remains.
And an August blackout, no matter how vast, unexpected, or scary, just cannot frighten us or provoke us in the same way.