BLACKOUT!! – New York City, USA

BLACKOUT!!
New York City, New York, USA

The doors of the N train opened on 5th Avenue – then everything went black. The heavy humming of the air conditioning came to a standstill and all available light in the station and on the train was suddenly non-existent. I sat there for a few moments wondering, like everyone else, just what had happened.

The conductor came on the public address system a little stymied. “Uh…this is your conductor, we are having some slight problems with the electricity…as soon as we get more information, we’ll let you know.”

“Great,” I muttered. I looked around me and New Yorkers of various shapes and sizes just sat there silently, waiting for the power to get turned on at any moment.

Not me. I knew what was going to happen in the whole station. The heat would become unbearable, and in no time the place would turn into a furnace. This being a really hot and humid day, I knew to get the hell out of the station above ground and take the express bus home. Easy to do I thought, all I have to do is walk out the subway and get to 59th Street and Madison. No problem, right?

Right.

I walked out of the subway – into a sea of MILLIONS. What the hell was going on here? As I and similarly minded passengers of the N train exited the station, we came across a moving sea of people – in the streets, on the sidewalks, everywhere. People were bustling in the street with the cars, all of the vehicles crawling along. I looked at the entrance of a nearby office building, and there were hundreds of people milling about. As I walked by them they kept talking of a blackout of some type.

Hmm. A blackout? It must be in this area of the city. It shouldn’t be a problem. I looked at the surrounding traffic lights and they were all out. No wonder the vehicles crawled along, and people were in the street. It was confusion.

As I walked to Madison Avenue, I walked by yet another crowd standing in front of an office building. So I asked them what was going on. One guy said there was a blackout in that area of Manhattan.

Not a problem I thought, I would just be a little late getting home. I would catch the bus on 59th street, and I’d be home free less than a half an hour later after working our way through traffic. No problem, right?

Right.

I suddenly realized that I had my walkman with me and figured that it would be a good idea to listen to the AM radio. I turned to 1010 WINS and listened to what they had to say. As usual they were on the story, but the reporter seemed a little confused as events unfolded. His speech was somewhat like this:

“For those of you that are joining us, this is the latest – we have a blackout on Manhattan Island, some parts of Brooklyn and The Bronx. We have no other information to tell you, except that the blackout happened exactly at 4:11pm, and that this has brought a lot of New York City to a standstill.”

Hmm. A big blackout. I wondered how long this was going to last? As I worked my way to the bus stop at 59th street, I began seeing buses, trucks, cars – anything that moved – chock full of people. In suits, in street clothes, in construction outfits. It almost seemed like everyone was in some sort of controlled mass exodus. Everyone wanted to get home. Fast. I heard a helicopter overhead and looked up. It hovered at around 1000 feet and I figured it must’ve been the media filming all of us poor suckers stuck down here.

As I stood at the bus stop, I leaned up against the door of a very expensive women’s boutique and it moved. I shifted to let a beautiful older woman out of the door, and she stood next to me as she tried to get her cellphone to work. She was dressed in black, and from the looks of it was a saleswoman for the boutique. She looked at me saying, “I think my cellphone’s out.”

That was funny. I picked up my own cellphone and looked at it’s crystal display. NO NETWORK IDENTIFIED.

What the hell was this?

Then I heard over the radio something that startled me. The reporter of 1010 WINS said, “This just in, we have received word that this blackout has effected all of New York City. We repeat, all of New York City is blacked out.”

I repeated those words to the older saleswoman in front of me. She was just as confused as I. A nearby crowd that heard me utter those words came over to hear what else I was saying. As we all conversed as to what could’ve caused this, I heard another report:

“We have more information for you, apparently this blackout has not only affected New York City, but all of New York State. Hold on…we have a communiqué from The Department of Energy, and they state that this blackout has effected ALL of the Northeastern United States and some parts of the Midwest.”

I repeated those words, and everyone around me suddenly became glued. I began to repeat the words as I heard them over my headphones:

“More cities are being effected by this blackout, including Cleveland, Detroit, Ottawa Canada, Toronto Canada and we have reports of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine being effected as well. All New York Airports or closed and won’t be reopened until further notice.”

I immediately started thinking what a black woman standing next to me thought out loud: “Is this another terrorist attack?” She immediately hit the panic button and called her relatives, for some reason her cellphone was working at that moment: “Hello, is this Jamie? Jamie I just wanted to tell you that whatever happens to me I LOVE YOU!! I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING BUT I JUST WANTED TO SAY I LOVE YOU, YOU HEAR ME??”

Suddenly everyone around me told the woman to calm down. I didn’t blame them. In times like this there is no reason to panic. Panic is the worst thing you can do. If this was a terrorist attack of unknown consequences, panicking could get you killed.

My gut feeling though, was that this had something to do with the power grid that surrounds the North East. We all began conversing about the power grids, and that the last time they failed was the big blackout of 1977. I was 9 years old back then, and remembered it distinctly. It all seemed like fun, I remembered looking out the windows of our apartment building in The Bronx and seeing the stars for once.

“But you know,” I said to Laura the saleswoman I had befriended, “I sure as hell feel sorry for those poor bastards in the subway. They must be roasting.” She agreed as I heard over the radio that the Fire Department was rescuing people all over the city stuck in skyscraper elevators and subway trains. I could hear their sirens throughout the cacophony of traffic noise.

Suddenly I saw the bus I had been waiting for. The Co-op City Express Bus, my savior from the madness of a New York City blackout. I stood on the long line of people who had the same idea as I, and as the bus drew closer, began to notice that it was packed to the rafters. The bus went right by without stopping, the driver waving off anyone that came near!

Great.

After several more buses going by without stopping, I realized I was looking at one of two things: A walk down to 23rd street and Madison, the embarkation point of the bus, and wait there. More than likely there would be a mile long line down there and a long ass wait.

The second option I didn’t look forward to. A long walk back to The Bronx. Almost 17 miles. In the heat of the sun, with millions of others, who were now heading en masse in two different directions. South and North.

I decided to give 23rd street a shot. I walked pretty leisurely, people watching at the same time, listening to the radio too. TV cameras were everywhere, and reporters were interviewing anyone on the street. Tourists were taking photos aplenty of all of us New Yorkers heading home.

Then I heard over the radio that the mayor ordered certain bridges entering Manhattan shut down. Vehicles were being allowed out, but not into the city. That would mean that the returning buses from Co-Op City wouldn’t be allowed to enter in to pick up more passengers.

I checked my cellphone. It was still down. I figured that perhaps I could call someone and crash with them until the next day. But with the phones down, and long lines at the landline phones, it was a no go. I wanted to get home before dark and the sun was setting quickly, a bright red/orange egg drop slowly working it’s way down the sky, the skyscrapers turning into large, darkened monoliths.

I then knew what my only real option was. I looked down at my feet. They obediently held my body up quietly as I stared at them, covered in Blundstone Australian leather.

I wondered inside if they were ready. They’d better be!

Time to walk.

I took my time, working my way past the jam packed streets towards First Avenue, for a straight shot right up the right side of Manhattan. As I walked I began to notice I was following a stream of people – millions of them, all having the same idea.

As I walked up First Avenue, I saw that the bars and pubs were stuffed with people – all office types, who obviously thought that it was time to celebrate the fact that we were all in the midst of New York’s latest blackout, the first of the 21st Century. I thought of joining them all for a drink or two, but decided against it. Walking up First Avenue drunk and dehydrated in that heat and humidity was asking for a good case of heat exhaustion.

I listened to the radio as I trudged along. The reporters at 1010 WINS were saying that everyone on the street was acting giddy, being very friendly. It was true. Everyone spoke to one another as if they were good friends, and I did the same. Giving encouragement to each other, the sea of people I followed up the street continued, foot after foot of Manhattan Island uptown.

The reporters on the news said that there were New Yorkers that were all of the sudden becoming “street corner traffic cops.” They were right again. As I approached 63rd street, amongst the sea of jammed cars was a lone old man, looking drunk as a skunk, trying to direct traffic.

I stood behind two young women looking at him on the corner. He was acting as if he was conducting a symphony, both arms waving around to the north and west bound traffic to enter the intersection at intervals.

His plan worked. Slowly but surely, the cars were going by in a distinct order, thanks to this old geezer, who seemingly stumbled a bit if he whirled around too quickly.

But of course there was someone who didn’t want to pay attention to him. A young woman in a black Nissan tried to pass by him, disobeying his street corner law. He stood in front of her car right in the intersection, arms folded.

The woman honked her horn, yelling out her open window. “Get out of the way!”

The Old Geezer walked over to her and immediately started yelling back. “What’s your problem, don’t you know I’m trying to direct traffic here?? You have to back up!”

“I wanna go home!” The woman screamed, and nudged her car forward. He then jumped in front of the car, blocking her path again. “Back up!! You’re not going anywhere!!”

She blew her horn, standing on it, as he ran back to the passenger side to yell through the open window. “What are trying to do run me over!!?? You wanna run me over??? Are you crazy???” He then started slamming his hand on the door, emphasizing his words. “You’re-not-going-anywhere!”

“If you don’t let me through I’m calling the cops!!” She yelled.

“YOU’RE GOING TO CALL THE COPS?? You’re going to call the cops?? Go ahead, your cellphone won’t work!!”

Myself and the two women began laughing hysterically. The old man was so right! No one would answer the call anyway, the police and fire departments were rescuing people in stuck subways and buildings all over the city!

“That’s a concerned citizen for ya, huh?” I said to the two ladies. They laughed along with me!

I continued the walk at my own pace, not really bothered at the amount of walking I had to do. Thank God for my Army training! If I had never done road marches when I was in the Army, I would’ve never had the confidence to keep going. I plugged on, stopping occasionally to buy water. Every time I stopped I would chat with people as to how they were coping with the heat, to make conversation. Everyone did as New Yorkers do when faced with adversity. Sucked it up. Ever since our real test on 9/11, this was going to be a cakewalk.

With the dimming sunlight cooking the atmosphere around us, I plodded on. The heat was especially atrocious when I got to 96th Street. The heat generated from the slow moving cars and buses was appalling. Combined with the humidity and hot exhaust of the vehicles, it was just choking.

There was a woman standing on the corner next to me. She was really good looking, in a slinky dress and high heels. She looked like the secretary of some high powered lawyer. She didn’t look exhausted, just really fed up with everything. She suddenly raised her arm in the air, trying to hail a cab. TRYING TO HAIL A CAB?? The heat really must’ve got to this woman. Nobody was going to stop and pick anyone up around here, let alone a cab. Every car that went by was packed with people, and traffic was at a crawl.

A traffic cop saw the woman in an obvious state of delirium. Smirking, he walked over to her saying, “Ma’am, um, do you really think you can hail a cab at a time like this?”

Myself and everyone else around her just stared incredulously. “I’ve walked all the way from 59th street, I’m tired, it’s hot, I cannot take this anymore!!” She said.

That got all of us laughing our heads off. The cop giggled. “Ma’am, look at it this way. I’m wearing a bulletproof vest in this heat. Do you know how hot you get wearing one of these? And I have to stand here for at least 12 HOURS. So do yourself a favor and keep walking.”

I had to chime in and add my two cents. “I got another 10 miles to go, Miss.”

A young Black woman standing next to me was just as amused. “Shiiiieeeet, and I wanted to lose weight. I never thought I’d be doing it this way.” The prima donna, embarrassed that us New Yorkers were looking at her dilemma with indifference, trotted away as the cop allowed us to cross the street.

By the time I hit 125th street, I was in a good stride. I figured I’d be home by 10 o’clock, it being somewhere around 7pm by then. I felt really good, kept drinking water and kept plugging along. Overall it was enjoyable, believe it or not. The entire feeling of this little romp was that it was a kinda group test, and the thousands of us laughed and kidded around as we went knowing that this experience was probably going to be something we’d all remember for the rest of our lives as being very unique for such a city as our own.

By the time I hit the Hunts Point area of the South Bronx, the sun was almost totally gone. It was now almost 8pm, and now that I knew I was in an area where I could take some local buses back to my general hood of The Bronx, thought I’d jump on one as soon as I got the chance.

The whole area of Hunts Point was bustling with people coming in from the walk from Manhattan. Street cops directed traffic which was congested everywhere. The lines waiting for the local buses weren’t bad at all though, and while I stood there people I had passed back in Manhattan began arriving. Laughing like old friends, we all greeted one another asking if we all had blisters or if we were beaten from the walk. As we all got on the air conditioned bus we were greeted by congratulations from the bus driver, and the bus ride being free for everyone. A welcome relief from such a stroll!

As the bus passed through J-Lo’s old hood of Castle Hill, the lights suddenly came on in the area! Cheering erupted throughout the bus as we all acted as if the New York Jets just won the Superbowl. The young woman I had been chatting to let out a big sigh of relief next to me, for she was worried about the food in her fridge and how she was going to feed her kids. As she jumped up to leave the bus in her area bathed in street light, I immediately thought of the luxuries that we all took for granted – a hot shower to wash off the grit and grime, cooking some dinner for myself and especially AIR CONDITIONING to relax me from this event! I quickly put on my radio and heard 1010 WINS say that parts of the Bronx had electricity restored. I really hoped my hood was included in that!

But as we rounded a corner sometime later, everyone in the bus craned their necks to see the apartment buildings of Co-Op City…BLACK. Pitch black. I laid back in my chair and moaned loudly with everyone else as if we just saw our Jets miss a tie breaking field goal.

Ugh. I knew right then and there that the juice supplying my hood wouldn’t get restored until the next day. The simple life conveniences would have to wait.

Indeed.

I awoke the next day a little sore from my little walk, but with the electricity restored. My feet feeling fine, I examined them anyway for any problems and found one remnant from my walk – a small blister on my right middle toe. I laughed when I saw it. It was so tiny and wasn’t serious at all. A welcome memento from a walk that I will always remember when people ask me, Where were you when the lights went out in 2003?

If you want to see a different side of New York, check out Mo Valentine’s Bronx Tours, New York’s First Tour of the Bronx