Away From It All

A Blackout Letter From an Absent Friend, Friday, August 15

The Berkshires—We finished loading the rental car, and turned onto the West Side Highway, at 2:26 p.m. on Thursday, so I missed the Great New York Blackout of '03 by 106 minutes. It wasn't until we had crossed the Massachusetts border and my friend decided to get the five o'clock news from NPR that we found out what was happening. They were already denying terrorism by then, reiterating Bloomberg's calming statements, and having nervously playful on-air chats via satellite-phone with lawyers trapped in their 46th-floor offices. I was already doing what all New Yorkers away from home do during a crisis: panicking about my answering machine, trying to remember what was left in the refrigerator, running through the list of friends who might be trapped more than 10 flights up in buildings where the windows don't open. And, natch, I was worrying about the borrowed country house where we'd be arriving in half an hour, maybe to find no electricity, no safe place to store food, and no idea where the hell our generous host (who was among the millions trapped back in Manhattan) might keep his supply of candles.

Western Massachusetts, luckily, isn't among the areas affected by the blackout. I'm writing this late Friday afternoon, and my computer is plugged in. The supermarket one town over was well stocked, as the refrigerator now is; the weather's beautiful; and my only problem is the overwhelming guilt I feel at not being there to share the latest edition of what Irving Berlin once called "Manhattan Madness" with all my friends and neighbors. The temptation to sneer at them all as suckers for being stuck there is palpable, too, but I don't give it much thought, because I don't pride myself on an occasional stroke of good luck like this. I've worked in the New York theater long enough to know that anybody's timing can be perfect once.

Western Mass has also been known, since the earliest Native American times, as a place of visions, and it's easy for me to imagine, sitting and staring out at these huge vistas of green swathed in sunlight, what New Yorkers are going through right now, how they're behaving, what ingenious solutions they might be coming up with for the endless inconvenience and nightmare they're currently going through. I'm thinking about the elderly people I see on my block everyday, out with their walkers and their nursemaids, and imagining them coming back home in the 4 p.m. sunshine to find the elevators to their ninth-floor rooms gone dead. I'm envisioning the meat and produce departments of the two groceries where I shop, and imagining the panic of their managers as they watch the greens wilt and the steaks go brown at the edges, steaks that nobody's going to cook in microwaves and electric ranges that won't turn on. The statisticians will have a great time with the aftermath of this event: I wonder who's busy calculating the amount of spoilage, the degree of panic among people with relatives in ICUs, the percentage of angst among travelers stuck at airports, in train and bus stations (what must it be like right now at Port Authority?), the loss of revenue at businesses of every kind that didn't or couldn't stay open during what should have been a cheerful, high-profit summer weekend. Economic crisis in New York? Thanks, I thought we already had one.

Details

More Blackout Coverage:

"Mondo Washington: Why the Public Is Powerless" by James Ridgeway

"Pataki: New York's Prince of Darkness" by Wayne Barrett

"Press Clips: It's Deregulation, Stupid" by Cynthia Cotts

"Fly Life: How the Blackout Made New York Nightlife Fun Again" by Tricia Romano

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It's an observed fact that human beings improve spiritually during a disaster, are more considerate and more generous to one another. I don't doubt that this is being demonstrated again, that even as I type these words, New Yorkers are looking after the sick and the frail, finding places for the stranded to sleep, giving away food sooner than see it go to waste. Yes, there'll be accounts of looting and mugging, or worse, in the sudden darkness, the petty revenges of petty souls whose one thought is to take advantage. And, yes, there'll be stories of the clever or lucky folk who turned a profit out of the occasion: the nebbish with the camera who happened to be there when the perfect image turned up; the joyously old-fashioned operators of Gray's Papaya, whose gas grill made them the most popular (or most functioning) food-service outpost in town. But I expect that most of the stories will be the great kind, tried-and-true items with a long history of success in journalism, about people who went out of their way to do something for somebody else, preferably a total stranger—you know, the cabbie who returned the lost Stradivarius and then wouldn't take the reward. Those Strad-in-cab stories always get a big play in the tabs; they sell papers by reaffirming the innate goodness of human nature. I don't doubt that there'll be plenty of them. They sell so well that I'm halfway tempted to make a few up: The Queens bodybuilder who carried five old ladies, one at a time, up sixteen flights, and then said it was easier than the StairMaster. The three-star Cajun restaurant in Park Slope that doled out that night's jambalaya gratis to 500 Japanese tourists. The Broadway choristers who went the round of the midtown hotels, serenading the newly unhoused guests huddled in their atria. Did these stories happen? If not, something a lot like them will have, you can count on it. We'll be getting such stories shortly from Toronto and Detroit and Cleveland, too, but the best ones will come from New York, because New Yorkers are the best, and we know it.

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