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.

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.

Heartening as they are to read, human-interest stories aren't the real story of the blackout, a story that's as meaningful to me, sitting here in the Berkshires, pondering what the cheese in my leaky Manhattan refrigerator will look like when I get back next week, as it is to you, sweltering in the city, wondering if you should risk turning on the TV and the electric fan at the same time, or whether you ought to boil the tap water before drinking, like your cousins in Cleveland—which isn't easy when you can't light the burner or switch on the microwave. The real story of the blackout is the ultimate human-interest story: It's the story of how we live, and what's going to happen to us if we don't rethink the way we live. This is the story of a civilization that built higher and higher, cut down more and more trees, and needed more and more energy to light and cool its higher and higher buildings as the weather grew hotter and hotter. It's the story of a civilization that marketed machines powered by electricity to do everything, even displacing the bulk of its person-to-person contacts onto telephones, and the bulk of its public entertainments from live self-amplified human experiences to electrified events, preserved electronically on reels of celluloid, tapes, and discs, run by machines that require more electrical power. It transferred the majority of its transportation requirements from ecologically viable and pleasant horse-wagons or boats to gasoline-powered vehicles, but now that the civilization's cracking up, you can't even get in your car and drive away from it, for gas pumps work by electricity too, and where the power grid's out it's out.

What the blackout will have done to our economy, I don't want to imagine. How it will alter our politics is still an open question. But it'll be interesting, next summer, to watch the Republican convention assemble, in the most energy-vulnerable city in the world, to renominate a president who still won't admit global warming's a reality, and a vice president who still won't release the minutes of his energy-policy consultations with the rich slobs who feed off our energy dependence. Memories of the crisis will have some bearing, too, on another human-interest story tied to our economic future, the battle over New York City bonds between our relatively sane mayor and our useless, obstructionist governor—who's currently busy, as usual, skittering around looking for somebody to blame, instead of trying to find practical remedies. His reluctance is understandable: The remedies will be painful, unlike the happy resolutions of human-interest stories. Buildings will have to be built differently; goods will have to be transported differently. Human beings will have to find different, safer, and earth-friendlier sources for the electricity that now sustains even the most isolated lives and the most exotically distant nations. (Who knew, until terrorists blew one up, that there were dance clubs on Bali?) That's the worst of this story for me, out here in a tiny country town, remote from the crisis and knowing people affected by it everywhere. This quintessential New York story, which is also Detroit's and Toronto's and Cleveland's story, is everybody else's story too, because we've taught the whole world to live in our nonsustainable, planet-destroying way: As on 9-11, but for very different reasons, today we are all New Yorkers.

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