The big blackout, 10 years later
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The big blackout, 10 years later

Exactly a decade ago today, the lights went out across the Northeast.

It was less than two years since September 11, so of course each of us assumed at first that it had been another terror attack, that our enemies had hit us again.

It was terrifying.

But then, fairly quickly, considering that this was a very post-cellphone but still pre-iPad or even iPhone era, and anyway we couldn’t have recharged them, and there was no television and only transistor radios worked and the whole point was that the power was out, we learned that it wasn’t an attack. It was an accident. It wasn’t anybody’s fault! Nobody was trying to kill us. It might have been monumental incompetence, but who cared?
Very quickly the mood turned from horror to giddy baked joy. But no, not baked. That would imply a dry heat. The day was roasting hot and greasily humid. We were sautéed. We were fried. We were thoroughly cooked. So it was a giddy, pan-seared joy that engulfed us.

I was at the Jewish Standard’s office when the power went off. Once we realized that it wasn’t coming back on any time soon, and anyway it was after four in the afternoon, we all left. I got in my car and got back onto Route 4, heading east.

There are only three traffic lights between the office and my house.

That was one of the first lessons I learned that day. I live on the Upper West Side, about 12 miles from the Standard, but there are only three traffic lights between me and home. So I breezed home, magically and immediately found on-street parking, and climbed up to my 13th floor apartment. (Please note that there are two flights of stairs between each floor. This is a solid, high-ceilinged prewar building. It proudly has a 13th floor, no sissy superstitions there, and those stairs are serious.)

My husband was at work in midtown. He was fine. But my daughter, home from her first year of college, had been downtown. Where was she?

Eventually she called. She had been on the subway; she’d gotten on the train at Chambers Street and was just north of the station when the power went. The passengers sat in the hot wet dark for about 45 minutes before an MTA employee had them climb out the train’s window and walk the track back to the station. Then she had to walk home; it’s about a two hour walk in normal conditions. Did I mention that it was very hot that day?

The streets were full of people, hot and tired and footsore and very proud of themselves. Grocery stores and bodegas were giving away ice cream and cold drinks; they couldn’t keep anything frozen and anyway their cash registers and credit card machines didn’t work. The goodwill was worth it.

Eventually Miriam came home. The celebratory mood seemed to have passed her by. It was the 26 looming flights of stairs that did it, and her realization that the air conditioning also was out. But once she was home, soaking in the tub ““ no problem that the water wasn’t particularly hot ““ she was fine.

Meanwhile, I had to walk my dog. Lucy was an unusually large middle-aged laborador, and she did not like stairs. My husband and I had to pull her down; she put her front legs out and body-surfed down each flight, moving faster and faster until she crashed into the wall in front of her. We laughed hard, and she didn’t appreciate it. (Oddly, coming back upstairs was easier. For her, that is. Not for us. For her.)

Being outside that evening, though ““ being outside that evening was magic. By then the air was soft. It was palpably infused with joy ““ for having escaped danger, for knowing that no one was hurt, for being alive and outside on a summer night. We felt liberated at our ability to talk to strangers. Normally in the city you don’t do that, but that night we all had shared an adventure, and nothing seemed more natural that to share stories about it as well.

A small group of people had brought a card table onto the sidewalk on the side street near where we live; it leads down to Riverside Park. It’s a quiet, pretty, tree-lined street, at the top of a hill, with a fountain and a small monument at its foot. These people had put a red-and-white checked tablecloth on the table. They were having a picnic, eating by the light of the candles they’d brought down. They talked softly and laughed often. Mary Poppins couldn’t have done it better.

Ten years ago, we were all so close to the destruction that had come so close to us that joy felt hard-won and well-deserved, and that evening, we all took it.

And by the next morning, the power was back.

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