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Town Topics Staffer Gives Her Account Of New York City During the Blackout

Rebecca Blackwell

By now, everyone has heard the dramatic stories of the "Blackout of '03." People stuck in elevators between floors. People trapped in subways stalled under the East River. People forced to use pay phones after their cell phone service failed them.

None of these things happened to me. Like the vast majority of people, I was only slightly inconvenienced. Having to walk a really long way or use the bathroom by candlelight seems a small price to pay for the sudden camaraderie of shared hassles, the joy of an enforced holiday, and of course the bragging rights that come from being part of a piece of regional history.

When the power went out, I was on the Staten Island Ferry, which isn't at all a bad place to be in a blackout, especially if you happen to be from Staten Island. I, of course, am from Princeton and was not on my way to anywhere. I was in Manhattan for the week taking a photography course. For my daily shooting assignment on Thursday, I had opted to photograph the ferry.

The ferry eventually completed its trip, and deposited me back at South Ferry. I was 70 or 80 blocks from the apartment I was borrowing, but not in a particular hurry to get there.

With a few hours to go until nightfall and no subway service in sight, New Yorkers quickly divided themselves into three major groups. The first group mobbed the bus stops, eyed the street for non-existent empty taxis, and mauled each other trying to get a spot on a bus when one that was only 90 percent full finally pulled over. The second group looked at the bus stops, shrugged its collective shoulders, and began walking home, even if home was a river and a borough away. The third group couldn't be bothered with any of that. It went to the nearest bar, grabbed a beer, and enjoyed the impromptu city-wide block party.

I took a long circuitous route uptown, walking east or west when I found something interesting. On North Moore Street, two bars on opposite sides of the street had moved their operations onto the sidewalks. In between, a large-scale frisbee game had developed, with two teams hurling six or eight frisbees back and forth. Bar-goers watched the game while lounging in plush arm chairs on the sidewalk, drinking beers chilling in champagne buckets.

For a while, I joined the crowds walking home along the Hudson River with the sun setting behind the dark high-rises of northern New Jersey. As darkness fell, I turned in to Greenwich Village and headed crosstown to meet a friend and seek out a still-cold beer and a much-needed rest. Although lit only by occasional car headlights, the streets were thick with pedestrians, and residents and their friends crowded onto stoops and fire escapes. On Christopher Street, two men played Scrabble by the light of a chest-high candelabra.

Strangers started easy conversations while waiting together at bus stops or shopping by flashlight in the small delis and markets, many of which stayed open until midnight or later. "This is the way New York should be all the time," was a common sentiment, at least among people at candle-lit sidewalk bars.

We sat on the curb and looked up at the stars, in a sky that was for once deep blue rather than light purple. Until a bus sped by, spitting dirt into our eyes and beers and reminding us, with a shock, that we were in the city.

At 2 a.m., I took a walk on 42nd Street, to investigate the fate of commuters and tourists stuck in the city. Clusters of sleeping commuters dotted the sidewalks and curbs near Grand Central Station. One station entryway, lit with a pair of high-wattage generator lights, was packed with commuters attempting to sleep or read. Some people even lay on top of the escalators that plunged into the darkness of an internal subway entrance.

A hundred yards down the street, a Red Cross Disaster Services truck dispensed water in paper cups outside the Grand Hyatt. In a hotel vestibule, two dozen lucky people slept sitting up in chairs or on their sides like sardines on the floor.

People were remarkably uncomplaining. It may just be that by 2 a.m. they were too tired to complain. But from what I had seen, most people reacted to the blackout with patience and good humor. After all, if it wasn't terrorism, it wasn't that bad.

When I eventually reached the building where I was staying, I was met at the door by complete darkness and a droning alarm. With no power, the building's only functioning device was the battery-powered alarm on the door leading to the roof. Tenants escaping stuffy apartments to sleep on the roof had unwittingly activated it. When the batteries finally died just before 3 a.m, the noise was replaced by the hum of crickets.

The next morning, much of the city slept in. Alarms didn't go off. No one knew if their office had power. And besides, plenty of people had hangovers to consider. I met briefly with my class outside the International Center of Photography school on Sixth Avenue, but like most offices and larger stores, the school was closed, and our final day of class was cancelled.

With the subways shut down, buses weren't charging, so I set out to investigate the effects of the blackout by bus and on foot. Other New Yorkers, driven by curiosity or the desire for bus air conditioning, had the same idea.

Power slowly returned to neighborhoods throughout the day, and several times I found myself suddenly surrounded by working street and store lights when a minute before there had been none. Nobody wanted to spend another night without power, but few New Yorkers were complaining about their unexpected three-day weekend.

Walking through Union Square, I heard a woman calling out that the power was back on and pointing to traffic lights on nearby streets. A few of the hundred people nearby clapped and cheered, but most seemed content to continue lying in the sun.

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