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Light in the Blackout

When the power went out on my office-building floor during the afternoon of the great blackout last month, I thought it was my fault. Not that I, a mere intern at ABC News in New York, caused the dilapidation of the power grids, of course—but I had been the last one to touch the water cooler just before it began buzzing oddly and my entire floor lost power. I had finished off the last jug of water and intended to make the custodians’ job easier by removing the old one before they replaced it. It was not until several minutes later that I discovered that a huge chunk of North America was without power—that I had not, in fact, shorted the fuse that forced “World News Tonight” from its usual New York studio. In a strange way, I was relieved to learn that the rest of Manhattan was also without power.

Everyone in New York that day has their own story about where they were when the lights went out—or, at least for one intern, when he realized that it was not his fault.

The blackout was a memorable rite of passage that will serve as a milestone in people’s lives. All those who went through the 1965 and 1977 blackouts distinctly recall where they were at the time, what their lives were like, where they were living, where they were working and how they had originally planned to spend the day. They also remembered what tribulations they went through to get home, what hardships they faced and how they ultimately made it, just like everyone else.

They will remember this year’s blackout with unique fondness because of the character and camaraderie of New Yorkers on that day.

The last time Americans’ daily routines ground to a halt—the last time people flooded across bridges out of Manhattan—was after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The day after the blackout began, an editorial by The New York Times predicted that people caught without power “will remember where they were when the lights went out, and will tell one another that for a few minutes, they wondered whether terrorists had struck again.” The knowledge that the blackout was not the result of an attack spread quickly over radio waves and by word of mouth. Mismanagement of an antiquated power grid was a far less harrowing explanation.

The blackout also gave people a way to help each other in a time of only mild crisis—to ease an instance of hardship without heartache. In New York, as buses packed full of people and perspiration came to a stand-still in traffic, a man from a bakery stood along the road and offered drivers free bread through their windows. If people had fridges full of meat, they threw it on a grill and shared it with their neighbors. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked his constituents to give rides to others if they had extra space in their cars, and people heeded his appeal; never before have I seen so many hitch-hikers picked up in Queens. Ordinary citizens devoted hours in the heat to directing traffic and preventing a clogged chaos. Others set up tables and served water along routes where many dehydrated commuters were walking. The blackout gave people the opportunity to feel good about themselves and those around them, rarely more aware that they were neighbors.

Like most people who have lived in the same place for a long time, New Yorkers believe they know their city pretty well. The blackout, however, allowed people to recognize in their prosaic settings a world they seldom see. The Queensboro Bridge did not actually change during the blackout, but I can promise you that it looks a lot different when you are crossing it on foot, along with thousands of other people. Along Fifty-Eighth Street, restaurant workers sat outside their eateries on chairs better suited for office work or dinner than for outdoor lounging. Firefighters sat outside their stations, doormen outside their buildings and parking garage attendants outside their booths. One driver rested his head on the steering wheel of his car, trapped in a garage by an electrically-operated pole blocking the exit.

Over and over, I thought to myself, “You do not see that every day.” And you do not. Christopher M. Migliaccio, a resident of Queens, said that before the blackout, he could not remember seeing stars at night in New York City because of the light pollution. And everyone will have some unique recollection of their own to remind them that no matter how long they have lived in New York, they will never know it completely.

Maybe I did not look hard enough, but of the scores of people with whom I spoke about their blackout experience, none of them were angry. They had too many good reasons not to be.

Alexander J. Blenkinsopp ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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