It didn’t take very long for the sidewalk vendors to roll out the T-shirts once the lights came back on in New York City after the Northeast Blackout of August 14, 2003. And there was no way I was going to pass up this one. This is one lifelong New Yorker who can say that she’s been on the planet long enough to to survive all three blackouts. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Northeast Blackout. It is also the 33rd anniversary of the New York City blackout of July 13, 1997; and the 48th anniversary of the Northeast Blackout of November 9, 1965.
Now granted, I was only seven years old when the ‘65 blackout took place. And there isn’t a whole lot that I remember from that time. I was raised in a house with my maternal grandparents, and we still had black-and-white TV. The lights blinked, and my grandfather thought that maybe it was just a minor problem like a blown fuse. Then he asked us to see if there was interference on the television sets. We had a large console TV in the living room, and a small portable set in the porch. I remember looking at the series of horizontal lines going across the television screen, and running through the house shouting, “Interference on both TVs! Interference on both TVs!” My grandfather was the type who loved to play practical jokes and tell scary stories to his grandchildren, and he didn’t pass up the opportunity to thoroughly scare us kids with a spooky story as we sat around the dining room table ringed with candles.
My family had moved a few doors down from my grandparents’ house to our own house by the time of the 1977 blackout. But my mom got laid off from her job, so the bills were had gone unpaid, and our electric was cut off. It was a hot night, and we were sitting outside on the stoop just chilling out when the lights all around us started to go dark, and we were like, oh shit—it’s a blackout! A few years later, I wrote this haiku about the experience:
When the lights went out
in New York City, it was
no thing to us. Since
we had no juice already,
we just sat and watched the show.
And what a show it was. My mom was like the den mother back in the day; all the kids used to come to our house to hang out. Soon, the fellas we went to school with came around and reported that someone had backed a truck up to the local A&P Supermarket at the corner of Linden & Merrick, pulled the door off its hinges, and folks just helped themselves to the place. Mom told those fellas to stay away from that place, to either go home or stay on the block with us. But stay off the streets. Later on, we would hear on the news about the widespread looting and rioting during the 25 hours that the city was in the dark. The New York Times has a great article about the 1977 blackout, in contrast to the climate in the city at the time of Blackout of 2003 (click here for NY Times article). They pretty much got it spot on.
I was a mother of my own when the 2003 blackout took place. My older son was in college, my younger son in high school. I’d taken the day off from work for some doctor’s appointments in downtown Brooklyn, and had some down time before heading to Madison Square Garden to catch a home game for the New York Liberty. I’d gone to a local market for some lunch, and sat down to eat at Columbus Park over at Brooklyn Borough Hall. As I enjoyed my meal, I looked across that street at the subway entrance, and saw a mass of people pouring out of the subway entrance. At first, I thought that it was just another transit failure. Everybody said that the trains stopped running, but no one said why. I figured that whatever the problem was, it would be solved in time for me to head over to the Garden for the basketball game.
It was over an hour before I found someone in the park with a portable radio, and found out the real reason for the transit shutdown. And I couldn’t believe my ears. I called the house to find out from the boys if this was true, and if they had power at home. They also told me that their dad, who lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio at the time, was also in the dark. I found that even harder to believe.
The area was quickly getting clogged with pedestrians trying to make their way through the streets which had no traffic lights. The buses were over-packed with transit riders since the subways were shutdown. I figured it was time to get moving someplace.
“I’m going to try and get over to your Aunt Annette’s and Uncle Robin’s house,” I told the boys. “I’m not sure if they’re in town, but if she is, I’ll stay over there. If not, then I’ll try and walk over to the Junction and get a bus over to the Rockaways.”
Before I started on my journey, I thought it would be a good idea to go over to the courthouse and use the restroom. A simple idea, until the security guard warned me that the restroom was in an area where there were no lights, and no windows from the outside. While the hallway had light from the entrance, once you opened the door into the ladies room, it was pitch black. And this the era of the green screen regular cell phone, before the sophisticated smartphones with super-bright screens and flashlight apps. The phone I had at the time didn’t put a dent in the darkness. It was no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t even see past my nose. Soon afterwards, one of the workers came in who had a cigarette lighter that lit up the room enough for us to do our business. While I don’t encourage people to have a cigarette habit, since I’ve had family members who smoked themselves to death, it was the one time when I honestly said, “Thank goodness for smokers.”
Well, I made it over to my friend’s in Park Slope easy enough. But when I knocked on her door and called out her name, no one answered. The phones were acting funny, so it was hard for me to get through to our mutual friends to find out whether she was in town. But I got another call through to the boys as I sat on her stoop. “I’ll give her an hour or so,” I said. “If she doesn’t show through, then I’ll start heading toward the Junction.” My hope was to be able to get on a bus into Gateway Park before it got too dark so that I get back into the Rockaways. My boys also told me that Long Island Power Authority was going to try and get the power restored to Long Island and the Rockaways sometime in the middle of the night. Con Edison still had no idea when power would be restored to the five boroughs of New York City.
I didn’t have to wait too long…Call it serendipity or intuition, but a half hour or so after I sat on her stoop, Annette happened to come out her door, and to her surprise, saw me there. “CJ! What are you doing here?!” I told her that I’d got caught in Brooklyn after my doctor’s appointments. And she welcomed me right inside. She was cooking some chicken outside in the backyard for supper. And her husband Robin was out of town, so she was overjoyed to have someone to keep her company during that long night of the blackout.
As it turned out, my sons at home in the Rockaways got their power restored around 2:00am. In Brooklyn, we didn’t get the power restored by Con Edison until four in the morning. My sister in the Bronx did not get her power back until middle of the day; and my former husband in Ohio was out for almost two days.
The anniversary of the 2003 blackout was mentioned on the local news this week, where they showed footage of straphangers trudging up out of a subway station. Incredibly, it was a tree branch hitting a power line in Ohio was the cause of the whole thing. USA Today has an article that asked if we learned anything from the 2003 blackout, and whether we face any new threats to America’s electric grid (click here for USA Today article). We may have learned a few things, but we’ve got a ways to go.
I was tickled to learn that all three blackouts made the Union of Concerned Scientists’ list of the 13 largest power outages in history, along with the power outage that resulted from Hurricane Sandy, which made the top of the list (check out the list here). I also have the distinction of surviving Hurricane Sandy, too, sitting in my apartment in Far Rockaway without power for eleven days. That was one time when a smartphone app for a flashlight did not come in handy.
So yea, the T-shirt was the first souvenir that I bought from the blackout. But the second thing that I got? A flashlight for my keychain. And while I’ve got a smartphone now with a really bright screen (and a flashlight app), I find that it’s no substitute for the real deal.