NYC Blackout, 2003

(originally published August 15th, 2003)

Yesterday, my daughter and I took a day off from unpacking and rearranging things around the house – we decided to have a fun day shopping in New York…

She was trying on clothes in a little shop across from the Empire State building when the lights started to flicker – then they went out. They closed the store down and told us that if we wanted to buy anything, we would have to pay cash. I wasn’t sure if the problem was just with the store, or if it was citywide, but I decided not to buy the clothes – we might need the cash.

When we saw the huge masses of people gathered outside of the Empire State Building, we realized that it was a blackout. When a man with a radio told us that the entire tri-state area was out, we ran up to the first hot dog stand we could find and bought bottles of water.

The streets were packed with people, talking into their cells, waiting on lines for the pay phones, trying to contact a babysitter, their husband, their mom, their kids. My phone wasn’t working, but I kept trying. I sat near a bunch of smokers, breathing in second hand smoke, wishing I could bum a cigarette. (I would have if my daughter wasn’t with me).

My daughter asked if it was terrorism. ‘Probably not,’ I said ‘they like to blow lots of people up, this is too subtle for them.’

People were being rushed out of buildings. Some hotels weren’t taking any new customers, they were even putting their paying guests out into the street. Thousands of people packed onto the sidewalk. I knew that if we got hungry, thirsty, if we ran out of cash, if it got dark, if we had to go to the bathroom, the situation would go downhill fast. We had to leave the city.

The Port Authority was more tightly packed than a Tokyo subway at rush hour. It was also closed – no busses back to Jersey. I asked a man from the MTA where the busses to Jersey were. He said they were stopping by the Duane Reade Drugstore across the street. In front of the Duane Reade, a pack of pigeons crouched along a streetlight, pooping onto the target rich environment below. We sidestepped the pigeons and made it to the bus stop, where we discovered that the only busses available were going to Staten Island. Nothing to Jersey.

My daughter asked what we should do next. I had no idea, and I was stalling for time when I saw a woman knocking on a car window, shouting ‘take me to Jersey, I’ll pay you some money, just take me to Jersey!’ I thought the car was a gypsy cab, so I knocked on the window too. The car door opened and we jumped inside. When the driver introduced himself, I realized that this wasn’t a cab – Ali was just a guy driving home from work, who had just happened to attract a bunch of stranded people. There were five of us.

The woman in front, a blonde from Wisconsin, had been on the top of the Empire State Building when the city blacked out. She waited for twenty minutes for the stairway doors to open, and when they did, she ran down the stairs. ‘I run three miles every day’ she said. ‘I was ready for this!’

The woman who had been frantically banging on the window lived near Albany. She’d also come to the city for a fun day of shopping, and was in Bloomies when the lights went out.

The man in back was from New Jersey – as we crawled through the traffic choked streets, he described what it was like to be in the city on 9/11, in midtown, and how he saw the plane hit the south tower. Of the group, he was the calmest. We all shared stories as the traffic crawled.

The good Samaritan, Ali, kept the radio on as he drove. There were reports of ordinary people directing traffic (there was definitely not a cop at every corner). We looked out the window and saw that it was true. One corner was being directed by a short middle-aged woman. Another was directed by an old man conducting the traffic like a symphony. He looked like he had dreamed his whole life of being a traffic cop, a huge smile on his face. That was when I noticed that horns weren’t beeping – just like after 9/11. Nobody wanted to cause any more trouble. There was enough already. The mood was calm and determined.

Ali asked each traffic cop, amateur and professional, which route was the fastest to the tunnel. He got a different answer every time. Some said the roads were blocked, some said that the tunnel was closed. We all offered suggestions, none of them good. Ali found his own way. The tunnel was open, the traffic was smooth and we were soon out of the city. When we saw the lights of Jersey, we cheered for our driver.

A pickup truck loaded with office workers bounced through the tunnel. The workers were crouched together like migrants with their possessions on their laps. When they got out of the tunnel they grabbed their bags and jumped off the truck. Ali dropped us off and we joined the crowd of people on the long, slow walk to the bus stations. It wasn’t a grim progression – we were happy to be out of crowded city, exchanging news. A few stores were open and some lights were on. Bars were open, whether they had lights or not, and people gathered out front cooling off with a beer. They smiled, watching the crowd go by. A deli sold melting food for half price. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I bought a bagful. You never know.

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