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July 6th, 2004

Blackout

by Alexandra Schwimmer

The whole city isn’t working. Walk up.” My father says these words to me over my cell?Ǭ as I bang on the outside of the metal elevator door and say “The elevator’s not working.” My efforts are met not with the usual sounds of clunking and powerful steel cables rotating around the drum but by hollow echoing thuds.

Leaning against the cool gray bricks of the hallway?Ǭ I consider the David Stoltz sculpture which is mounted on the wall. It is of a grizzly cabbie sitting in his yellow and black checker Taxi with a cigar in his mouth. The curl of smoke is made of black iron rod twisted in spirals above his head and there are three stars, a blue one and two red ones. Next to the art work there is a pink lipstick kiss on the corner of a brick. This is a memento which a?Ǭ guest of some New Years long ago left behind. Every time the hallway is painted, the kiss is marked with masking tape and great care is given to paint around it. I unlock and pull back a heavy metal door to the left of where the elevator should have arrived.?Ǭ The stairs are rarely used except in instances when the elevator is broken as they are extremely steep, with about twenty five wooden steps to a level. The way up is dimly lit and I move slowly, sliding my hand cautiously up?Ǭ a white wooden banister which has not been touched for months. My right hand is coated in brown dust by the time I reach my floor. The loft is completely still and I can hear the beeping of cars from the street below and feel the exposed vein of the city. People will be nervous in a little while. The radio doesn’t work so after a while we decide to go down onto the street to see what’s going on.

Tourists are coming out of stores annoyed at the lack of air-conditioning. The kids that work at the vintage store next door nod at me, grinning sideways as they exhale smoke into the already muggy air.?Ǭ A car is parked near the curb and the driver has his radio on. He appears to be calm leaning out of his window to inform passerbys, “It’s from Canada or Michigan.. They’re not sure yet. But it’s the whole East coast. Not terrorists. They say.”?Ǭ People hear the familiar words Canada and Michigan as sources of this inconvenience and begin to relax.?Ǭ There are smiling sweaty men straddling the double yellow lines waving their arms to direct traffic. You can tell it is something they have always wanted the authority to do. The traffic lights swing uselessly over their heads. A group of young men pass by, fanning themselves with newspapers. They are complaining about the heat. Air-conditioning bothers Dad. This is the city summer heat he grew up in. Now people take their comfort so for granted that they melt and sit still unsure how to mobilize themselves. I am enjoying the City of decades earlier, watching the neighborhood emerge from warm buildings to sit on their steps together as people would have on the stoops of yesteryear.

My father and I walk to Gourmet Garage to stock up?Ǭ on supplies before places begin to shut down. Food is practically being given away. There are no refrigerators so grocers are trying to sell whatever they can before it is completely inedible. Butter is melting. We fill a small cart with necessities and I go stand in line. The line is long and when I finally get to the front there is a woman with large blonde hair twisted up into a sweepy bun wearing bright blue leggings and a fanny pack speaking to the cashier.

“I need to get to Brooklyn, I’m not sure where because my son told me to take a subway but they’re not running. He’s getting married tomorrow. We’ve never been to New York City before,” with a sideways chin thrust she indicates her husband who is leaning against the wall by the exit. “We can’t get back into our hotel.. we’re staying in Times Square but they tell me keys won’t work because they’re those card ones that you put in…?Ǭ I have six bridesmaids flying up from Mississippi landing in two hours and a whole lot of guests. The wedding needs to happen.”?Ǭ She ends hopelessly, looking once again towards her overheating husband who just sighs. “Why don’t you buy a bottle of water and we’ll sit out here on this bench and think about it,” he suggests.

As I put the food on the counter I notice that the girl is using a pencil to mark a pad, adding up my purchases by hand. There is no price labeled on the bottle of fresh squeezed orange juice, so she looks at me and asks, “A dollar?” I nod. She does not add tax, confiding, “I don’t know how to do percentages.” Luckily I have small bills and Dad and I walk out each holding two plastic bags filled with food and drinks. “See why I always tell you to always have cash?” Dad imparts, “Credit cards are useless when it really matters.”

There is the usual tunnel traffic on Broome Street. Cars trying to get back to Jersey, some with their windows rolled down and we hear pieces of male radio announcers, “Last Blackout this city saw was in 1977, before that it was 1965. Waves of crime, broken store windows, theft…” As we wait on the corner of Wooster, allowing a?Ǭ stream of cars trying to break free towards Canal Street,?Ǭ Mayor Bloomberg’s whining childlike voice strains across the airwaves. “I can assure New Yorkers that the New York City Police Department will be out in full force. Not that they need to be. Elderly people should stay in, I mean not move around more then necessary. The electricity will be reconnected by evening. Con Ed is working on the grid at this very moment, officials have disclosed that it was a large power grid that probably got knocked out by a waterfall in Canada. If you have a car don’t drive. The traffic lights aren’t working and it will get worse by dark, that is if the electricity takes longer to come on then expected, which it won’t.”

It is now completely black out. The power is still not back on. We go down the?Ǭ?Ǭ?Ǭ?Ǭ block to?Ǭ Novecento, the Argentine restaurant. There is a long line of small tables pushed together to form a long table on the sidewalk. About fifty tea lights glow along the center. The comfort of the neighborhood sit around this table, all friends and neighbors.

Everybody is out. Babies slung over shoulders drooling as they snooze, dogs running around loose with their color tags jingling, and bikers with bells pedaling slowly down the center of the street. Free beers are handed out to each new arriver at Novecento and people are crossing and recrossing the street between Felix, the French restaurant on the other side of the street, and Novecento. Specific conversations can be picked up and followed as they drift up the block. Fernando, the owner of Novecento, points me towards the kitchen in the back telling me that there is pasta his partner Stefano has cooked. I go back there to discover a huge pot of pasta and another with red sauce, waiting to be fed to the locals, self serve.

You don’t have to be a belonger tonight to?Ǭ sit at our table on the sidewalk. There is a man with a suitcase which has wheels. He is sitting at a corner at the far end of the table and tells us, “I got off a plane from L.A. The Empire State Building wasn’t lit up when we landed.” I am wondering what the Eastern seaboard looks like tonight from space when there is suddenly a bride in the middle of West Broadway attempting to wave down any cars as her white train slides along the warm concrete.

There is a hammock on our roof and tonight we bring up a sheet and two pillows and prepare to sleep where the summer breeze can be caught. “It was normal for people to sleep on their rooftops and fire escapes in the summer,” Dad tells me as he says goodnight.

There is no electricity all morning and still none mid-afternoon on the second day of the Blackout. The loft heats up rapidly once the sun has risen, the skylights torturous under the bright glare. We hear that Staten Island has their electricity back and then gradually, slowly, parts of the Bronx and Queens, and soon after Uptown Manhattan begins to come back to life. Relief from the sleepy heat.?Ǭ?Ǭ ?ǬWe hear that Upstate New York is in charge of our section of the power grid and are holding our electricity for ransom. Slowly, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, the lights which were never turned off come on.

A cry of jubilee springs from the street below as the sound of a power surges the block. An overhead light flickers, then glares down on me as I lie on the couch a glass of lukewarm water in my hand. Instantly I am meditative, missing the connectedness I had had moments before with the New York of the past.

Photos of tourists locked out of their hotels lying horizontally on the steps leading to the Natural History Museum are presented as a downside of the Blackout in the Times that morning. Alongside these are photos of New Yorkers, a day’s work interrupted by the power loss as they are forced to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot to get home.

They are smiling.

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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