Friday, 16 August 2013
The 2003 Blackout
If Wednesday had not been the 78th anniversary of Social Security, I would have written about the tenth anniversary of the northeast blackout. So I'll do it now instead.
It happened, where I was in New York City, on what was a blistering summer day on 14 August but it involved a much larger area and many more people than that – 50 million in all. Here is a map of the affected region:
According to Wikipedia, the cause of the blackout was not overuse of power on a hot summer day as had happened in the past.
”...the primary cause was a software bug in the alarm system at a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. Operators were unaware of the need to re-distribute power after overloaded transmission lines hit unpruned foliage.”
In other words, blame it on tree leaves or, anyway, the company that didn't trim them away from power lines.
Just after 4PM on that Thursday, I was working at home in my ground-level apartment when my laptop - with no fanfare, not a single pop, click or wheeze - silently went dark. The air conditioner stopped and the two or three lights that were on went out. I sensed more than heard a hush descend on the city.
From past blackouts I recalled how fast essentials disappear from stores so I walked directly to the corner bodega where I loaded up on batteries, candles, bread and deli items. Then I settled down with a book.
No more than 30 minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Surprise! My former husband. Although we had then been divorced for more than three decades, we were relatively friendly and saw one another once a year or so.
He said he happened to be in the Village when the power died but lived on the 24th floor in a building that was 70 blocks north – more walking and stairs than he cared, in his mid-60s, to tackle on a miserably hot afternoon. Could he stay with me for the duration, he asked.
And so we settled in and as we chatted about what had been going on in our respective lives, there was another knock at the door. This time it was a recent past boyfriend of long-standing.
Now let's pause in the telling for a moment. Recall that it had been three decades since my former husband, whom we'll call Alex (since that is his name), and I had been attached either legally or emotionally.
Similarly, although I had dated guest number two (let's call him SG) for a long time, we had been out of touch for two years or so.
And understand that as a single woman from age 31 on, I have enjoyed more than a couple – ahem, many more than that, I would say – of relationships with men almost all of whom have been fascinating people to know.
Through all the years, I have always believed that one should never, ever kiss and tell and I took care to make sure that the paths of these terrific men did not cross – at least, not when I could control it.
You might imagine that when I opened my door to SG, all the above and more went through my mind. You would be correct to do so. SG said he was living in Brooklyn, much farther than he wanted to walk and had, as Alex had explained, found himself in the Village in the vicinity of my home. Could he stay?
What remained of the cool air in my apartment was fast leaking out the door so I quickly invited SG in. I felt awkward but there wasn't anything to do except smile nicely and make introductions which is when I realized that at least they had a lot in common: Alex, the big-city, radio talk show host and SG, the multi-Emmy-winning network news producer.
I was right about the similarity of their interests but did not initially twig to what should have been obvious to me - their competitiveness. It wasn't long before they were trading professional war stories, working hard to one-up each other.
After dark, we strolled out to see what Greenwich Village was like in total darkness. Amazing. With the glow of candlelight in apartment windows, we could almost imagine what those streets had been like at night 100 years earlier before street lights – even before gaslight.
We literally could not see our hands in front of our faces and we had to walk carefully after SG found out the hard way that you can't always hear people approaching from the opposite direction.
Here and there, people were having stoop parties, drinking beer and barbecuing steak and chicken that would go bad in short order. Most stores and shops were closed by then but the Bleecker Street Bakery appeared to be serving by candlelight.
We checked it out and they gave us free tiramisu, already melting, that would sour before morning without refrigeration.
Back home and after sharing a doobie or two, the guys were back to oneupmanship and I was sleepy. In the living room there was a long sofa and another, smaller one that opened into a twin-size bed so there was room for everyone.
I found some pillows and light blankets for the guys and retired to my bedroom for the night wondering what, if anything, two old men who had each once been a lover, would say about me when I was not among them.
I'll never know but I'm pretty sure it wasn't much. These were (still are) accomplished men accustomed to being stars in their fields and sure enough, when I woke in the morning they were still awake and still trying to outdo one another with their stories.
By midday, although there was still no power, they each decided to trek to their respective homes. In my neighborhood, power was restored later that day and life returned to normal.
In all, 11 people died during the blackout, six in New York City. From Wikipedia again:
”Two were deaths from carbon monoxide, two from fire, one as a result of a fall from a roof while breaking into a shoe store, and one as a result of having a heart attack in a neighbor's apartment after climbing the 17 flights to their floor.”
Compared to such disasters as last year's Hurricane Sandy or Katrina before that, midwest floods that happen almost annually and western wildfires, the 2003 blackout was almost benign – more inconvenient for a couple of days than destructive, akin to a snow day off from school.
In my case, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what night time was like before modern lighting, particularly in a place where so many of the buildings from that earlier era still stand. (No wonder people were afraid to be out at night.)
And it was amusing to watch those two men - each remarkable in his way and each having been such an important part of my life - in a sort of friendly and restrained clash of egos.
This has been a heavy week at Time Goes By – Republican politics, ageism, Social Security. So let's have a little storytelling fun today. Let's hear from those of you who may have found yourself in similar, benign situations as I did in 2003 (some New York readers may have been through the same blackout).
Or maybe you were stranded or lost, or found yourself, one way or another, stuck in a limbo outside ordinary life for awhile. Tell us about it.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Your Momma, Andy of Mayberry and 35,000 Bikers