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Friday, August 15, 2003
By Paul Ford
The blackout of 2003.
Everyone was out: millions trudging home at once. Civil servants, trophy wives, editors, actors. On the Brooklyn Bridge I could see only claustrophobia on the walkway, so I climbed over the railing and walked on the street, against traffic. People crossed the catwalks between the lanes, below the walkway, only one good slip away from a fatal drop into the East River. No one was sure it wasn't terrorism. I wanted to be out of downtown and off the bridge.
Right before I exited the bridge I passed Marty Markowitz, the Borough President. He was walking alone to City Hall. “Never a dull moment in this town,” he said, to no one.
“Hi, mayor,” I said.
I got home and took a shower—who knew when there'd be more hot water—and my neighbor knocked on the door soon after. “I have beer and cigars,” he said. “Let's go on the roof.”
“Well, shit,” I said. We watched the sun go down over Red Hook, staring at the traffic on the Gowanus Expressway. A holiday mood came over us.
“New Jersey has limited power,” the radio said.
“They didn't deserve power in the first place,” I said.
“I love New York,” my neighbor said. “People were out talking and drinking. Everyone was keeping calm. No one passed out on the bridge. We just took it. Other cities are probably crying like little girls.”
“I was at a meeting,” I said. “And after it went off I hung out and read a little bit, because I was hoping the lights would come back on and I could get a train. Then the building began to fill with smoke.”
“A lot of smoke?”
“Not so much. So we all went down 11 stories. It was a little odd being a stranger there.”
The sun went down, and a solid dark filled the streets, like water fills a bathtub.
“Power is out in Queens,” said the radio.
“Where's Queens,” I asked. “Should I know that?”
“I need beer,” said my neighbor. “Jesus. I only have like 4 beers. We need to go.”
We walked downstairs, navigating by touch. I dressed in the dark. My apartment was pitch. Finally I found a candle and some matches, and by those found my keys and wallet.
On the street people were shadows and silhouettes, voices and fragments of bodies illuminated by moving headlights. Souls passed in darkness, voices in Spanish and English, cigarette ends bobbing from invisible mouths. “So much for the open container law,” said my neighbor, popping a can. The only noise was human, and the water-rush sound of freeways. Doors slammed, the ball bearings of passing bicycles clicked, shoe leather scraped the ground. One plane, not a dozen, moved through the black sky, the moon hanging, waxing, orange-tinted.
We went over to B—'s, and sat in the warm stillness, drinking by candlelight. B—'s roommate strapped an LED light to his head and said, “Did you see the sunset tonight? I'm going to get on my bike to Manhattan and see what it's like. I really want to break things.”
“You need spraypaint?” said B—. Her roommate tapped his backpack, which clinked. “All fine,” he said, rolling his bike out the door. When we saw him again, much later, he told us about impromptu, bonfire-lit parties in the East Village.
Out of beer, we left soon after and went to a bodega; it was lit by dozens of candles, like a church on Christmas eve, the bright packaging of soy sauce, instant pudding, and cookie packages muted into something nearly medieval in the half-light, like a cloister's larder. A policeman in a reflective vest, exhausted on a second shift, was looking for dinner, obviously craving unavailable coffee. B— left $5 with the man behind the counter against whatever the cop wanted.
My neighbor left for home, and B— and I, looking for a breeze, walked on to the promenade, crossing each dark intersection with care. People sat on stoops and greeted us as we walked past, voices slurred, laughing, calling, recognizing.
“Brooklyn is drunkening,” said B—.
I threw my beer can into a flowerpot and opened another. “We could go naked, no one would know,” I said. “But the minute I did the lights would work.” Up the block, an invisible fellow stroller threw a bottle, which shattered loudly against the rest of the silence. My lungs filled up with silence and dark, and I shared in B—'s roommate's desire to break something, to exhale violence and hear glass shattering. But tonight was new experience, and we were mostly well-dispositioned, if a bit punchy. “I could, you know, fuck some shit up. In a gentle way,” I said to B—. “I know what you mean,” she said.
We came to the promenade, where bodies in the pitch were flattened and blurred, lorded over by Manhattan's dark silhouette. Only a few floors of the downtown skyscrapers were lit by generators, along with the airplane-warning red lights at each bulding's vertex. Hundreds of bodies populated the promenade's benches: sleeping, talking, shining flashlights on each other. B— and I sat for a long time, finishing our now-warm beer, then, tired by the events and the late hour, we left the skyscrapers and went home in the mostly breezeless night.
Through the darkness I found my way back to my apartment and shuffled to my bed, begging the universe for a breeze, in vain. Sweat pooled on my forehead, and when I turned, on my back. I woke three times for showers, the cold water rousing me to yelps, then, to keep my skin from going dry, I wrapped myself in a dampened sheet, like the victim of a disease. Without moving air, Morpheus only tickled and pinched me, never proffering the full embrace. I drifted in and out from a bleak, gray place until well after sunrise, when the fan began to spin—so noisy—and its welcome breeze pulled me out of that sleep-like thing. The clock blinked 12:00. It is always midnight when the power comes back on. A long, half-awake day waited outside the door, to be followed by predictable, illuminated night.