The Night the Lights Went Out in the City
In 2003 I was working at a horrible company in Manhattan that produced entertainment websites but was really just a front for fucking people over. What they did was collect email addresses through various web campaigns in which they’d promise to help you win an iPod or whatever and then sell those email addresses to spammers. My job was to manage two “entertainment” websites that mostly consisted of pictures of scantily-clad women that had been stolen from other websites. I tried my best to include actual content, but I realized after about two weeks that it was a losing battle and that the only reason the websites existed was to steal people’s email addresses.
The owner who I worked with most closely — we’ll call him Terry — fancied himself a graphic designer and he designed the sites himself and they were incredibly tacky-looking and I was pretty embarrassed to be a part of the entire venture. Terry was one of those guys who was always just a few inches off in conversations. Everything I said to him would go into a hamster wheel in his brain and get twisted around ever-so-slightly, until we were having two completely different conversations. Like, I would say, “where’s the bathroom?” and he would answer, “I think we need soap.” He was always almost there … you could sort of see how the connections had become jumbled … but you never quite got to where you wanted to be.
On August 14th at around 4:00 in the afternoon the lights went out and the computers shut down, making it impossible for us to do any of our important spamming work. We looked out the window. None of the surrounding buildings had lights, either. As we tried to puzzle out what was happening, we began to notice an eerie stillness. The thick blanket of noise that usually swaddled the city had disappeared. We never even noticed the noise when it was there, but the minute it went away, something felt desperately wrong.
This was two years after September 11th, and the wounds still felt fresh. At any minute, everyone in New York was prepared to leap into panic mode. My coworkers and I waited around for the power to come back on, feeling increasingly unsettled. After about 5 minutes, Terry came down from his top-floor office to join us.
“It’s gotta be an attack,” he said. “They’ve taken down the grid.”
We were all in agreement that we were in the midst of another catastrophic terrorist event. New York does not go black by accident. Terry happened to live down the street, so we decided to leave the office and walk to his apartment. Only five of us went with him, even though there were about 20 people working there at the time. I guess we must have decided to let the others fend for themselves.
Taking to the street did nothing to alleviate our fears. Radios didn’t work because the radio stations were down. Cell phones got no signals. No one seemed to know what was going on.
When we got to Terry’s building, we had to walk up 25 flights of stairs to get to his apartment. We sat in his apartment and drank whiskey.
“If they’re smart they’re probably taking out the stock exchange right now,” Terry said. I wasn’t sure what good that would do them, but it sounded as plausible a tactic as any.
After about an hour spent in mounting terror, we finally managed to get a radio signal. To our relief, we learned the blackout had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with the crumbling infrastructure that will one day turn our country into a fetid swamp filled with sewage and potholes. Thank god.
Terry had a friend who owned a bar in the East Village, so he suggested we walk down there and see if they were giving away their beer. It was the smartest idea he’d ever had … when we got there, that was indeed what they were doing. Everyone was in a good mood, on account of getting to leave work early and having free alcohol. I had my guitar with me because I was supposed to play a show later that night. I busted it out at the bar and performed a few numbers, and then I handed it around the bar and we all had an old-fashioned singalong.
It was a magical, candlelit night. You might think New York would devolve into anarchy and looting under those kinds of circumstances, but you would be wrong. For one night, we were all free from the trappings of modern civilization. It felt as if the entire city had breathed a collective sigh of relief.
After the bar, I took a bus uptown to my girlfriend’s apartment. She lived in Spanish Harlem. I had to walk about ten blocks from the bus to her apartment, which was a pretty creepy experience in the pitch dark. Along the way, I passed a shadowy figure on the sidewalk. “Better watch out, white man,” the figure said. I kid you not. That’s the only time I’ve ever been called “white man.” This guy didn’t seem to want to harm me, so maybe he was just trying to be helpful. Or he was alerting others that there was a white man coming, like “Watch out! White man!” Luckily, I made it to my girlfriend’s apartment free of incident. She had been sleeping and didn’t even realize there was a blackout.
The lights remained out in parts of the city for 3 more days. After about 24 hours the lack of electricity lost its magic and just became another thing preventing us from doing what we needed to do.
The morning after the blackout I had to wait for 2 hours to catch a bus over the Williamsburg Bridge so I could return home. I could have walked home in about 1/2 an hour. But that’s what you do in New York: you wait. It’s far better to wait 2 hours to go 1 mile than to be walking that mile and have the bus pass you.