The Day the Lights Went Out

At the far northern tip of Manhattan, where Spuyten Duyvil Creek swirls treacherously between the Harlem and Hudson rivers, is a small, rugged patch of woods little changed since the Dutch ruled the island in the 17th century. It was here that a courier, sent by Peter Stuyvesant to warn of an English attack, drowned after vowing to swim to the mainland "in spuyt den duyvil" (in spite of the devil). And it was here that a real-estate agent named Sid Blauner, on his way home to Riverdale in the Bronx last Thursday, joined an impromptu convoy of 21st-century New Yorkers attempting the same crossing in spite of the sudden collapse of the most elaborate technological infrastructure in the world. After bicycling some seven miles along a riverside path from his office, Blauner had reached the end of the trail and in the darkness began a tedious bushwhacking toward the Broadway Bridge, lugging the new $500 mountain bike he had rented hours earlier. All around him cell phones dangled mutely from belts, wallets heavy with useless money--weighed down suit jackets, mud sucked at English loafers or at the bare toes of those who had set off on Rollerblades. Bare-chested in the heat, Blauner pressed on, a living illustration of how quickly the veneer of civilization can be stripped away by the tripping of a circuit breaker hundreds of miles away. "We had to go through the woods," he recalled with deep emotion the next morning. "There were deerflies."

All up and down Manhattan last week, New Yorkers reverted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to a state of nature. Hauling themselves out of immobilized subway trains and elevators, they made their way home--12 miles from Grand Central Terminal to central Brooklyn, say--on aching feet, navigating the dim streets by moonlight. They pulled dripping hunks of meat from freezers and roasted them outdoors above glowing coals, as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, and their in-laws still do in the suburbs. Deprived of "Extreme Makeover," they drank up all the cold beer in the bars, then started on the warm; lit bonfires in the parks and danced the night away to the rhythm of makeshift tom-toms. And then they lay down under the stars and hoped for a breeze. In contrast to the last citywide blackout, in 1977, when whole blocks of stores were ransacked, there were only a very few, scattered reports of looting, and the number of arrests was actually lower than on an average summer night. An army of cops hit the streets and found themselves besieged by New Yorkers with the same urgent question: "Where's the nearest working ATM?" Beneath the city's thin veneer of civility, it appeared, lay a solid core of bourgeois decency.

Of course, not everyone was dancing--especially not in some of the other big cities hit by the blackout, such as Cleveland and Detroit, where electricity runs the pumps that supply the twin elixirs of life, water and gasoline. (New York's gravity-fed water system mostly functioned--except in some high-rise buildings--and gas stations are much less central to the lives of its inhabitants.) Although First Energy declared that all its customers in Cleveland had power back by early Friday evening, it somewhat embarrassingly overlooked a few small pockets, including the street where Mayor Jane Campbell lives; Her Honor, who has an electric stove, was left wondering how she was going to comply with her own directive to sterilize drinking water by boiling it. Full power was finally restored in Detroit on Saturday afternoon, but both cities were warned to brace for rolling blackouts as the utilities struggled to get their generators back online. In Toronto they were expected to last until midweek. But residents generally took the inconvenience in stride and in good order. "I'm very proud of the city," Campbell said.

Also not dancing were the New York commuters stuck for an hour on an elevated train near the Queens Plaza stop, and who had to make their way along the trestle to the safety of the platform--terrifying Carol Richards, on her way home in a three-borough carom shot that usually takes a mere 90 minutes. Eight hours after the power went off, she had made it as far as Herald Square, in midtown Manhattan, and was wondering how she could finish the journey to Brooklyn. And if the subway shutdown made it hard for people to get to their homes, it was even harder on those for whom the subway is their home, like Ronald Christopher, who does his best sleeping late at night in the reliably air-conditioned cars. Thursday he scrounged for space on the steps of West Park Presbyterian Church, which were crowded with the one-night homeless. Nor was there much joy for Leon Le, part owner of Monster Sushi in New York's Greenwich Village, who estimated that he had to throw out some $4,000 worth of raw fish. On the other hand, Ruth Lloyd of Willowick, Ohio, 75, was of two minds about the whole experience. At the same moment New York's subways ground to a halt, she was in her dentist's chair, about to get two upper teeth replaced by implants. "When that air machine started sputtering and he came at me with a flashlight, I figured it was time to get the hell out of there," she said, leaping to her feet and leaving the implants behind on the tray. Rattled by 15 minutes of creeping past dead traffic lights, she pulled into a roadhouse and sat at the bar--a grouchy grandmother conspicuously lacking teeth. But the lights were out.

"What are you drinking?" the man sitting next to her asked ingratiatingly.

"Too bad I couldn't smile," she mused the next day.

The black sky cast into sharp relief the technological and cultural changes in society since the 1977 blackout, for better and worse. People who had replaced their old-fashioned phones with cordless models--which run on house current--were out of luck. Electronic key cards in hotels went dead, so that even those who made the trek up to their floors were stranded outside their rooms. Now that ATMs are found on every block and every vendor except the squeegee man takes credit cards, people have gotten out of the habit of carrying cash. But ATMs and credit-card machines need electricity. "Today was the most humbling day of my life," said Maria Carvalho, 39, who was stranded in Manhattan along with a co-worker, Lizette Chin. They found beds at a friend's apartment but discovered they had only $6 between them. They were saved when they stumbled on two rolls of quarters in a dresser drawer, and went out to purchase necessities at a bar on Seventh Avenue.

Cell phones worked only sporadically in the blackout, but for many the ghostly glow from their keypads helped light the way down darkened stairwells. (Back in 1977, of course, many more office workers probably carried cigarette lighters; those who still do presumably decided to risk falling down the stairs rather than death at the hands of colleagues who might think they were about to light up a Chesterfield.) Savvy New Yorkers praised the trend toward casual dressing in the workplace--especially sneakers, which made hundred-block walks in the 90-degree heat almost thinkable. For those who had them, that is. Along Canal Street in Chinatown, well-dressed women clustered around stalls selling Chinese curios, clutching their black slingbacks, shuffling off miserably to Brooklyn in red- and gold-embroidered slippers. And as Suzanne Sorge, a health-care consultant who lives on Central Park West, observed, "Of course everything is different from 1977. Now we have Xanax!"

And now we have gourmet ice cream: the characteristic sound of the blackout was a giant slurp, as ice-cream parlors frantically unloaded their stocks of green tea, litchi and mango on New Yorkers who knew that every block they walked entitled them to a minimum of five extra calories. "Do you want a big, big, big scoop?" Sean Bailey asked the customers in line at Uncle Louie G's in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Asked if he was worried about running out of ice cream, he said with a laugh, "We're trying to run out." And now New Yorkers have bottled water at every newsstand and grocery, and fresh produce and eggs trucked into the city to the mammoth Union Square farmers market, which was crowded Saturday morning with shoppers whose natural suspicion of supermarkets was heightened by their conviction that the preceding 36 hours had turned the city into a giant fermentation tank for salmonella. "I wouldn't buy it anywhere else," said Robert Arkins, 74, as he stood in line to buy fresh free-range chicken. "Except in... nope, I wouldn't buy fresh meat, period."

But it wasn't ice cream that kept New Yorkers from re-enacting the dreadful events of the last blackout, which were on every New Yorker's mind last week. "I remember it," said Carlos Salzman of Brooklyn, who sat in a lawn chair in front of his apartment building, between sips of a Corona he felt obliged to finish while it was still cold. "It was August 1977."

"It wasn't August, it was July," a neighbor shouted at him. "I was painting my apartment."

Salzman smiled, took a swig and confided, sotto voce, "It was August. It was the Summer of Sam."

It was July. But it was, indeed, the summer of the Son of Sam, the serial killer who stalked lovers' lanes, another chapter in what appeared at the time to be the city's unstoppable physical, economic and moral disintegration. The police made 3,776 arrests that night, a tiny fraction of the mobs who tore through poor neighborhoods, plundering what they could and burning the rest. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said that arrests last Thursday came to about 850, of which only "250 to 300 were directly attributable to the blackout," representing a slight decline from the average level of mayhem for a summer's day. The fire department reported more serious fires than usual, a number of which were caused by New Yorkers' unfamiliarity with the technology of candles. Marvin Goldston, a retired community-affairs specialist with the NYPD, talked with NEWSWEEK about his experiences in a Brooklyn precinct in 1977:

"I was in the 81 precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When you went outside you could see people for miles ripping stuff up, taking anything they could get their hands on, refrigerators floating down the street [carried] hand to hand. One of the meat markets was on fire; we went by, and one guy walked out eating meat that had cooked in the fire. All you could say was 'Get the hell out of here.'

"I can't get into people's minds, but you gotta realize that at that time people just didn't have anything. After it was over, you would walk into a house, and there would be a brand-new 25-inch television and they were sitting on milk crates. I guess they wanted a share of the pie.

"This time: what a difference. I was driving back home through the city, it took me four hours, there were millions of people in the street, but it was so peaceful. Nobody was honking horns, nobody was screaming, people were smiling, helping each other, stopping for pedestrians. It's as if everyone now realizes they're a part of the city, so nobody wants to destroy it."

There are other theories. Kelly unsurprisingly credits the police response, which he says is now focused on mobilizing large numbers of police on the street as quickly as possible, to create a visible deterrent to disorder; a generation ago, police thought in terms of responding to incidents in progress. The buzzword is "random deployment," he told NEWSWEEK. "We've been running drills every day." Or maybe the city was just lucky in its timing, suggests Gretchen Knapp, a historian at Illinois State University, who notes that when the '77 black-out hit at 8:37 p.m., the looting started with stores that were closed and, therefore, couldn't supply what people needed. This time, of course, at 4 in the afternoon, stores were open. For what it's worth, at a Radio Shack in upper Manhattan, the site of one of the very few instances of looting observed (after the fact) by NEWSWEEK reporters, the looters mostly left behind the TV sets and took (besides a few gewgaws easily accessible through the windows) flashlights and batteries: things people needed.

But the explanation that felt right to most New Yorkers, that they most wanted to be true, was the one that Officer Goldston touched on: a fundamental change in civic sensibilities, in people's sense of obligation to their community. Or, at least, what they think they can get away with, says Paul Gilje, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and the author of "Rioting in America." "There's a sense today that there's less tolerance for certain kinds of [deviant] behavior than 20 or 30 years ago," Gilje says, with the obligatory nod to former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "zero tolerance" approach to crime.

And, of course, we all stand today in the awesome shadow of 9/11. "I think one of the most powerful influences [last week] was 9/11," New York's Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told NEWSWEEK. "People recognize [the city's] vulnerability, and they want to help, they want to be responsive and do their part." September 11, and the recession that coincided with it, have had a leveling effect on Americans' view of social class, says Gilje; despite all the statistics about the growing gap between rich and poor, "poor people know others live more comfortably than they do, but now [as distinct from 26 years ago] there's a sense of shared adversity." September 11 was a military attack on the nation and a postmodern catastrophe of exploding jet fuel and invisible clouds of asbestos; the Great Blackout, by contrast, was an oddly gentle disaster, which stole over the city like the night itself. But both were democratic in their effects: the rich breathe the same air as the poor, and an apartment on the 45th floor was, if anything, even less accessible than a fourth-floor walkup. And so New Yorkers, digging deep into their bottomless well of resourcefulness--like Sid Blauner, who hacked off his pants legs at the knee to create makeshift biking shorts and, having left home in loafers without socks, equipped himself with a pair from a laundromat's lost-sock pile--push on through the darkness toward home.