The 2003 NYC Blackout was 10 years ago today. I was at work at Condé Nast that morning, and in the middle of making a phone call when the power went out, which must have been hilarious for whoever picked up my message days later. I remember the panic at looking out the window at a Times Square that was turned off—like a scene from some pulp disaster movie come to life. In true apocalypse-movie style, our only news came from the crazy mail guy, who had a battery-powered TV on his cart and gave us increasingly panicked updates that the power was off all over the city, the state, the East Coast, as far as Canada. 9/11 was still fresh on our nerves, and coworkers formed posses by neighborhood to walk home. As we were leaving the building, a friend stopped to fill her water bottle—I grabbed her arm, “don’t!” Without having to explain why, we both understood that if this were a terrorist attack the water supply might have been compromised. We picked our way through humid streets flooded with dazed pedestrians, because, of course, there was no subway, and no power to operate the traffic lights.
I made it back to the East Village in the heat to find my friend Claire sitting forlornly on my front steps clutching a cup of melted ice containing the last rabies shot of her pre-Mexico vaccination sequence. She was due to leave the country for Chiapas within the week, and had already moved already out of her apartment. Nothing feels more like the end of the world than having a live and lethal, if attenuated, virus shut in your rapidly warming freezer. But as the threat of terror failed to materialize, a celebratory atmosphere quickly took its place—like the hot, muggy double of New York City in the snow.
Fleeing sweaty apartments, most of my block camped out on the conjoined roofs of our former tenement buildings. We listened to battery radio, sang along to acoustic guitar, and retreated into dark kitchens to cook veggie burgers over the gas burners by candlelight. From our perch above the East Village we could barely discern the shadow of a statue of Lenin atop the Red Square condo on Delancey. With the usual ambient noise dialed down to almost nothing, the night was filled with the periodic roar and drumming of bacchanalia raging in Tompkins Square Park. There were lines at every deli, where the staff would lead people around by flashlight through dark aisles, past shelves of spoiling produce and dairy. At night, buses moved through the pitch-black streets in walls of light, like bioluminescent creatures in the depths of the ocean. For the first time in our lives, a full sky of stars was visible over Manhattan. Long after our mobiles had exhausted their last charge, I waited for a pay phone behind David Cross, who was frantically trying to get on a charter flight to Martha’s Vineyard, as I stood there guiltily eavesdropping and unwilling to give up my spot in line.
After a few days, with the heat increasing and clean food and water dwindling, Claire and I heard rumors of power back on in Long Island, and strategized how to get there without access to trains or a car. After several hours and bus transfers, we made it to the shuttered LIRR station in Woodside, where we convinced a cabbie to drive us to my parents’ house for $50, all the cash we could scrape together without banks or ATMs. Walking in their front door to the soft, palpable hum of all the electronics was startling. You forget that modernity has a sonic signature, until suddenly it isn’t there.
Image via The Atlantic: Cities