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Blackout!!

March 9, 2009

Some of memories’ most vivid stamps are those pressed by personal experience in times of big moment—occasions when one feels a part of history in some distant but intimate way. I still keep a newspaper I picked up on a trash strewn New York street last Friday. It is a reminder that in twenty hours I learned some things about others, as well as myself. “Black Out!” reads the headline from New York Sun, a new free tabloid circulated on the street corners of the Big Apple. The front page depicts a serene New York completely without light, the setting sun dipping behind the famous skyline. By the time I laid hands on a copy we were sixteen hours into the crisis and were only just beginning to understand fully what happened to us. Stores were closed, water was in relatively short supply and progressively fewer and fewer cabs had enough gas to ferry passengers around town. New York, usually the center of most major things, was only beginning to fathom that it had been home to only a percentage of the victims of the largest blackout in history.

I had arrived in the city to do research on a book of Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia during he Communist coup of 1948. His untimely and tragic death remains one of the mysteries of the early Cold War. I planned to do research at the New York Public Library and so I checked into the Roosevelt Hotel, which is conveniently located within easy access of both the Library and the Metlife Building, where I was hoping to meet some business colleagues later in the day. With a little time on my hands I settled in for a brief “power nap” (ironically named, I later thought). I had just descended the slide into sleep when a man loudly yelled as he hit my door hard with his fists: “We are evacuating this hotel!!” 

I scrambled for my most important things, nearly forgetting my room key and earrings. Adjusting my disheveled clothes as the door slammed behind me, I joined the others walking briskly. We descended the staircase a few doors from my room. The stairwell was dark—leading not to the ground floor but to the second floor, which was partially lighted by a limited-capacity generator. Moving in silence several of us looked for the second staircase down. We made a number of false starts, until we found our way to the ground floor and out of the building. Talking hadn’t been necessary; we had all proceeded with dispatch, blindly following whoever looked confident. All of us heeded the general instructions that were issued, without any thought to the wisdom of them.

By the time we had reached the pavement hundreds of people were already on the street. No one knew what had happened or what had caused the power outage. Was it from too many air conditioners running in a city and region which had been relentlessly subject to summer’s blistering heat? Or, was it the possibility that pulled at one’s gut: a terrorist attack like the one of September 11, 2001? After all, the government had periodically given out warnings, and had raised the alert level from yellow to orange. Nobody knew.

On the street the crowd was surprisingly calm. While no one really knew what had happened, there was a strong unspoken sense that it was not a terrorist attack. There were no sirens of first responders, no fire engines or police cars; just thousands of office workers, hoteliers and shopkeepers out on the street in search of an explanation. Strangers were standing together making jokes or offering the few cell phones that worked. I could not get a sustained signal from my own mobile phone, but a casually-dressed office worked offered me his, while I called family members to reassure them that I was fine. There was an air if not of carnival then at least of reprieve, as if a friend had called in a bomb threat to get his classmates out of a final exam.

After checking in at home, I was anxious to secure a bottle or two of water, more for my immediate needs than as any wise precaution. Somehow we all expected that a switch would be flipped at any moment and power would return—much as it seems to do after a brief but violent storm. I started up the street in search of something to drink.

Only blocks away it appeared that a gathering spot was forming around an outside café on the veranda of a church, St. Bartholomew’s, next to the Waldorf Astoria. There was a line to get in, and I waited. Tucking two bottles of water into my bag for later, I stood in line for $2- a- cup soft drink (I asked for Sprite—wishing to avoid anything with dehydrating caffeine in it.) As the heat of the day lingered, two young thirty-somethings motioned to a seat. I thanked them, claimed it and sat silently for some time, nursing my Sprite and watching others tuck into hamburgers, steaks and lamb chops, or anything else that could be grilled on St. Barts’ barbeque. The pit was working over time since no other restaurant seemed to be serving food (though they would soon realize everything in their refrigerators would spoil and would begin to offer their contents, sometimes for free, the next day.) For those eating at exorbitant prices that evening free refills of fresh water were forthcoming. After a while I made my way to the ladies room, inching along a dark corridor. It seemed rather like swimming in a pool of black ink. Only occasionally a flickering candle would show the way. Washing one’s hands in the cramped airless room was done only by instinct and feel. Still one was grateful. I reveled in the victory of finding a chair, a meal and an opportunity to find the facilities.

On my return, the two men who had befriended me introduced themselves as Chris and Mike from J.P. Morgan. Mike performed a real service for all of us that evening. Being up-to-date technically, he was carrying an electronic gadget called a Blackberry that put him in contact with the outside world. Not dependent on a power plug, his hand-held device gave him access to the Internet, which consumed much of his attention. He and his mother, sitting in the Cayman Islands, had been sending messages back and forth in real time. She sent Mike all the latest news she could glean from watching CNN. The northeastern states – New York, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, even Ontario— were in a stage of complete power outage. Sabotage was practically written off, though the source of the breakdown in the grid system was as yet unknown. At least our lives were not in danger. Mike got up and shouted the news to everyone on the veranda. He was rewarded with applause.

As dusk in the city deepened, I ordered a hamburger and while we ate we talked politics. In the course of our discussion it turned out that both men, like me, were lifelong Republicans. They had become disenchanted with the policies of President George W. Bush and his administration. In such an exchange of views, it was just as well that my last name remained secret. “Susan,” “Chris” and “Mike” seemed adequate, especially as our political conversations became more heated and more outspoken. Before long, Chris and I suggested we run Mike for public office. His passion, we thought, would sell. The excitement of the evening was in part heightened by the circumstances in which we found ourselves. But such occasions also offer an adventure in anonymity, and the prospect that you can be whoever you wanted to be and think whatever politically incorrect thoughts come to mind.

Soon I found myself handling the guys’ complex questions about the ways of Washington and their perception that our nation’s capital is now as corrupt as anything New York has ever seen. As the evening came to a close they introduced themselves, finally confessing to their full identities.

When it was my turn, they begged: “Come on, tell us who you are.”

“I’d rather not,” I replied.

“Why? Are you an administration dissident?” Chris asked.

“No.”

“Should we know who you are–are you one of those people on television?” Mike countered. “Come on, tell us, which program should we watch?”

“Hey, you’re right, Mike,” Chris chimed in. “She does look familiar.”

They were frustrated by my refusal. Despite this we exchanged warm handshakes when we parted—they goodbye of those who had bonded in a brief but meaningful way.

“I’ll support your campaign, Mike, with an anonymous donation.” I teased as I left.

Darkness had finally come upon the city. I went back to the hotel, walking down the street. Flickers could be seen from some of the rooms occupied again. Along the way, a stranger gave me a chemical light, of the sort handed out on the 4th of July. This act of kindness assured my safe return, first to the hotel and then up the dim and barely imperceptible stairwell to my room. Mike, Chris and the others had been convinced that the authorities were waiting until darkness to light the city again, on the basis that the cooler air would reduce the necessity for people to air condition their rooms. Like many of the other theories advanced that evening, this was mostly for talk. For when I awoke the next morning, after a fitful night in a stifling room without ventilation or windows that would open, the phone, the water supply and my cell phone were still not functioning.

By now, concerned that my family would worry, I dressed early– without benefit of a shower– and set off on what seemed like a never-ending hike up Park Avenue. I had to move beyond ten blocks to finally get a cell phone signal home. Family members told me that the airport was closed and that the only way out of the city was Penn Station. I went wearily back to my dark hotel. People were splayed all around the lobby, sleeping against their suitcases, no doubt unable to climb to their rooms at the top of the hotel. When I got to the fourth floor I gathered my two heavy bags and I pulled them down the stairs. After checking out by hand, using a makeshift piece of paper (no credit card machines worked), I left the hotel in search of water and some food, heading back in the direction of the Waldorf. As a traveler I had money with me, which was exceedingly fortunate. For those trapped in the city after an ordinary day at work, cash on hand and no working ATM machines posed a serious problem.

For a time I stood in a taxi cue, unable to get a ride, even though I had been at the head of the line for more than a half hour. “Only taking people to Kennedy airport,” said a tired taxi-dispatcher. “Or $400 per person to Philadelphia by car.” The dispatcher kept moving the cue, even though some of us had been there much longer than the newer arrivals, who piled into waiting limos for the most expensive ride of their lives. Sharing a story or two, several of us asked the dispatcher where he got the coffee he clutched in his hand. He looked at us curiously, as if we should know. “Starbucks coffee– only for those of us up who have been up all night,” he said with wilting authority.

After and hour and half, I surrendered. I would never be given a ride, no matter how long I stood in the cue—though by now the Waldorf had brought out chairs for people waiting in line. I guessed that my only way out of New York would be to walk to Penn Station—four long blocks over and twenty odd down. This would be challenging, since my bag on wheels tended to lurch to the left and I had to shift my computer case from one shoulder to the other.

As I walked I kept an eye out for food and water. No water was available at first; only sugared pink grapefruit juice or grape juice only pre-schoolers could love. Later when I did find a bottle of warm water for sale in a darkened convenience store, I had only twenty more blocks to go. A young woman, filing her nails and talking on her cell phone beside me, was roaring with irritation. Her part of Manhattan had already had its electricity restored, so she had come to work only to find her place of business shut for the duration. I felt lucky to find even hot water—but she had already forgotten the seriousness of the ordeal, snapping into her mobile phone that her day had now been ruined.

I had brought all the wrong clothes for what was by now a three hour trek through the urban jungle. Pulling two heavy bags along New York’s hot pavement—in a navy blue silk pants suit –I stopped occasionally to drink my water and plot strategy. Should I try another hotel taxi line or take my chances gaining the attention and sympathy of a driver careening down the street in one of the few empty cabs? After using several ear-splitting whistles, a thumb and forefinger party-trick I learned at summer camp as a girl, an Indian immigrant stopped for me. When I told him I was headed to Penn station, I was in luck. He did not have enough gas to take me further, he reported. As the car bumped along the all-but-empty streets, he briefed me on all he’d heard. Trains, he said ominously, were delayed—or when they did arrive they were dangerously over-crowded. As he spoke he made several abrupt detours because a number of streets had been cordoned off. Occasionally, he looked at his gas gauge, while drawing breath from his sermon on the vulnerability of modern man.

When we reached Madison Square Garden, I climbed out of the taxi, my pantsuit clinging to my legs and my white silk shirt damp from perspiration; I gave the driver double his fare and thanked him profusely. He had not asked for extra money. I wish I had given him more.

Despite the bottle of water, I was feeling generally dehydrated. It was with fatigue and some lightheadedness that I descended into what appeared to be Hades. Penn Station, built well below ground was filled to capacity with hundreds of people. Except for the light streaming down from the gaping holes that opened out onto the street and a few emergency exit signs, the enormous lobby was dark. No air stirred at all. Breathing deeply to compensate for it brought one up short—it was shallow air, devoid of oxygen and stale from hundreds of panting and desperate people.

“There’s not much oxygen,” I said with some concern to a man standing next to me.
“Don’t say that,” he shot back. “If I think about it I will have a panic attack.”

The boards were dark, the ticket counter closed. Only the occasional television screen warned passengers of trains that might come at some point. Rumors spread throughout the lobby and when a train arrived that was going to a major city, a wave of people would wash over to the gate. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. One rumor sent me down the wrong staircase, and grabbing my two heavy bags I had to lug them back up.

Some hour and a half later I boarded the train to Washington. The conductor had not slept in more than 24 hours and warned all of us crowded into the standing-room only train that she was likely to “lose it” at any moment. “Don’t talk at once or badger me with questions!!” Nearly five hours later we arrived in Washington, weary but grateful to have gotten out.

Modern man is indeed vulnerable. During the dawn of the Cold War, when Jan Masaryk lost his life, people could subsist on their own or as a small community. Now with communications, over population and globalization we are all linked. It is as if any break in that chain can cause a nearly irreparable rupture.

While occupants of New York, on this occasion, will be remembered for their relative calm and civility, I figure another twenty-four more hours of the blackout could have gotten nasty. The shortage of water, food and access to money, as well as the transportation crisis could well have fatally frayed the nerves of people who were, when I left, still just managing to hold up. But the crisis was over and the same region that suffers routinely from road rage had survived, for at least twenty four hours. It offered a glimpse of the possibilities in an interdependent world.

I learned some things about myself in all this. Aside from having only a tiny insight into the disorientation and displacement people in Iraq must be feeling without a return to basic services, I discovered that at least on this small test I had, in our pampered frame of reference, passed. While everyday irritations can sometimes get me down, when it comes to facing a crisis I am pretty good. When the drama unfolded I had, instinctively, three or four plans operating at any given time. I never panicked and for the most part I maintained my wits. I was not comfortable, but complaining either to others or to myself was a fruitless expenditure of valuable energy. My spirits remained relatively high, perhaps, because of a little help from some new friends.

But, and this is a big but, I did follow instructions without hesitation or thought, which we now know could be fatal in the midst of a terrorist attack. Next time I will have to be quicker, and more questioning. Evacuation is not always the right thing to do—especially in the case of a chemical or nuclear “dirty bomb” attack. It is key to have a sense of what is happening, even if it takes an extra minute or two. It is critical to stay alert and skeptical, even if those around you have a benign take on what is happening.

No one will be able to predict when and if such an experience will happen again, but I am much more sensitive to taking the basic survival measures. They include: always traveling with water, always carrying an adequate amount of cash, and always booking a hotel room on the lower floors.

There is only one part of the story I regret. While anonymity was part of the adventure, I am only a little sorry that I had indulged my pent-up political dissatisfactions—for what I gained in blowing off steam was lost by being unable to look up Mike and Chris. It would have been fun to stay in touch. And besides, now I’ll never know where to send that campaign donation to Mike when he, I hope, eventually decides to run for political office.

Originally composed by Susan Eisenhower on August 22, 2003.

 

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