New York, New York The Blackout

Yesterday I went into the city to meet up with Jessica. In high school, Jake and I used to dictate what movies she had to watch and what music she had to listen to. We were guys and guys are like that. She’s long since passed us by. Now she’s a big shot television executive and I’m still listening to They Might Be Giants.

I’d show a picture of her, but she’s a photographer and it’s not a very good picture, so she’d kick my ass.

I went in by train to Grand Central Terminal. You go and you find me a better train station.

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I arrived a few hours before she got off work and walked around the city by myself for a while. I stumbled onto the New York Public Library, of Ghostbusters fame, which I’d never been inside of.

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This city is goddam fantastic. What an incredible library. It has a special room or wing or annex or whatever devoted entirely to old maps of New York. The room is filled with pony-tailed misanthrops doing research on their bank of microfiche machines. That’s right: microfiche. What are they researching? Who knows, but I’m sure it’s of profound value and interest to the society at large.

You know how it feels when you jump out of a freezing cold swimming pool and into a hot tub? I got that feeling when I walked two blocks from the library and wandered straight into the world’s largest Toys R Us.

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Everything started swirling. I became dizzy and disoriented. After months of squalor and harsh realities, I wasn’t ready for a toy store with a full-sized Ferris wheel inside. I wasn’t ready for Times Square.

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For those who haven’t visited recently, Times Square has been inhabited for the last several years by a guy who calls himself the Naked Cowboy.

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He stands in the central island between the crosswalks, playing his guitar day in and day out. It is, it would seem, his full-time job. And the thing about New York is – I swear to God – that’s not even weird.

What’s weird is his many spin-offs, like the guy a few blocks up who calls himself the Naked Hobo.

Australians, behold what we have done to your rugged and beloved movie star export.

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Coming soon: Russell Crowe in his Broadway debut, Crocodile Hunter: The Musical. After that, Heath Ledger stars in Crikey! Let’s Dance!

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This is the site of one of my few cautious ventures into hooliganism. When I was thirteen, my government class spent three days in the city on a class trip. We stayed at the Milford Plaza, directly on top of this pub. In an inspired fit of mid-pubescent male one-ups-manship, I dropped a pillow out of the fifteenth floor window of our hotel room and it landed right here on this spot. I was a hero among my peers. We stared at it for half an hour as hundreds passed by – not one of them even stopping to look at the thing or wonder how it got there.

Good God, what a grand city.

I met up with my sister, Kristin, where she works at the Nickelodeon offices in Times Square. I got the tour. They have free soda on tap. Tap, I tell you!

Later that evening, Jessica took me to an Indian restaurant with a really cool interior.

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I hadn’t eaten Indian food since I was in India and I wanted to remind myself that it tastes really good when the stench of cow shit isn’t wafting in from the street.

We had a few drinks at some hole in the wall dive, then I caught a subway up to my sister’s place on the Upper East Side to spend the night.

I’m not the first to observe that you can learn a lot about a person from their apartment. With Kristin, it’s more than that. You’re not just learning about her, you’re exploring the insides of her mind. For example, she has a drawer near the front door that is filled – nay, overflowing – with hygiene equipment.

Need some dental floss on your way out? A thousand Q-tips? No problem. She has extra.

Various unopened cans of deoderant? How about a nail brush? Why not take two?

Are you suffering from halitosis? Not to worry, she has several dozen options for the elimination of bad breath. Her stash could keep you on a regular diet of Listerine oral care strips through the end of next year.

And what’s interesting about this drawer is that it’s not in the bathroom, implying that hygiene is more than just a bathroom activity. It’s a constant fixation that seeps into every aspect of daily life.

Kristin also has a collection of novelty pens that bend, light up, box, blow bubbles, dispense PEZ, and play Boggle — among other things.

Boggle is a big deal in our family. We are very serious Boggletes. In most ways, I’m as obsessive about it as she is, but I don’t go so far as to have fourteen separate instances of the game festooned throughout my living space. No, I’m not that consumed. I regret that I didn’t catalog them in full, but rest assured that there is no incarnation available on Ebay that she does not own. Also, rest assured that there are more incarnations of Boggle than you think.

On a hook in her bedroom, Kristin hangs a pelt made out of key chains. The key chains have the following attachments:
– Miniature Flashlight
– Miniature Ouija Board
– Miniature Can of Play-Doh
– Miniature Play-Doh Fun Factory
– Miniature Slinky
– Miniature Mastermind
– Miniature Connect Four
– Miniature Perfection
– Miniature Uno
– Miniature Candy Land
– Miniature Pop-up Map of New York
– Miniature Scrabble
– Miniature Diary
– Miniature Photo Album
– Miniature Pick-up Sticks
– and of course, Miniature Boggle

Some might mistake all these things for a collection – a fairly typical quirk of human behavior and nothing to be concerned about. But I’m her brother and I know better. She didn’t buy the key chains for a greater purpose. No, she acquired them individually and in small groups over the course of several years, never considering how many she already had. Then one day she put them all in a pile and realized what she’d done. The only option once she’d gone that far was to harness them in pelt form.

My dad also suffers from this disease.

Kristin, I humbly offer my comment space so that you may mount your defense.

I spent the next mornin g and afternoon lazing around her apartment, reading her books and playing with her cat. I had no urgent plans for the day. I was thinking about going to see Ground Zero. By about 4pm, I was almost out the door when something funny happened; Kristin’s air conditioner sort of sputtered then came back on. A few seconds later, it did it again, only this time the lights dimmed too. Then everything just stopped. I decided it was a good time to leave, cause there wasn’t much to do in the dark.

I went around the corner to Electronics Boutique for some nerdly perusing, but it was closed. Kind of strange that it’d be closed at 4 on a Thursday. Two kids came up to me and explained they’d just been kicked out cause the place went dark.

Okay, so it wasn’t just my sister’s building.

Pan out on whole city block.

I walk down the sidewalk and all the shops are closed. The subways have stopped. Employees and customers are out on the street, laughing and speculating. People are clutching their cell phones like IV drips, tracking down whoever they can. At least that’s still working. A great thing about New York is that everyone talks really loud, so it’s not hard to eavesdrop. “You’re in Brooklyn? No power at all? Fucking bullshit!”

Pan out further – the whole city of New York.

I hear someone running off a list of places: “Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey.”

On every block, at least one person has turned their car radio up to full volume and opened all the doors. Clusters of people gather around each listening station. Out of a van, I hear “Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland Toronto…” “The whole eastern seaboard.” “The power grid is out for the entire northeast corridor.”

The camera pulls out into space. We’re looking at 50 million people in the dark.

This is more than just one percent of the world’s population. It’s the richest percent, the fattest percent, most definitely the whiniest percent.

I remember things I’ve read in the past about the power grid — techy doomsayers concerned about Y2K. The power grid is vast and intricate, they said. There’s no one person who fully understands how it all fits together. It’s this enormous thing that just works even though we’re not entirely sure how. These assertions are born out by the cavalcade of chucklehead pundits the media turns to throughout the day and beyond. If you really listen, not one of them has a damn clue.

People are slowly losing their senses of humor. There’s tension about, even hostility. I’m reminded of something that happened here a couple years ago. I’m not the only one.

Everyone’s thinking the same thing. No one wants to use the word, but we can’t help it. It comes out so easily.

Terrorists.

Some woman says, “It’s like doomsday.” She laughing, but not really.

I hear a flamboyantly gay guy speaking dismissively. “Whatever. Two weeks after 9/11 everything was back to normal.” I’m guessing he doesn’t watch the news.

The streetlights aren’t working. Every block is gridlocked. The sidewalks are jammed so pedestrians start weaving between the cars. It finally occurs to me to pull out my camera.

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A group of Harley-riding nihilists zooms down Lexington in silver Kaiser helmets doing wheelies and screaming at people. I always imagined it’d take longer for us to descend into Mad Max territory, but I’m not complaining.

I make it the forty blocks down to Grand Central right around the time a million people are figuring out they’re not getting home tonight. They’ve cleared out the building and blocked all the entrances. It’s a real party atmosphere.

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Some guy has taken it upon himself to direct traffic along Park Avenue.

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People are laughing and making fun of him. We all hope he knows what he’s doing. I see more guys adopting the role at intersections in every direction. It seems unlikely that many, if any, are trained at this. But they’re doing okay. Cars are moving, drivers are happy, and there are no accidents. It occurs to me that this is a uniquely American thing. I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else.

I decide to try and find Kristin, who conveniently works in the center of the universe. I walk across town and find a scene that, well, you just don’t see…ever.

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The heart of New York city is flatlining. Mobs of people are staring at the signs in awe. This doesn’t happen. It’s starting to feel like the world may actually be ending.

I cross the street and enter 1515 Broadway: home of MTV, Nickelodeon, and half the channels on basic cable. It’s like walking into a cave. I see flashlights moving around in the blackness ahead – it’s security guards guiding people out of the stairwells. These folks have just come down 40+ flights in the dark. People are lying against the wall like refugees. I realize it’s not just exhaustion from the stairs; it’s mid-August, there’s no power, the lobby is still cool and this is the last AC any of us are going to get for a while.

I head further into the cave to try and find Kristin. Security has the area roped off and is only allowing escorted entrance for people with extremely good reasons for getting in. I don’t bother presenting my case. Instead I flop down against the marble wall, open my laptop, and start typing all this up.

About a half hour goes by before my battery runs out. No sign of Kristin. She must be back at her apartment. The subways are still out, the buses have stopped, and cabs are going for a flat fee of $100. Not that I’d be doing any of that anyway. There’s so much more to see.

Back on the street, we’ve come around to the idea that these ad hoc traffic cops are our saviors. I see people bringing bottled water to them. The angels of our better decency have kicked in and attitudes have improved drastically. This isn’t the end of the world, it’s just a really weird thing and we’re all going to get through it without killing each other.

The mayor is down on the Brooklyn Bridge where throngs of commuters are marching home. He’s calming them and explaining the situation as best he knows it. Whoever on his staff had that idea deserves a raise.

I am delighted to realize my route back to Kristin’s is going to take me through Central Park. There I find tens of thousands of people, compelled by forces beyond their control to put on bikinis and play Frisbee on the grass.

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There are lots of worse things than this.

I make it to Kristin’s just before dark. She’s on the phone with mom discussing where in the hell I am – a question I’ve gone great lengths to answer recently. She tells me the story of how every place in the city that was still open had run out of candles, but clever lady that she is, she went into a hair salon and asked if they sold aromatherapy candles. The women thought about it and said, “Yeah. Actually, we do.” So her whole apartment was lit up with Passion, Relaxation, Calming Waters, and Spiritual Awakening. We weren’t just seeing in the dark, we were healing.

Not surprisingly, Kristin had a miniature TV handy and a pile of several hundred AA batteries she’d taken home from work – some promotional thing. Kristin is very resourceful. The two of us probably comprised about a third of the Manhattan viewing audience for the local news shows. We watched them into the night while she fielded phone calls from her network of people who, like us, had absolutely no idea what to do with themselves.

That night was probably the last chance anyone will ever have again to see a star-filled sky over New York. Mars was bright and huge. It was fantastic.

The next day was sweaty. The joke was getting old and we were ready for the AC to come back on. The whole block was out on the stoops drinking and listening to the radio while we waited. This sign sums up the mood.

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Connecticut got power back long before New York, so we persuaded mom to drive in and pick us up. It was days before the trains started running, so that was really the only option. We came home to Connecticut and slept in our cozy air conditioned bedrooms and that’s where the story ends.

6 Responses to New York, New York The Blackout

  1. Melissa

    Hey Matt! Just came to your site via The Screen Savers …

    I live in Toronto, and I thought your explanation of the blackout was awesome! It was pretty much the same for us up here, with the traffic stuff and all … but of course I was stuck in the house with no A/C and no info for what was happening. But just wanted to say I really like the pics, and that pretty much all the responses you described, like that this was actually cool, not scary – and then the joke was getting old was EXACTLY how we thought, and when!

    Anyway, that was cool. Unfortuanetly we didn’t take chance to really look at the sky over Toronto, cuz my little cousins from Bermuda were a little freaked about the whole thing … but I heard it was pretty …. and secretly, I kinda hope it happens again 😉

  2. Matt, I’ve just run across this post and am reminded of my experience in the blackout. I was attending a conference at the Courtyard Marriott on Times Square and had a distinctly different experience. Note to self: in the future, the people who have it the worst are the poor schmucks staying in nice hotels. Friends of mine who stayed in smaller hotels had a much better time of it.

    Love your writing. Love your “work.”

  3. Matt (different Matt)

    Here’s another entry for Impromptu International Traffic Cops:

    I was on a bus tour an hour north of Athens, Greece when traffic came to a halt on the highway. Almost immediately, people got out of their cars and started to loiter on the median and near the guardrails. They started to smoke, and argue about the cause of the traffic. Less than 200 yards ahead, wisps of black smoke were rising. The wisps turned into plums, making it clear what the issue was, and that we’d be there awhile. We had learned through the grapevine that multiple cars were piled up and on fire ahead, blocking the entire road.

    Traffic stretched ahead and behind as far as we could see. A driver a few cars behind us decided to make a break for it in the breakdown lane. How he expected to get by the obvious firestorm ahead, I don’t know. But it inspired others to use similar tactics. Soon the extra lane was getting crowded.

    Well the Greeks would have none of it. Inspired by our bus driver, they took charge and formed a phalanx across the breakdown lane. They hurled curses and insults and by sheer will, forced cars into reverse. I doubt the police could have done a better job of clearing traffic in such a short time and with so little bloodshed.

    Multiple firetrucks and ambulances eventually showed up down the secured break-down-lane and put out the fire. We all cheered their heroic efforts. It was over and cleaned up within an hour. I never expected such efficiency.

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