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"Powerlessness" Becomes an Adventure: Blackout Behavior
Julie Norwell

The Blackout of ’03, reported to be the worst blackout in American history, left an enormous swath of America’s Northeast and Canada without electricity last Thursday, stranded millions of commuters in New York City, and saddled store owners with thousands of dollars in spoiled food.

But for me, it was an adventure. The most interesting thing was how people reacted.

A few minutes after I stepped off a subway at Union Square and walked into a Starbucks for an iced coffee, the power flickered off. Patrons at tables in the café were unfazed and continued chatting or reading, but store clerks immediately starting turning away customers in line – no power to the registers.

Thinking the power outage was local, I bought a lemonade from a street vendor in cash and crossed the square to a store to run an errand, only to be turned away at the door. "Hmmm," I thought. "Storeowners are taking the power outage pretty seriously if they won’t let in customers. I wonder how far the blackout extends."

It was then that I overheard a woman on the street with a cell phone pressed to her ear say to a woman next to her, "They say it goes on for blocks!"

I clearly wasn’t going to get any errands done, so I headed back to the subway. But people were flooding from the subway entrance telling anyone trying to enter that the subways weren’t running. "Okay, so I’ll catch an uptown bus back to work," I thought and headed west to Sixth Avenue.

By this point, traffic in the square was becoming chaotic with cars and trucks moving gingerly through intersections with darkened traffic signals swinging above them. With stores closing and office buildings beginning to heat up from lack of air conditioning, throngs of people were emptying into the streets and sidewalks. The thickening crowds increasingly added to the confusion.

As I made my way along Sixth Avenue, I listened to the conversations of people I passed on the street: "The power is out all over Manhattan!"; "My cell phone isn’t working"; "I’m dying from the heat"; "People are trapped in the subway"; "That guy is trying to sell me a bottle of water for $5.00!".

A bus came along and I waited in the long line to board. But the bus was packed and the driver only allowed about four people to board before he told the rest of us we’d have to wait for another bus. Soon, another bus came along, also packed with people. This one didn’t even bother to stop; a sign in the front read, "Not in Service".

I realized I’d have to walk the mile back to work – in my high heeled sandals.

Soon I came across a crowd of people hovering around a table listening to news reports from a transistor radio. With the power out, it was difficult to find out what exactly was going on – everyone was hungry for information. Mayor Bloomberg was speaking: "We do not believe the blackout is caused by terrorism at this time," he assured New Yorkers. Of course, that was the first thought on everyone’s mind.

Now that I knew I wasn’t in a life-or-death situation, I enjoyed walking back to work – even in the 93 degree heat. I reveled in the adventure of watching New Yorkers deal with the crisis. I was struck by how calm and courteous people were overall. Long lines were forming at pay phones because most cell phones weren’t working. Overly crowded sidewalks made walking difficult, and people constantly jostled one another as they walked.

Still, few people seemed to be griping.

I had no illusions at this point that I would be able to take a train home that evening. This was confirmed as I approached Penn Station. The police had closed the building and thousands of stranded commuters loitered outside.

My cell phone useless, I headed to my office across from Penn Station, thinking I might still succeed in using the phone there. The lobby looked like a college sit-in. Hot and harried commuters had taken refuge there in order to get away from the heat and crowds outside and plan their next move. I carefully stepped over bodies littering the floor and was directed by a building employee with a flashlight to the dark stairwell of the building. As I began climbing the ten flights of stairs to my office, tired office workers were still trickling down from offices on the 45 floors above.

As it turns out, phones in the office were not working. But the trip wasn’t in vain: I changed into a pair of sneakers for the one mile walk to my boyfriend’s apartment in Greenwich Village.

The road down to the Village was clogged with traffic and sweaty, tired people walking in business clothes. At some of the intersections, I saw that volunteers had stepped in to help direct traffic. Their help was welcomed.

When I arrived at my boyfriend’s apartment, the atmosphere seemed more relaxed. I dropped my heavy bag and the two of us headed out to see how the neighborhood was coping with the crisis.

There was no need to worry.

We stopped in a local bar to cool down with a beer. After about 15 minutes, the owners managed to hook up a generator. Suddenly the fan whirred to life, the decorative lights along the bar lit up, the credit card machine snapped on (much to the relief of people low on cash), and the juke box started cranking out music. The bar quickly erupted in cheers.

After the beer we walked down to the West Side Highway. Cars trying to escape the city were at a standstill. Walking alongside them were exhausted commuters still trudging home in suits and skirts. But many of them crowded onto the piers in Hudson River Park to rest and watch the sun set – a treat people infrequently get to enjoy.

As the sun went down, the streets of Manhattan grew dark. But in the Village the mood grew increasingly festive. Along Hudson Street bars were teeming with people buying beers while they were still cold. Tables and chairs were scarce, so the excess people spilled into the streets, which were fairly empty of cars by this time. The mood was like that of a street festival.

We saw that laws prohibiting people from carrying open containers of alcohol on public property had gone out the window, so we bought another round of beers and continued our walk down the street. Pizza parlors were raking in business, thanks to their gas ovens and cheap prices (again – the cash problem). Along the residential streets, building tenants gathered outside to compare "war stories". Those worried about food spoiling fired up barbecues for neighbors.

Eventually, my boyfriend and I made our way back to his apartment to eat by candlelight whatever in his refrigerator risked going bad. Around 11:30pm we climbed out onto the fire escape. Power had been restored to Newark across the Hudson River and we could see the glow of the city lights in the night sky. But for the first – and probably the last – time in my life, I saw that the skyline of Manhattan was black.

As we stood there, the sounds of people carousing in the streets below wafted upwards. With no television and air conditioning to lure them indoors, people were happily lingering on their front stoops talking and laughing with their neighbors by candlelight. Some had even hauled guitars outside and we heard music and singing.

I thought to myself how a few decades ago before television and air conditioning enabled people to cocoon themselves in their homes, life in New York – and elsewhere – must have been like this. Whereas in the past, people had relationships with their neighbors, nowadays you’re lucky if you even know your neighbor’s name. If nothing else, this little community revival, however fleeting, is certainly one positive effect to have come out of the power outage. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have them more often.

The following day, power had still not been restored to Manhattan and Mayor Bloomberg called on non-essential people to stay home from work. "Think of it as a snow day," he said. "There are worse things than taking a Friday off in the summer."

What could be a better adventure than a snow day in August?