Another New York Blackout: Evading Walpurgisnacht

This time it wasn't mischief, upstate happenstance, or terror: The system was overloaded, and the infrastructure simply…gave way.

It was exactly 40 years ago that New York City experienced its Great Blackout.  People in the Upper West Side in that sultry, torpid summer night became a great village reduced to small-town modesties, as people reacted with interpersonal considerations to the evening's unexpected reduction to medieval candles, defunct coolants, softening ice cream, and absent air conditioning.

This past afternoon and evening, transformers underground in my New York City neighborhood and the aligned loci across town burst into flame and were the cause of manhole covers mysteriously erupting on the streets – followed by unstoppable belching of black smoke, acrid even when the wind blew in a direction not one's own.

People gawked in the streets as the hatchet spew hiccupped and  hiccupped, fast and rude, seemingly without cause.  Or end.

Fire assets arrived, after people not busy photographing the curling smoke with their cellphones called 911.

We were no longer sloppy Democrats and hidden, though assertive, Republicans.  Now we were just denizens of the unknowable vicissitudes of life in the tarnished Apple.

Engine company after engine arrived, in the blazing afternoon, one of the hottest days of the year thus far, temps hovering even in the near twilight in the 90s.  The firefighters, togged in full blaze gear, were toting axes and stiff leathery, dirty white hoses, useless in the face of a raging electrical fire. 

If we sidewalk superintendents were sweltering, how hot must these firefighters be?

The brawny men spooled out yellow crime scene plastic tape around the street sections where the holes continued to billow out their choking gray-black smoke and fumes of PCBs and burning electrical circuitry ––– subterranean noxiousness in all its uncamouflaged virility.

I hurried across the street as a thin film of splatter tried to rain but failed.  I was holding my bike by the handlebars, just coming back from grocery shopping, bearing a huge watermelon in my basket and two bags with paraphernalia from my day's labors downtown.

Hurry up! the men ordered me, worried I might be hit by something coughed up by the heedless upchuck from the depths of the city.

The subway under Broadway stopped running.  The smoke below ground was too thick and dangerous for elderly, the young, those with poor vision, or just regular folk...and people shouldn't be exposed to such palpable, cindery toxicity.

I wrestled my impedimenta away, but still, the New Yorkers stood their ground.  Here was An Event.  We had a ringside view.

Was it terrorism?  Was it full frontal disintegration of the city?  Recall that the mayor had so grievously and blatantly abandoned us to the vagaries of train derailments and police assassinated by illegal thugs.

Cars were re-routed  down my short street and on nearby streets to avoid passing over the malodorous, disrupted intersection at 71st and Broadway in the thick of evening rush hour, 5:14 and ongoing.

There were 700 people in the environs deprived of electricity and air con, lights and the normal creature comforts of our tiny Manhattan, exalted-rent hideaway apartments.

Think of it: 40 years ago to the day, NYC was discomforted again by a fluky incident that lasted many hours, pockmarked in Harlem and other sometime unsavory areas by looting and far from gleeful actors in an opportune moment of inattention by the police and firefighters.

After depositing my groceries, I went to supper across the street, where only one other couple sat and ate quietly.  My suppermate was distraught: his entire building was dark, he had no cell phone, his dog had been spirited away by a kind friend to a hotel, lest the boiler explode.

My friend could not even get upstairs – he lived on the 14th floor.  (Superstition forbids most NYC buildings from having a 13th floor, so he really lives on the 13th, but all elevator wall-plates go from 12 to 14 without apology.)  He felt too hot and weary to climb 12 flights.  And his knee hurt.

As we ate comfort food in a neighborhood comfort diner, he calmed down, eased by my having a cell phone with me and by the friendly Dominican waiter and the succulent sandwiches we ordered.

When we emerged, there was no long stitched stream of cars and trucks holding up on the street or that of the eatery or of Amsterdam.  The crisis had passed, the people dispersed, the traffic, now 11 p.m., scanty, and the normal city life resumed its usual hectic-stuttery pace.

The friend who had swept his pet into a hotel for the night was reached.  We were assured that the power had been restored to his building, the elevators were now functional, his fridge was again humming along without fear of spoilage of all his stored foods.

We went our separate ways, relieved that we had staved off one of those gripping  but potentially unnerving New York stultifying evenings when Things Go Wrong unexpectedly.

We had prevailed.  The men in heavy coated gear and crimson truck accompaniment had sorted it all out.

Night resumed, 14 July.  It wasn't what threaded through most minds, even fleetingly: terrorism.

July 14, 2017 in France: Commemorating Bastille Day 1789.

July 14, 2017 heading into dawn in New York City: Commemorating Relief in New York City with competent public-servant function.