Blackout ’03: Your Turtle Needs a Place to Rest

by

08/17/2003

Midtown to Carroll Gardens

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

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57th Street, 8th Avenue, midafternoon: I’m at the newsstand when the traffic light goes out. It has the same ominous, empty face a dark stoplight always has. Newsstand man looks up. His light went out too. We turn in tandem. The subway light is out. Now we look at each other. Not good. We shake our heads. Nothing like a little darkness to make you look each other in the eye.

Down Broadway, heading toward Times Square: the smokers huddled in doorways look smug instead of furtive, for a change. They have information. It’s all up and down, they call out to passers-by, who are looking up, who are looking down. Managers and cashier girls and the entire staff of Pluck U. are gathered in dark doorways. It’s the whole block, I think, and then: the whole city?

That’s what’s starting to trickle in from the smokers-turned-newsboys, from the pedestrians-turned-reporters. Cell phones are busting from every pocket, digits punching, looking, listening. People are pouring out of the Paramount Building at 50th Street and Broadway. The plaza is a universe of people on phones, an unchoreographed flashmob. Cosi is dark. Duane Reade is dark. I find some people who, like me, might have been working on the 32nd floor if we hadn’t been kicking around doing chores. Now everyone wants to know what’s happening, and the only people who know anything are those with parents in the hinterlands, parents who have TV and radio and light. Facts fly from group to group. Fire downtown. Fire at Con Ed. Fire in Jersey City. No power in the boroughs. No power in Connecticut. Ohio. Canada. Canada? Well, then, it’s not terrorists, we joke.

But there’s a whisper, a shiver. Fires. Many cities. It’s a great way to get people outside, one practical producer muses. I want to leave, a younger girl says, meaning it. I see that one young woman is crying. Now I want to leave, too. The subway is dark. Rosie’s Stardust Diner is dark. I decide to walk to my brother’s place in midtown.

Broadway, Seventh Avenue, Avenue of the Americas: thousands of people teeming up and down sidewalks and whirling through revolving doors. Puffs of previously cool air exit with them. French Connection is dark. Apple Bank, dark. People line every step, bench, statue, fountain. They are waiting, it seems. Lots of people are trying to talk on the phone, but mostly they are just listening to their phones not work. The sound of the dark. My phone makes valiant efforts to call people. I don’t know how I know this, but I feel that my phone works—it’s other people’s phones that aren’t responding. This is weirdly comforting.

At every intersection, someone is directing traffic. Every intersection. Their personalities dictate their style. On Sixth Avenue, two boys with do-rags and NBA tank tops down to their knees are trying to hold up four lanes of traffic so that the cars on 53nd Street can crawl across. Put ya hand up, yo! One yells to the other, who looks more scared than official. But he does it, peeking in-between oncoming cabs and Mercedes and pickups, gearing up to jump in front of them as if he is about to get in on a round of doubledutch. I go on.

Il Gattopardo is dark. Manolo Blahnik is dark. Ladies stand outside, smoking. They don’t look like they’re sweating. I only have a few more steps to wonder how that’s possible, and then I’m at my brother’s place. He’s out, the doorman says, but offers: Do you want me to let you into his place? I’m in jeans, sparkly flip-flops, a floaty fancy shirt. It’s already obvious that I’ll be walking to Brooklyn. Hell yeah. Before I go, I notice a beautiful unsweaty woman on the phone to her friend in Miami—I think it was Miami—dictating the news back to a very elderly couple who has walked carefully down the pitch-black stairs holding a candle in one hand and each other in the other.

The stairs are dark. Really dark. I count steps for no reason, just to know. At my brother’s place I rummage through drawers, locate some running shorts and a tank top—though I’m stuck with the sparkly flip-flops—and then fail to find a battery with which to find out from the tiny bedside clock radio just what the hell is going on. And it’s hot. Really really hot. The cat doesn’t care that it’s hot, or the turtles. Only I care. I can’t stay here by myself. Nobody’s phone works. Mine teases me: It seems to be connecting, it seems to be going, and then….nothing. Bitch phone. Fuck it.

I head west, to a friend’s place in Hell’s Kitchen. Now the streets are jammed. Most people in this part of town are going north. A woman on a curb rolls her eyes at a dramatic presentation by a citizen-traffic-director, and is chastised by her friend. My friend’s neighbor lets me in and I light myself up five flights, finding her at home. She’s cleaning out her closet. Humor me while I do this, she says, making me a gin-and-tonic, making one for herself. I have to do something or I’ll go nuts. We wave to the kids in the apartment next door. They have a turtle, too, but theirs is swimming in a tank with no rock, no resting place. I make a sign: YOUR TURTLE NEEDS A PLACE TO REST – and press it to the window. Their mother reads it and calls, Yes, I know. Thank you. But my friend shakes her head. Then why is their turtle always swimming?»

She is my shoe size and has a solid pair of running sneakers for me. Moving along 9th Avenue, it’s clear that half the people are rushing to get somewhere, and the other half is getting drunk. Uncle Nick’s is dark. The Amish Market is dark. At the doorways of bodegas, enterprising owners are selling water out of coolers. In the doorways of buildings, neighbors are listening to radios. I’m offered water, beer. For once, nobody offers anything nasty.

I go west, hoping that maybe the DUMBO ferry will be running from somewhere. The sun is beginning to go down and the usual West Side collection of joggers, bikers, skaters, and guys cruising has been supplemented by what appears to be 20,000 people trying to get to New Jersey. They line the waterside from the Intrepid to Chelsea Piers. They are crammed behind fences and resting on curbs. Lines of people five-deep stretch at least a mile. Some think they’re going to Hoboken, others Weehawken.Where’s Weehawken? I don’t even know but I’m really glad I don’t live there.

As I go south, the sun sinks deeper, settling into a perfect summer sunset. The river glows orange, silhouetting the kayakers paddling north in formation. New Jersey is dark. Chelsea Piers is dark. But the pier is open, and the friend I’d planned to meet hours ago is there, and we drink beer and watch the sailboats ferry people with $50 to spare across the water, trying to get them home. We on the pier drinking cheer whenever the boat slides gracefully into the slip, and cheer when it slips out again, loaded up with people. Fifty bucks for a sunset sail? They could do worse, we figure.

It gets dark, now, for real. Night and dark, black on black. My friend rides me on his crossbar to the West Village. The Duplex is dark. West 12th Street is dark. We call out all along the way: Coming through! Right behind you! and the streets are still thick with people and any windows that are not dark are the same ghostly yellow-orange, flickering and gentle. On his block, we sit on my friend’s fire escape and watch his street. On every stoop small groups of faces lit by flashlight and candle kick back, drinking, laughing. The neon sign next to his window is dark. My neighbors, he sighs, half-joking, half-sad. Who are they?

Finally, I get on his extra bike, strap on his extra helmet, and, armed with water, tire pump, and Mag-Lite, I start pedaling for Brooklyn. Bleecker Street is dark. Broadway is dark. As I’m heading south, a guy on a bike pulls up alongside me: Are you riding to Brooklyn? he wants to know. Can I ride with you?

Of course. We pedal on. Streets fly by, our tires somehow evading all the invisible potholes. Chambers Street, left turn, the cops wave us onto the bridge, we are on the inbound vehicle side of the Brooklyn Bridge and we are not alone. Out of the dark city at close to midnight we are joined by hundreds, thousands, people on foot, people with flashlights, lanterns, circus glow-sticks. People on phones, people with kids, people walking home to Brooklyn fill the bridge. We pedal on. The full moon lights the dark bridge. The East River is full of moonlight. People on the bridge are looking at the stars.

And then I’m home, I’m flying across Adams Street, pedaling up Court, and Cobble Court Cinema is dark but it’s after midnight now so it’s okay, and these streets in the dark are my streets, anyway. I stop at my friend’s place around the corner, and in the backyard I find ten hardy souls drinking wine, eating a meal from the grill. Lamb, corn, pasta. I haven’t eaten since noon and I dig in, so grateful. All the kids are crashed on a mattress in the middle of the yard, six small arms and six legs flung in all directions. They’re replete, because they’re four, and they are camping, and I wonder if this is a night they will remember for the low hum of grownup voices at a table, or the sticky way their skin will feel when they wake. If they’ll remember that the light they quit fighting when their eyes got too heavy wasn’t coming from the TV or the movie screen or the video game or the computer or even from the lanterns strung out along a wire all around the yard. I wonder if they’ll remember that the last light they saw this night in Brooklyn was the sweet orange glow of a full August moon.

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