The air on the fourteenth floor of 1 Police Plaza is a little thick, and Captain Z. wheezes.
“You’re wheezing,” I say.
“I am not,” he says, and pulls out his asthma inhaler, shakes it, and takes a puff. His lung sounds immediately clear. It’s 4:30 on Thursday, August 14, exactly nineteen minutes after the power went out. I had been interviewing the Captain for a sort of “day in the life” piece. Now I am just taking notes.
First the lights dimmed, then went out completely. Computers stopped. The Captain was annoyed, he had lots of work to do before going on vacation with his fiancee next week. He cursed. “Maybe someone used the toaster oven and the copier at the same time.” Every time that happens, he has to call maintenance. But then some lights flickered on. He looked up. “Emergency generator’s on.” He looked outside. “Traffic lights out. It’s citywide.” He stepped into the hall. Word came down there’d been a disturbance at the Niagara-Mohawk power plant, but nobody knows for sure. After 9/11, anything could happen. I figure PD would know first. Like going through turbulance on an airplane, you watch the stewardess. If she’s not nervous, neither are you. I keep my eye on the Captain.
At 5 p.m. an announcement comes over the loudspeaker: all uniformed members, captains and below, are to report to the park outside 1 PP in helmets, bulletproof vests, gun belts, reflective vests, and escape hoods. There are 37,000 uniformed police officers in New York City. 10,000 are being mobilized, leaving the rest as reserves. Nobody knows how long this thing will last.
The Captain receives orders for deployment. He is to be stationed at one of the major bridges, on the Brooklyn side. Before he and his men leave, he tries to gather provisions. He runs to Dirty Nails Pete’s, but the store is already shuttered. Fears of 1977 run through shopkeepers’ heads. But the crowd is orderly. Everyone just wants to get home. The Captain lives in Brooklyn, with a parrot he’s trained to say “Atchoo! God bless you!” and “Praise the Lord!” The bird will not get fed tonight.
He and his men get into a police van and we are off. Traffic is at a standstill and we go lights and sirens through the emergency lane. Over the bridge I check out the skyline. Nothing too out of the ordinary. The sun is still bright. People stream out of buildings and swarm over the bridge. We park the van and jump out. As the crowd thickens the Captain guides cars and pedestrians off the off-ramp and prevents vehicles from getting on. Some yell. Some whisper. Some cry. Is this terrorism?
“No,” the Captain reassures them. “Just a good old-fashioned NYC blackout.”
But as the sun goes down the scene becomes more and more surreal. Everything gets darker, the bridge, the streets. Only headlights illuminate people and buildings. I can see stars. I point out the Big Dipper.
“Where?” the Captain says.
“There,” I say, and point to the handle. He doesn’t see it. “For a man with a lifetime membership to the Bronx Zoo, you have a lot to learn about nature.”
He chuckles, then does a little dance from foot to foot. He is wearing new orthotics and they’re hurting his feet. He and his men have been working with no relief for five hours now, and everyone is bathed in sweat. The Captain lets his men remove their caps. They use them to fan themselves. He does the same. The only drink he has had in all this time is a half a bottle of water. I had the other half. Now the bodega is closed.
We are short on flares, and the Captain uses them sparingly. They give off an eerie orange glow, and other than the lights of the cars, it’s all he has. Police officers are supposed to carry flashlights, but many aren’t.
The Captain breaks a fresh flare and burns a hole in his pants. “Damn.”
People approach him from the Manhattan side and ask, “How do I get to Park Slope? To Queens Boulevard? To Flatbush?” He directs people to avenues and buses. From the Brooklyn side, people give him stories why they need to get across to Manhattan. He has to discern which are true. Pedestrians can get across. Cars can’t. One man sticks his head out his window.
“Let me across! Now!” He is pushy, and the Captain’s eye grows steely.
“Podiatrist.” The man flashes his credentials.
The Captain holds up a foot. “Ouch.”
“My 87 year old mother needs medical attention!”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Bilateral hip fractures. Two weeks ago.”
He turns the man back. “Tell her to call 911. Only emergency personnel.” He sizes up every situation and makes a decision. Sometimes he’s wrong. Sometimes he yells. Sometimes he lets people across. Sometimes he gets snowed. It’s chaos, and he is trying to lessen it. If he does let you past, you’re a fish swimming upstream, so the rules are 5 mph, hi-beams and hazards on. An old couple wants to get to their apartment on the Lower East Side. He lets them. It’s better to have them home than here. But to an irate man with an attitude he says take a hike. “You’re not getting across.” The Captain majored in psychology. He is using every skill he has to look inside of people. The city demands it.
As it draws close to midnight the crowds start thinning. There are fewer headlights, and the last of the flares are dying down. The Captain is bone-tired. His men lean against any vertical surface they can find.
They hear something and look up. An ice-cream truck rolls by, the jingle uncanny in the pitch darkness.
The Captain runs to it. “Stop!” He pulls out his wallet. “Gimme everything you got.”
You never saw so many cops so happy.
The Captain comes into the dimming circle of flickering orange with a hole in his pants and a grin on his face, arms full of ice cream for everyone.