Blackout ’77: Conclusion

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01/20/2004

Neighborhood: All Over

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Thursday morning was many different mornings, just as the night without lights had been many different nights.

One woman, rising before the sun, stuck her head out of her bedroom window.

Never before, she said, had the street been so quiet.
Nor the sky—in Queens!—so full of stars.

A twenty-two-year-old who hadn’t been to bed decided the best way to save food from spoiling was to eat it.

Hours earlier, others with the same idea had set up grills on sidewalks, terraces, and fire escapes; in tiny fenced-in yards and sweeping riverfront parks.

He set his up in a Bushwick alley.

A neighbor, who had been to the butcher, brought steaks. The cook’s brother, who had been to the hardware store, brought a screwdriver, to flip them.

“The new sign is the fist with a towel wrapped around it,” said the cook, raising his bloody, bandaged right hand. “That’s the power salute. This time it was flashlights, not guns. All power to the looters.”

The men of Ladder Company 26 watched the sunrise from the rooftop of a burning Harlem building. On their way back to the firehouse (for the first time since the lights went out), they stopped for groceries. Two men went in, but the pickings were slim: two jars of gefilte fish, the only food looters had left on the shelves.

In rooms on both sides of that alley, people who had managed to fall asleep rose with a muddy mixture of despair and relief.

The grocery store, the pharmacy, and the five-and-ten were gone.

Scores of neighbors would be without jobs.
But their homes had been spared, and the smoke that woke them was from a barbecue in the alley.

With backup power still out at Bellevue, patients cheered the day’s first light. They drank warm fruit juice, ate dry cereal, and waited their turn for the pay phone in the hallway, eager to let family and friends know they’d survived the night.
Lab technicians, as agitated as the patients were calm, searched storage closets and cabinets for an old microscope, the kind illuminated by ambient light and mirror instead of built-in lamp. Their great fear was that frozen specimens, essential for both diagnosis and research, would defrost before they’d had a chance to examine them.

Two young doctors hustled down the stairs with flashlights, a plastic tube, and a jug. The generator they were using to power an aspirator, an electrocardiogram, and a portable X-ray camera was nearly out of gasoline. They intended to siphon a gallon out of a car.

Empire State Building staff carried breakfast up to the three dozen people who had spent the night on the observation deck. Afterward, they offered to escort anyone who wanted to walk down eighty-six still-dark flights. A few walked; most decided to wait for the elevator, though no one could tell them just how long that wait would be.

In the lobby of the Statler Hilton, where two hundred people without reservations had spent the night, two hotel guests tiptoed to the side of a young woman who was crying.
Shaking off a few hours’ sleep, she had just discovered that her boyfriend of the night before was gone, and her wallet was missing.

The man and woman, who had been up all night helping the hotel staff, asked her where she lived, walked her to the street, hailed a cab, and paid the fare.»

“Why, we’re from Louisiana, honey,” one of them explained to a reporter who asked about their largesse. “We’re used to trouble. If I had a daughter, I’d want somebody to do it for her.”

Two men stood outside a Columbus Avenue café, their tired eyes trained on the street.

All night long, gangs had swarmed up and down the Avenue.

No one came near them.

Each of them carried a shotgun.

“I was determined,” the owner said, “to shoot the first mother that put his hands on my property.”

A Far Rockaway man stumbled through the rubble of his East Harlem store and thought back, almost longingly, to the riots of 1968, the night Ray killed King.

That, in retrospect, was nothing. Looters took a hundred suits. The following day he and his brothers installed a solid metal sliding door, like a garage door; the day after that, they were back in business.

This time looters took everything but two straw hats and a few rolls of toilet paper. What they didn’t take, they destroyed.

“They didn’t have to break that,” he said, pointing to a mirror. “That’s just malicious. They’re trying to tell me something. Well, they got their message across.”

The owner of Gramercy Park Hardware arrived early, grabbed a poster board and marker, and went to work on a new sign.

BUY IT NOW: BATTERIES, FLASHLIGHTS, CANDLES. STOCK UP.

He sold three thousand candles before noon.

On Watkins Street, near the corner of Belmont in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a decorator sat in his shop trying to fill some orders.

It wasn’t easy.

He was working alone. (His sewing-machine operator and his presser had been unable to get to Brownsville.)
And without much light. (Having seen looters on Pitkin—young men making their way down the Avenue with mattresses and box springs on top of their heads—he had left the steel shutter pulled down over his showroom window.)
Every few minutes the phone rang. It was his wife, urging him to close and come home.

Finally, he did.

The looters were gone, but so were the shutters, windows, and doors.

The owner of a West Side deli left Valley Stream, Long Island, in the dark, not knowing what he was going to find. He made great time, and as he neared the Queensboro Bridge, the light of the rising sun struck the tops of the tallest skyscrapers and began to climb down, creating the illusion that all over Manhattan, at that very moment, the power was being restored.

It wasn’t, but he arrived to find his deli as he had left it, and not long after he arrived, the power on his block was restored.

“This may sound corny,” he said, “but . . . we felt like God was just ahead of us all the way. And it was all over.”

**

THE END


Excerpted from BLACKOUT by James Goodman, to be published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. Copyright (c) 2003 by James Goodman. All rights reserved.

Mr. Goodman has compiled this narrative of New York’s 1977 blackout from interviews, city records, first-person chronicles, and other accounts. For a complete annotated source list, please see BLACKOUT.

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