The Blind Leading The Blind: In the Dark ’77

by

11/10/2006

University Place & 8th St., NY, NY 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

Four of us had gathered for dinner in a room above a popular bar on University Place on a swampy and airless Manhattan night. We were all twentysomething professionals, friends from the business side of the music business. Hannah worked for a British artist management firm, and Dina managed PR for a small American record label. Sally was with an independent PR outfit and I was freelancing after walking away from my last PR job.

The city’s crime rate was approaching an historic high that year, with the Son of Sam shootings topping the terror charts. The Queens apartment I shared with Hannah was in the kill zone; for months nightfall seemed to transform the neighborhood into an urban morality play, where young people who failed to follow their parents’ warnings wound up dead. But now David Berkowitz had been identified and arrested, and to be young in New York finally seemed good again.

At a corner table across the restaurant, we noticed a man and woman who could have been an Oedipal mother and adult son or a May-December love match. We were trying to decide which when the man jumped up and launched into a loud tirade of threats and curses. The woman tried to calm him, and it seemed to work; he sat down. But then out of nowhere he reached over and slapped her hard on the face, and then again. We started yelling “Stop that! Stop that!” and, after what felt like ten minutes but was probably only one, a couple of burly guys ran up from the bar and frog-marched the man to the street. The woman stayed on alone, nursing a drink and finishing her dinner, collecting herself and trying to act normal. I felt changed — my radar was up. I was jumpy and watchful.

It was around 9:30 when we left the restaurant. The woman was still at her table and I was still feeling strange. The air was hot, dead and dirty and the moon, if we could have seen it through the smog, was a waning sliver. Lurking in a doorway just past the restaurant, I could see the young man. Now he had friends with him. Alarm bells started ringing and we decided to find a phone — we needed to call a warning to the restaurant. But just as we dropped a quarter into the coin slot everything went dark, and we could no longer see the man or his friends. It was 9:36 p.m. on July 13, 1977, and the blackout had begun.

We made our way to a sidewalk café at the corner of 8th Street, grabbed a table and tried to shake off the creepy feeling that seemed to grip all of us. Outdoors on a New York summer night, sipping wine with friends at a table lit only by candles and the headlights of passing cars — it had potential. It could be fun.

But in the crowded, traffic light-free city, car horns started honking, drivers started yelling, pedestrians started yelling back and exhaust fumes from gridlocked cars started rising in clouds.

That’s when Sally said, “I think it’s the Russians. Don’t you think it’s the Russians?” I thought of Alan Arkin’s Lt. Rozanov and looked at her, expecting to see a smile, some indication that she was joking, but found none. I’d known this woman for several years. I knew her to be funny and very smart and, okay, maybe a little neurotic, but only in the typical New York way. This was the first I’d heard about a Russian invasion. I didn’t know how to respond.

And then Dina said, “No. I think it’s a police conspiracy. I have these books, and they say the police are going to use things like blackouts to take over.” Dina was a more recent friend, but again, she’d given no clue about an obsession with a police conspiracy. The idea that she had a little library on the subject disturbed me at least as much as her words.

Hannah and I made eye contact. Our friends had traveled to a distant galaxy, but I could see she had skipped the trip, and I was relieved. Encouraged, I said, “Hey, it’s hot. You get blackouts when it’s hot. It’s no big deal.”

A little while later someone walked by and told us that Big Allis, Con Ed’s main power plant, had crashed. Even though it suggested there would be no quick fix, it sounded like good news. We decided to spend a restless night fanning ourselves at the closest safe place, the loft Sally shared with her boyfriend. We found a cab to take us there. Nobody said much after that.

At first light, Hannah and I stepped out onto the desolate, trash-strewn sidewalk and made our way to the Queens-bound bus on 59th Street. On the ride home, passengers swapped information about the previous night’s events — widespread looting and vandalism from Brooklyn to the Bronx, including block after block of Broadway on the Upper West Side. The official report later said that a total of thirty-one neighborhoods across four boroughs had been affected; there had been 1,037 fires, 1,616 stores were damaged and almost 4,000 people had been arrested.

When I think about that night, I still wonder if something was in the air, something that made otherwise sane people a little unhinged and pushed angry people to violence. Social commentators blame the violence of 1977 on the city’s financial crisis and widespread unemployment. On another night in a better economy, would the young man in the restaurant have behaved the same way?

I also wonder about the qualities that separate people who panic under stress from those who stay calm and cope. Years before 9/11, I realized I’d begun studying my friends and family, searching for psychic fault lines, and subconsciously sorting them into those who are likely to cope and those who are not. It’s important to know who’s in the bunker with you.

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