The 1977 Blackout Hits Co-op City

by

04/08/2009

Co-op City, NY, NY 10475

Neighborhood: Bronx, East Bronx

It was July 1977. I had gotten my master’s degree in journalism the year before, but I still hadn’t gotten a full-time job. Not that jobs in journalism were easy to find. At the present time, I was writing weekly news articles for the Eastside Courier, a neighborhood newspaper on the Upper East Side, and monthly feature stories for Westchester Illustrated Magazine. Needless to say, I wasn’t making enough money to move into my own apartment, so I was back home in Co-op City – although, thank God, I didn’t have to ask my parents for money.

My brother Elliott was also at home – he’d just received his BA from Stony Brook and was also looking into going to grad school in a science-related field. Come to think of it, that was the last summer all four of us – me, Elliott, Mom and Dad – lived together in that apartment.

When the lights went off, we, like everyone else, thought it was a local thing in our apartment and rushed to the circuit-breaker panel. But then Elliott noticed that all the windows in the neighboring buildings had also gone dark. Mom lit a Yahrtzeit candle, a traditional Jewish memorial candle, and Dad got out the transistor radio and the flashlight. At first, the radio just reported that the blackout was citywide, although they expected some neighborhoods to “go on” sooner than others. But then, there were reports of looting in several inner-city neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn.

“The animals are gonna start breaking into the stores on Fordham Road any moment now,” said my non-too-subtly racist father. “Alexander’s, Sears, they’ll all have to move. Fordham Road will be ruined, just like Crotona Park was. It’s a damn shame,” he said, shaking his head. “Thank God tomorrow’s Saturday – I won’t have to work. I just wished I had gone to the supermarket tonight!” Remembering the last big blackout, in ’65, he informed us that at least the phone lines would work.

Bored, Elliott and I drifted into our room. “Let’s make some calls,” he said, with a naughty grin. In his freshman year, one of his college roommates had introduced him to the joy of making crank phone calls. Although he was moving away from this juvenile activity, there wasn’t much else to do now that the power was off.

“Who should we call?” I asked.

“How about Bob Marksman?” Bob had been Elliott’s closest childhood friend, although they hardly saw each other nowadays. “I’ll give you the phone, and you put on an accent. Say any crazy thing you like!”

The phone rang, and a young male voice, which I supposed to belong to Bob, answered. “Hey,” I said in an old-man’s Yiddish accent, “You hoid about dat homo blackout?” He mumbled something, then hung up. We both giggled.

Then, it was my turn. “How about Angelo,” I asked, mentioning a friend who had gotten married a few months ago.

“You kidding?” Elliott asked. “He’s probably f—ing his wife!”

Ignoring him, I dialed Angelo. “Hi,” I said, dispensing with the crank idea, “This is Ron. How are you doing?”

“Um,” said Angelo, “can you call some other time? We’re busy now.”

I hung up. “See?” my brother said, turning to me. “He’s f—-ing his wife!”

On that note, we went to sleep. We wondered if we should take the transistor radio into the room and listen to Jean Shepherd, like we used to in our teens, but we didn’t even know if he was still on the air.

In the morning, we listened to the radio. They were rattling off a list of neighborhoods where the power was already on. One of them was City Island, about a 20-minute walk from Co-op City’s Section 5, where we lived.

I suggested walking over to City Island and buying some food at the small grocery store – only as much as I could carry. Elliott enthusiastically agreed, although he couldn’t go along with me – he had to go to his part-time summer job as a gardener on the grounds in an hour or so, although he still didn’t know whether the maintenance office would be open.

“Let’s make a list,” Elliott said. “Mom and Dad always have lots and lots of bottles of apple juice and cans of soup and boxes of cereal, and some coffee, and like, also a box of spaghetti, so we don’t need any of that stuff.”

“Let’s see,” I said “What’s not perishable?”

“Good, good.”

“Maybe I could get a bottle of soda!”

“Good, good. And don’t forget spaghetti sauce.”

“OK, spaghetti sauce. I’ll also buy a loaf of bread and some orange juice, and, let’s see, some cheddar cheese, and some carrots and celery, um, with a few apples and a box of raisins.”

“Now you’re really swingin’, Jack’!” Elliott said, approvingly.

“And I’ll get a carton of milk!”

“Milk? What’s wrong with you?!!! It’s too perishable!” said Elliott, ever the scientist. “You gotta get some yogurt! It has bacteria in it that will make it last longer!”

“OK, yogurt!” I reluctantly conceded. I slipped on my clothes, laced up my sneakers and headed to the living room, where Dad was reading a magazine and slurping a cup of coffee.

“I’m going to City Island to buy some food. The radio said the power’s back on there.”

“City Island, eh?” he asked. “Why don’t we go to one of those seafood joints and get some shrimp and clams? Yeah, yeah, shrimp and clams!” he said, laughing. Dad wasn’t very religious, but he never missed an opportunity to make fun of non-Jews for eating shellfish, which he termed “scavengers” and “dirty animals.”

I said nothing, but just headed out the door. We lived on the 20th floor. Thank God the co-op had its own emergency power — although it was only for the elevators, hallways and lobbies, not inside the apartments.

I left the building, walked across the covered bridge over Pelham Parkway, and then down the dirt path through the weeds leading to Pelham Parkway itself. Walking on the side of the road, I passed the garbage dump, the horse stables, the Police Department firing range. Then, I came to a crossroads, although certainly one more prosaic than Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” One way led to Orchard Beach, the other to City Island. Taking the road toward City Island, I passed the Turtle Bay golf driving range, where I spent many idle hours on less-complicated days.

Finally, the City Island Bridge – the narrow island’s only link to the mainland – and then City Island itself, with its boat yards, seafood restaurants, Navy surplus stores and art galleries. With one exception – the five-story “skyscraper” in the middle of the island — none of the buildings were more than two stories high. I walked into City Island’s sole grocery store and got everything on the list. The guy behind the counter saw that it would be heavy, so he gave me two strong paper bags with handles, for which I was grateful.

Walking home along the same path, the bags felt heavier and heavier, and I had to put them down every 20 steps or so. The hot sun was scorching. Feeling totally miserable, I thought about my life. I wasn’t a full-time journalist – all I was, was a goddamned ARTICLE WRITER! Two couples my own age I knew had recently gotten married – Angelo and Karen, and Mark and Natalie – and I hadn’t even had a real girlfriend for five years, although I dated a lot. And to top it off, I still lived with my parents. The fact that I had lived on my own when I was away at school didn’t mean a damn thing now! As I saw it, I was batting zero.

Just then, as I was passing the trash dump, I saw the lights of Co-op City turn on once again. Hope rewarded, for now and for the future. I headed home.

 

Raanan Geberer is a community newspaper editor in Brooklyn who is now in a Master of Arts in Teaching program. He grew up in the Bronx, went to SUNY and once lived in Washington Heights, although he now lives in Chelsea’s Penn South co-op with his wife Rhea and cat Celeste.

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