Monday . August 18 . 2003 . 10:45am
dancing in the dark
So in case you were living in an underground cave (as some of us had felt we were just a few short days ago), you may have heard that the power went out along the Eastern seaboard Thursday. New York City without electricity is a strange, scary place.
I was working the 5pm-2am shift that day, so I was just heading for work when the shit hit the fan. 4pm I was riding down the elevator in my building, which I negotiated without trouble. I narrowly avoided missing the cross-town bus, and cruised across to 7th Avenue without incident. But as I tried to enter the 1/9 station at 23rd and 7th, I noticed that all the lights in the station were off. "Gee, I guess that station is closed for some reason," I thought (quite reasonably), and walked over to 8th Avenue, where I was planning to catch the C train. Only the lights in that station were off too. "What a coincidence that both of those stations are closed for repairs. And with no signs or police tape, either." And then I noticed that none of the street lights were working.
My next logical assumption was that the power was out in the neighborhood of Chelsea. Plan C was to walk up to Penn Station or Grand Central and catch a northbound train from there. Only that would probably make me a little late for work. So, in an effort to be responsible, I tried to call the ER to let them know that I might be fifteen, twenty minutes late for my shift. Only my cell phone wasn't working either. Odd. So I walked a ways uptown, found a pay phone that appeared to be working, and dialed the hospital.
Hey, you're never going to believe this, but I think the power
went out in my neighborhood. So I'm going to walk to another
subway station, but I might be a little late to work.
The power's out here too.
We don't have power either.
I...oh. So...maybe...I won't take the subway.
At this point, things were starting to set in. I'm a little slow on the uptake, I guess. The power was out in the entire city. As I was informed by a sweaty-looking man in a business suit, it was also out in New Jersey, all the way over to Cleveland, and all the way up to Canada. Before I heard that, I thought that this was just a momentary inconvenience, but afterwards, I couldn't help but to think about darker possibilities. Apparently, this guy was of the same mind, because he was mumbling to his companion, "It's terrorism, it has to be." The city streets were starting to take on the cast of one of those post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi movies, with people wandering in the streets in a daze. People with cars turned their radios all the way up so that we could hear the latest updates and assurances from administrators and politicos.
So it wasn't terrorism. At least that much reassured us. But how the hell was I supposed to get to work? It seems almost a little silly now, that I understand the full scope of the standstill in the city that day that I was still trying to get to work, but I was a fresh new intern working in the emergency room, imbued with a sense of my own self-importance. I was an emergency worker! I needed to get to the
hospital! Think of the children! (Etcetera, etcetera, cue trumpet flourish.)
There is a bus that runs up from near my home to the hospital where I work, roughly 150 blocks uptown and the whole width of the island crosstown, but as I'd never taken that bus before, I wasn't really sure where it picked up. So it took a good half hour of feeling around the neighborhood before I found the right
signpost to stand under. Only I guess every other commuter on the planet had the same idea, because the whole intersection was packed, with bodies spilling into the streets and lining the entire walkway. We waited patiently for 45 minutes, but there was no point, really. By the time the buses reached us (and a few of them did come by), there were so filled with people that they didn't even stop.
Still trying to work the "emergency worker" bit, I found a parked fire truck (there are so many young firemen working now, post-September 11th, I couldn't help but notice) and asked them if there was any way that they could help me get uptown. The apologetically said no, but suggested maybe I could go ask at the police precinct downtown? So I walked over to the police precinct, where there were a frightening number of officers with semi-automatic rifles lurking the shadows of the parking facility, ready to mobilize if there was any large scale looking or carnage, I guess. Not surprisingly, they were not prepared to drive anywhere anytime soon either. I went to a local community hospital across the street and approached an ambulance. You emergency worker, me emergency worker, let's help each other out here, what do you say? But they weren't budging either. (You have to understand that by this point, the streets were entirely filled with people trudging towards home, or at least towards a place to spend the night. Driving was a nightmare, if not an impossibility.) One of the workers gently suggested that maybe the best plan would be for me to just head home and wait it out. I could try to get to work when the power came back on, but for now, it wasn't happening.
After another guilt-laden conferral with some of the residents uptown (things in the ER seemed busy, but under control), I resigned myself to waiting things out at home. Since neither of our cell phones were working, I paged Joe my number to let him know that I was OK. (Afterwards, he confessed that he was convinced I was trapped in the subway--circumstances I only narrowly avoided.) He, still at [Upper East Side Hospital], powered by emergency generator, was able to text-message me back on my pager. Ah, technology. I had no such access to powered computer, so I could only page back numeric code, the key to which he provided per his text paging. After a few volleys back and forth, I paged back the number 1, indicating that I was home, or heading home.
Getting to my building was the easier part. Walking up 19 flights of stairs in the pitch dark was harder. To make things worse, I left my penlight in my white coat, which I almost always leave at work, so I really couldn't improve my visibility at all. I almost killed myself on the second floor, not anticipating a raised platform before the stairs actually began. That first step's a doozy. I counted up the flights, hope that I had arrived at the right floor, and felt my way out into the hallway, where I found my door by the benefit of the small beam of light shining through the
is-it-friend-or-foe? peephole in the door. Inside, Cooper was sleeping, completely unconcerned.
I had heard on several blaring car radios that power might be restored before it got dark, but of course, that didn't really happen. Joe got home just around sundown, as I was lighting the approximately fifteen million candles we have around the house (that's where having wedding leftovers really helps you out), having managed to catch a bus partway home and walking the rest of the way.
At home, against admonitions to keep refrigerator doors closed, we liberated a quart of ice cream and two beers and sat in the growing dark, finishing them off. It was hotter than hell, and down on street level, the bars were packed, though not rowdy. Everyone was behaving very nicely, I thought. I guess the police didn't have to use their great big guns after all.
[Social Analysis Sidebar: I have to say, I know that the socioeconomic demographic of New York has changed since the blackout of 1977, where these was so much looting and crime, but I maintain that an almost equivalent change in the character of the city came into being after 9/11. I think that people are just much nicer in general now.]
Before we went to bed, we turned one of the hallway lights on, so that we would know the instant the power had been restored. The next morning, the light was still off. Joe left for work early, and I left soon after, about four hours earlier than usual. I still had no idea what the bus conditions would be like that morning.
I guess a lot of people decided to just scrap work that day altogether, because the bus was fairly empty. And near the end of my nearly two-hour trip uptown, I started noticing that traffic lights were starting to blink back on. It was only in a few neighborhoods, our apartment wouldn't have power restored until about 7pm, but it was a good sign. I got into the hospital, and seeing that the ER was calm and probably didn't need any more help until my assigned shift that night (I was scheduled for clinic earlier that afternoon), I walked up to the call rooms and took the most satisfying shower of my life. I had to use hospital toiletries and I didn't have anything to change into but the same pair of scrubs that I'd been wearing before, but I didn't care. The hospital had water! And lights! And a teeny tiny bit of air conditioning! It was one of the few times in my life that I preferred being in the hospital to being in my apartment.
I was worried about the dog at home alone in the heat, but some truly wonderful neighbors of ours trekked all the way up to our apartment (they live on the 2nd floor, we on the 19th) and picked up the Coop and brought her down to their apartment, where they kept her all day. They have a dog too, and they were playing so hard that both dogs slept for almost 12 hours straight afterwards.
In the aftermath, after the lights came on, we read in the papers that the source of the power grid overload is hypothesized to be central Ohio, more specifically Ashtabula, where Joe's grandfather lives. We hypothesize that Grandpa Arne caused this all to happen because he was watching TV, ironing his shirts, and blow-drying his hair all at the same time. Thanks a lot, Grandpa Arne.
Most Non-Emergent Reason for ER Visit (MiNERVA) seen this weekend: "My daughter had a nosebleed for three minutes two days ago."