Life Magazine, Vol. 59 No. 2 (19 November 1965).


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 Loudon Wainright


A dark night to remember

It shouldn't happen every evening, but a crisis like the lights going out has its good points. In the first place it deflates human smugness about our miraculous technology, which, at least in the area of power distribution on and control, now stands revealed as utterly flawed. I have never regarded as trust worthy many of the appurtenances of modern America -automatic elevators, for example, have always chilled me with their smooth mindlessness--and it is somehow delicious to contemplate the fact that all our beautiful brains and all those wonderful plans and all that marvelous equipment have combined to produce a system that is unreliable.

Even better is the fact that something happened. With its virtually instantaneous transmission of news from all over, modern communication leaves people with the feeling that they are spectators in a world of action. The truth is that for most people, except for whatever quality of anguish or action exists in their minds, nothing much is going on, and it is exhilarating suddenly to become a performer in a drama, even if the cast has millions. I can remember as a child the excitement that surrounded the death of one of my grandfathers; too young to grieve for him or to understand the finality of his passing, I was aware only of the solemn urgency and grave bustle brought on by the enormous event. In secret--and guiltily, because I thought I should feel sad--I hoped this strange situation would last. After a few moments of darkness the other night, holding a lighted match near the face of my watch, I forgot about those people who might be endangered by the emergency and hoped the current wouldn't come back on too soon.

It seemed to me that the blackout quite literally transformed the people of New York. Ordinarily smug and comfortable in the high hives of the city where they live and work, they are largely strangers to one another when the lights are on. In the darkness they emerged, not as shadows, but far warmer and more substantial than usual. Stripped of the anonymity that goes with full illumination, they became humans conscious of and concerned about the other humans around them. In the crowded streets businessmen, coats removed so that their light-colored shirts could be seen, became volunteer cops and directed traffic. Though the sidewalks were jammed, there was little of the rude jostling that is a part of normal, midday walking in New York. In the theatrically silver light of a perfect full moon (a must for all future power failures) people peered into the faces of passersby like children at a Halloween party trying to guess which friends hide behind which masks. In fact, the darkness made everyone more childlike. There was much laughter, and as they came down the stairs of the great office buildings in little night processions led by men with flashlights and candles. people held hands with those they could not see.

Of course, there were many people who were seriously inconvenienced by the power failure, but I was not one of those. In the midtown Manhattan restaurant where I was pleasantly marooned with about 25 others, I had drinks and a fine dinner by candlelight. A transistor radio was placed on the bar and we alternately listened to it and then, conversationally tablehopping, talked the news over with new friends nearby. Occasionally we looked out the window at the crowds passing (the prostitutes working that street were among the first to procure flashlights), and every hour or so I went out and walked over to Broadway, then a great dark way lit only by a stream of headlights and here and there a candle flickering in a high window. Back in the restaurant, as the news announcements made it clear that getting home would be impossible, I felt cozily snowbound, a man who had to make the best of it in ridiculously easy circumstances.

I wasn't as worried about our situation as President Johnson seemed to be, but then his communications down at the ranch were better than mine were in the restaurant. Still, many were roughing it a bit, and the fact of that probably brought out the best in people. If there is any single act most Americans have to commit very seldom, it is to improvise, and quite suddenly 30 million people found that they had to improvise- right now'. Walking down many flights of stairs, trudging across bridges, driving without the electronically imposed courtesy of stoplights, sleeping in chairs or in hotel lobbies-all these unusual things had to be done, and people not only did them but carried them off with a certain splendid gaiety.

When the lights came on next morning, I saw a piece of television news which showed some people who'd been stuck all night in a subway car. A crowded mixed bag of young and old, well-dressed and shabby, they seemed absolutely overjoyed at their predicament. And when the subway policeman who had been stuck with them congratulated them on the way they had been good comrades and otherwise passed the time courageously, they cheered him wildly.

My own private fantasy of hell is a stalled elevator with me inside it, and I was astounded to hear the saga of the men trapped 25 floors up in the Empire State Building who passed their 5 1/4 hours of black suspension by joking, singing and not panicking.

Perhaps the best thing about such an event is that it gives all of us a story to tell. The simplest little homeward ride becomes a journey full of weird excitement; the most commonplace stranding is a spooky captivity. "What happened to you?" is an invitation everyone extends to another, and people can deal with their own experiences as if they were of interest and importance. We will be listening to versions of "The Night the Lights Went Out" long after a federal commission discovers that it all started when a little boy in upstate New York dropped his electric toothbrush in the toilet. It's a perfect event for the development of stories for grandchildren as yet unborn. As for my own grandchildren, though I doubt the restaurant episode provides any suspense, I ought to be able to lift enough elements here and there from other people's accounts to make my story fascinating.

LIFE, Vol. 59 No. 2 (19 November 1965)
Copyright 1965 Time, Inc.
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jts{27 June 2000}