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August 15, 2003
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1965 (Great Northeast Blackout)
In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
I was in my 20s and separated from my husband, living alone in Bayside, Queens, with an 8-month-old baby. I worked in midtown Manhattan and worked till between 5 and 5:30 every day. When I started down the steps to the BMT station to go to Times Square to transfer to the no. 7 subway to Queens the lights flickered. I then decided, thinking that it was just another subway problem, to take a cab to Penn Station to take the LIRR home. As we drove down 7th Ave. to Penn station the lights all went out. The cab driver very kindly offered to drive me home all the way to Bayside, which is almost in Nassau County! We thought once we were out of Manhattan we'd be okay. Then I looked across the East River and saw total darkness in Queens. I was convinced it was a Russian attack and that I would never see my infant son again. The fact that it was the height of the rush hour made attack even more plausible. Even writing about it now brings tears to my eyes. As we proceeded into Queens we picked up two other people. The drive was uneventful, but memorable because of the full moon and the firefighters and other volunteers standing along the streets with flashlights. I got home in less time than it ordinarily would have taken and the cab driver asked me for only $5. Of course, 5 bucks in 1965 was a lot more money than it is today, but when I think of what could have happened I felt very lucky. I slept at the babysitter's that night and was awakened when the lights came on at 3 a.m. I called work that morning, and my goofy boss (that's another story!) asked me to come in to work. So I did--and the LIRR was running. Coda: I think the subway I just missed taking was the one that was stuck in the tunnel until 7:30 the next morning! It was a BMT train in midtown. I truly had a guardian angel that evening.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
Too many people and inadequate safeguards, and way too much interdependency in the grids.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Same as above.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Both were significant
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
I was no longer living in NYC in '77 but was appalled in the difference in behavior of people. Of course, 1965 happened in colder weather and didn't last as long. There was a feeling of camaraderie and shared hardship in 1965 that I didn't hear about in 1977. And people helped each other out. I was reading in the New York Times this morning about cabs with single occupants rushing past people desperate to get a ride. That didn't happen to me or the people we picked up in 1965.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
Like any other New Yorker I just went about my business and didn't think about it too much as a factor in my daily life. Stuff happens and you shrug your shoulders and move on. But the memories are indelible.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
Made me realize how vulnerable we are all the time! Life stops without electricity.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
None because it wasn't just Con Ed -- it was the whole Northeast. And Con Ed did a good job of bringing back power as fast as they could.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance
This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
Yes, because New York, as well as society in general, were in the process of a profound change. New York became less pleasant in the 9 years I was there (1959-1968). Plus, as as I said above, the '77 blackout happened in the hottest part of summer and people without AC or fans are not happy campers.
Story #237, The Blackout History Project, 15 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/237/>.
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