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August 17, 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?
At the time of the blackout, I was working for the RH Donnelley Corporation, on an upper floor in a building on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I had turned 17 years old six days earlier, and this was my first full-time job.
That afternoon, only minutes before the blackout occurred, my supervisor had asked a small handful of us to work overtime. Some of us wanted coffee and/or a bite to eat, so I made a list, then left the office to fill the order.
The elevators in the building were rather old, and were manned by human operators who ran them by sliding a large lever back and forth around a semi-circular adjustment wheel. It was while I was on one of those elevator that the blackout struck the building.
I remember the operator, but no longer remember his name. He spoke with an Irish brogue and was always friendly and helpful. Somehow, he managed to maneuver the elevator to the ground floor, where a crowd of people were beginning to gather. I stepped off the elevator and the stories began pouring in about what was happening.
There was a phone booth in the lobby, and folks were taking turns trying to use it to call home and explain their situation. My turn came and I was able to notify my mother and brother of my whereabouts. I told them not to worry about me, that I felt safe and would find a way home in the morning light. Soon after, the phone lines went down.
As the minutes flew, nightfall began to descend and the building's lobby became dark. Looking around, I noticed that some people had flashlights, and others were holding lit candles. A few of us decided to go next door to the variety store, to see if there were any flashlights or candles left to be purchased. There were none, so I returned to the lobby to wait out the night, armed with a few candy bars to share.
The hours went by very slowly. Around 9 PM, as I settled myself against a wall near a corner of the lobby, prepared for an uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night, my older brother arrived to take me home. He had walked from Astoria, Queens, over the 59th Street Bridge, and down to the building on 34th and Lexington in order to rescue his kid sister. What a guy.
Soon after, my brother and I left. We eventually made our way back to Queens, along with a tirade of others. It was a slow progress, but an interesting pilgrimage all the same. Most everyone was getting along, trying to help one another through the event. It seemed as though the entire city had become one huge community of good neighbors.
As the days went on, and the blackout remained, a high school friend and I made arrangements to meet at the foot of the 59th Street Bridge and make the trek to work together. She worked a few blocks north of my building. I remember one day we tried biking it, another day we tried roller skating. Because of the crowds, it became easier to simply walk and hope for rides from those in cars.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Neither was significant
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?
Became less reliant
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:
This story does ring true to me. In 1965, I was working in an office building in midtown Manhattan. Next door was a large variety store, on the order of Kresge's. (It may even have been a Kresge's, I don't remember.) Anyway, the lights were obviously out, and people were buying things like candles, flashlights, and batteries. Everyone, including me, were paying for the items they chose. The store even put out a thank you notice days later.
Cooperation among folks was very high. As the days progressed, total strangers were forming car pools running over the major bridges from Queens to Manhattan, among other places. It was heartwarming to see, and to know that New Yorkers, despite their reputation as a cold, uncaring bunch, were anything but.
Story #280, The Blackout History Project, 17 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/280/>.
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