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January 3, 2000
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1977 (New York City 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 talking on the phone to a friend of mine who lived on E. 37th Street. (I lived on E. 10th.) Suddenly he went, "Oh, my God," and then the phone went dead and my lights went out. I learned later that the phone hadn't gone dead, that he had simply hung up. But that was the last I heard from him until the lights came back on the next night.
My roommate and I got candles out of a drawer in the kitchen so we could go out onto Tenth Street. It wasn't so dark in our apartment -- you couldn't read, but it was still light enough out to see objects inside. We'd had lights on, which, of course, went out.
The minute we went out our door, it was pitch black. We could see each other if we held our candles to our respective faces, but otherwise the candles weren't a whole lot of help. Plus, candles aren't something you're used to walking with. The wax got all over. They were almost more of a hassle than they were worth. (ALMOST, but not quite.)
It seemed everyone had the same idea. The street was crowded. (Mind you, near NYU, most of the buildings aren't as high as they are up on the East Side.) I remember my first realization that this was a citywide thing: I couldn't see the lights on at the corner of 10th and University, not traffic lights nor those of our corner diner.
It didn't occur to us to loot. People were *giving* stuff away. University Place is mostly restaurants. We (me and my roommate and a friend who'd been over at our apartment when the lights went out) had dinner (mostly ice cream) outside at a jazz supper club. We hardly got charged for anything, as they'd invited us in. I think we wouldn't've had to pay anything if we couldn't've afforded it, or insisted upon it.
After dinner, I took my candle and went over the apartment of someone I was dating at the time. He was sleeping and he couldn't've been more shocked to see me standing at his door, my face lit by candlelight. (One of the reasons I went to see him is because he only lived on the second floor, and I didn't feel like schlepping six flights up to my apartment.)
Anyway, he was the kind of guy you normally had to call and make an appointment/date with. He didn't do "dropping by." He was a resident at Bellevue -- well suited to the medical profession, if you ask me, with all his "call first. Don't just come over" stuff. But because there was no electricity this night, and I was still operating under the idea that that meant no phone, I felt free to break the rules and just drop in and see him. (I'm a pretty spontaneous person.)
So, we stayed in and had sex all night (something I love to do when it's hot, anyway). It was phenomenal -- something that simply wouldn't've happened if the lights hadn't gone out.
The next morning we got up and drove up to Bellevue to see whether things were alright. Things there were, in fact, very alright, and they told him he didn't need to stay. So, we went back downtown. I went home, and then, eventually, out walking in the Village, to see what in the world everyone was doing.
IT WAS SO HOT! It hadn't been this hot at night, or it hadn't seemed so because of the great adventure the darkness allowed. I remember walking past Trude Heller's (6th Ave @ 8th St) and stopping to talk to some friends who were sitting outside there on the step. A cop was hassling (literally kicking to the curb, as we say today) a man who seemed to be passing out from the heat. One of my friends asked him to stop and the cop suggested he was going to run us all in for vagrancy. Huh? We were sitting outside because there weren't any public indoors places you could go. What an asshole the cop was.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
At that time, it didn't seem anything in New York worked. So, on a night when there were more air conditioners on than had been on all year, it wasn't really that big a surprise that the lights went out.
Don't forget, the city was close to or at the brink of bankruptcy. Remember: "Ford to City: Drop Dead," that headline in the Post or News? It seemed as if New York was trying to follow those instructions.
And yet, it was a very exciting time in New York. We gay baby boomers were coming out of the closet in larger numbers than anyone had come out in the history of the world, as far as we knew; at least, in the history of America.
I remember Studio 54 opened that spring or summer, and what a time that was, as well as all the other bars/dance clubs. And in spite of the fact that I couldn't stand disco music (give me the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bruce any day), it was impossible to ignore the sexual possibilities seemingly every New York street offered. This was pre-AIDS New York, don't forget.
But the city that didn't sleep didn't seem to work very well. Maybe all this action was putting a psychic as well as a very real physical toll on the infrastructure of the city. I couldn't stand the subway: the smell, the dirt, the crowdedness, the graffiti and, in my case, the sound of the cars screeching to a halt.
There's an entire school of thought, not unfamiliar, I am sure, to someone who lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, that finds the social conditions that characterize late-70s NYC emblematic of a moral and spiritual bankruptcy that matches or supersedes any such financial condition. I can't say I completely dismiss such ideas. I'm Catholic as well as gay, and there's an element of God Will Get You for This in everything. I left New York the following spring, after the coldest winter I'd ever faced, and have never looked back.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Again, the city was bankrupt in so many ways.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
The electricity being out meant the rules were out, as well, for the night.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
You really are asking the same question over and over.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
I couldn't believe people were looting. I guess it's a class thing, but it never occurred to me to break into a store and steal stuff.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
It was my only one.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
See above on moral and financial bankruptcy. I think these things MAY HAVE played an unconscious, subtextual part in my psychosexual experience of the blackout.
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance
Story #31, The Blackout History Project, 3 January 2000, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/31/>.
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