The Blackout of ’03 (Or The Night I Met Wallace Shawn)


Never will a New York City summer go by that I don’t think back to those two days ten years ago, when against the black sky, the city lights were dark and instead we could see the stars; when outside we sat on our stoops drinking beer, and in our apartments, where the air was hot and still, cold water showers were our only relief: The Blackout of 2003.

At the time, I was working at a small design studio that occupied the garage of an old brick building in the West Village. Our space was simple and spare with concrete floors, white walls, and industrial divided-light windows high overhead. It was typical, throughout the day, when clouds would shift in the sky, that the sunshine, which often spilled down on us, would disappear intermittently. It was a little after four in the afternoon, while I was away from my desk, that the dimness rolled in that day. Initially, I thought it was just another dense fleet of clouds, but then realized that the lights had actually gone off. And my co-worker, who typically sat quietly clicking away in AutoCAD was suddenly banging his mouse in a fit of frustration, shouting obscenities at his monitor.

During the blackout of ‘77, the two of us were crawling around in diapers, so at the lights going out — even at seeing our neighbors standing in their doorways — I don’t think either of us imagined a power outage spread across New York and a good chunk of the Northeast. Aside from that, memories of September 11th still echoed pretty clearly and I know that I for one, was still on edge. So like a dirty drug in the bloodstream, within seconds, panic was coursing through my veins, and my mind naturally went to thinking that they were at it again, and that this was only the beginning of something much larger and much darker.

I felt a tingling in my palms and then that familiar clamminess that haunts me when my fight-or-flight defenses kick in. I reached for the phone to call home, but the line was quiet and cell service was out. Then I remembered: My sister Kristina who had been up for a quick trip with her, at the time, on-again-off-again boyfriend, was still in the city, scheduled to fly home that evening. My heart was on the floor. Thoughts of terrorists and planes ran rampant in my head. And then my co-worker relayed news that it appeared to be nothing more than a good old-fashioned blackout, and I could breathe again.

Still, I worried about my sister. But then, as if it was being confirmed that we did indeed possess the telepathic abilities we so very much believed in as children, Kristina walked in. A chill ran the length of my body. Only moments before, the thought had crossed my mind that I might never see her again. “How did you know to come here?” She looked at me, shaking her head, her sapphire eyes beginning to water. “There’s no way I was leaving you here and never seeing you again.” She burst into tears. And as I did too, I grabbed her in my arms, knowing the root of her worry was the same as mine had been. “It’s not terrorists Kris,” I said, gasping through sobs. “It’s just a blackout.”

We cried until we came to our senses, realizing: we had work to do. Our first mission? To pick up Kristina and Paul’s luggage, that was in storage for them, at their hotel…in Times Square.

Everyone who’s visited New York knows it’s a pedestrian city, and everyone who lives here is accustomed to walking every day. But when the buses are overcrowded and the subways are at a halt, traffic lights are down and walking is the only option, it’s a whole other story—more like a citywide march that everyone participates in. So they we were, under the still scorching sun, on a 30-block hike uptown, amongst the hot…sweaty…complaining masses.

After another hour, as we headed back, down to Soho where I was living, reality had really set in. First, there was the question of dinner, our collective hunger growing steadily with each stride, and the fact that any food I had at home could not be cooked. Then there was the heat and the more unfortunate fact that no power meant no AC in my studio apartment where we would sleep like sardines. I would need to locate candles. And then it dawned on us, more importantly, we needed to locate Taryn, another friend in town, scheduled to fly out that night, who at that point, was most certainly stranded as well.

As we turned down Thompson Street, I looked to the bench outside my building, and to my relief, saw that familiar head of brown curls, the lanky pair of legs and the converse high tops. She was there. We rushed to meet her, and for a second standing there, I felt like a mother bear, with all my cubs, safely in my care.

After a quick regroup, we pooled what cash we had in our wallets and split up. Kristina and Paul made a beer run to the deli and Taryn and I headed to Ben’s Pizza, that thanks to a wood-burning oven and a guy named Tito who had lived in my building for 25 years and was manning the door for the sake of crowd control, was one of the few places open for business. T and I lucked out standing next to a skinny, model couple that wasn’t as worried about eating as we had been. When they overheard our frustration at the 2-slice per person limit they said that we could have their extra two. So we split six between the four of us. We drank beers on my building’s front stoop and were content with plain old conversation as entertainment. Above us, the sky was one black dome of stars, which for anyone who knows this city, is a rare spectacle and one of amazing beauty. At one point, someone said they were worried there might be looting, like there had been back in ’77. I shook my head, knowing that after what we had been through two summers before, there was a solidarity in the city that no one, no matter how down-and-out they were, would dare disrespect.

After a second trip to the deli, not for beer again, but to lean, for a few seconds, against the cool refrigerator doors, Kristina and I stopped at a payphone at the end of the block to call our parents. In front of us, there was a man, that by the sound of it was also reaching out to a loved one. At his mention of being able to see the stars, I recognized his unmistakable voice as belonging to none other than Wallace Shawn. Well of course—because what’s a night in New York without at least one celebrity run-in, right?
In the stairwell of my building, a kind neighbor lit the way with votive candles that we were beyond thankful for, climbing four flights in pitch-black darkness. Inside my apartment, I lit whatever candles I could find, and we took turns taking cold showers. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve welcomed water at an Arctic temperature raining down on me. When it came time to go to sleep, Paul, for some odd reason, was awarded my twin bed, while Kristina, Taryn and I slept on layers of blankets and pillows spread out across the tiled kitchen floor. As with any slumber party, we stayed up talking until our eyes finally fell shut.

I look back on that summer ten years ago and think how lucky I was that the day a blackout hit, I had three friends there with me. When I would have been all alone, probably scared to death in the dark, I wasn’t. Would I have ever imagined, with the heat, the hunger, no money, no subway, that this saga would turn out one I’d someday laugh reminiscing about? Had you told me this was how it would unfold, I probably would have waved a hand, tossed my head and said something along the lines of such an idea being far-fetched, or “never in a million years.” Or maybe I’d just look back at you straight and say that I thought it was absolutely, totally and in all other ways, “inconceivable.”

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image – Trodel