blackout 2003–captions

When train doors slide open, the station platform goes from beige to black. It’s flooded with polished shoes; stick legs form an army ready to assemble.  From blank to bustling, in a moment.  And that’s how it happened.  Unlike a car gliding on its last fumes, slowing to a stall, things happened in a sudden.   In a moment, people everywhere looked up.

The overhead lights hummed orange; the temperature climbed.  Passengers kept calm, reading dog-eared books, squinting into their laps.  A women near the pole faints from anxiety, from heat.  It is contagious.  Subway cars beneath rivers are given priority; their passengers plunged into the darkness of the underground tracks.  Maneuvering over rails, arms outstretched, teetering for balance, they’re escorted by strangers.  Walking over faded food wrappers, searching for a face, someone to connect with.  This could be it.


Short order cooks sat.  Arms folded, white hats resting on knees.  Women in pearls escorted their Manolos down crowded streets, ruining their pedicures. Wide streets narrowed with throngs of people, their bags slung over their shoulders, cell phones in one hand, an overpriced bottle of water in the other.  Old ladies with fuchsia lipstick, penciled eyebrows, and burgundy hair direct traffic so furiously, their hair fans out like an opened umbrella—can’t help but hope that it’s all just bad luck.  People walking in bus lanes, buses too crowded with passengers, no room, wait for the next.  Radio City Music Hall marquee dark.  Traffic lights blank.  Times Square black.  “Bike for sale, $600.  That’s right, people, God turned the lights out. The end is near.” 

Men in dark suits, with their ties and jackets draped over a winged arm, walk face down with opened cell phones, text messaging, as if engrossed in a good book, using peripheral vision as a guide.  They have arrived: the end of the line for the public pay phone. Dress shoes were broken in.  Blisters. 

Lines for Mister Softee, for the bus, down subway stairs, for the ferry, of people in the street sandwiched between stationary cars.  People huddled in semicircles around parked cars with loud radios, as if the President had been shot.  Brownstone steps became porches.  This was not The South; this was Manhattan with candles. 

The jewelry district is closed.  Hassidic men stand in long navy lines, their white shirts stained with rings of sweat, like water on paper.  Just as cadets wait to be bussed off to a co-ed social, a small army of men line up neat as matchsticks on the sidewalk, hats intact, waiting with anticipation and hot palms for their big yellow bus to take them home.  Their display windows have been cleared; vaults are filled.  The doors to camera stores near 42nd street have been locked.  “We Are Open” signs have been turned.  A graveyard of standing cardboard signs is all that’s left in their windows.  ‘Panasonic’, ‘Sony’, ‘New!’, ‘Ask for Price’ stand alone, naked, their items removed with haste.  Looting Prevention. 

Central park has more heels than shoelaces, more nylon stockings than nylon shorts.  Dogs in Sheep’s Meadow race beyond NO DOGS ALLOWED signs. Ice cream vendors sell out their stock, push silver carts along the median of Park Avenue, smiling. Those who hated soda had one.  Those who favored chocolate were left with Toasted Almond. 

Some people live and sleep their work.  Unable to get home to Manhasset, to White Plains, to Livingston, they literally sleep at work. Wet with sweat, skin sticking to leather conference room sofas.  Outside Grand Central Station, businessmen sat on their laptops with faces of defeat. 

Over the Queensboro Bridge, New Yorkers shuffled, shielding their eyes with hand-visors, looking up.   Others looked down trying to stop the rocking in their heads, leaning over the bridge.  Motion sickness. Vomit.  A napkin and water from a stranger.  Passengers stranded in stalled subway cars on the bridge, pry open doors, sit on the edges, dangle their bare feet, wave to walkers and wait for heroes. 

People wishing they had dressed lighter, that they had a better cell phone service provider, that they owned a flashlight, that they had worn flats, that they had pressed ‘save’ on their computer, that they kept a car, that they lived on a lower floor.  Afternoon lullaby tapes go silent—the baby begins to cry. And so neighbors meet for the first time, in the dark, sharing a candle up shadowed stairwells, whispering by default.  Invited into a stranger’s apartment, while previously you barely took a moment to nod up from your paper to extend a half-smile and grunt a punctuated “G’morning” in the elevator. 

Without knowing how long it would last, friends tried to meet for drinks—take advantage while it lasts, like being excused from school early because of heavy snow, only for the snow to melt.  A free half day, timesheets would register, “other.”  Shared cabs, dinner tables, tabs, stoops, and sidewalk squares with strangers.  Chardonnay drinkers settled for Bud.  Ex-boyfriends showed up uninvited contesting they were worried.  Half the city got drunk and peed in doorways.  The city was suddenly a Frat party.  Drunks, people passed out, everyone had the munchies.

Ray’s Pizza did not overcharge.  They sold and made only their premium slices.  Sausage, mushroom, and pepperoni only.  Yes, all three.  The Gray’s Papaya line was just as long as it always was, the patrons now were in suits and frenetic.  Movies issued rain checks; restaurants offered wine and bread. Food was abandoned in darkened restaurant kitchens, left warm, as if preserved under glass—later thrown out along with all of New York’s milk.

White cotton sheets were plunged in basins of water, wrought out, and stretched across mattresses for comfort.  Making love with the lights on was not an option.  Although dark, this city of ours was lit up on the inside, like candles in a pumpkin.  New York a bright patina in the night sky—chin thrown out in defiance, fists raised in triumph.



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