The Black-Out

by Jonathan Wallace

The first thing we noticed was that the traffic lights had all gone out. It took a while after that to become aware that the lights inside the stores and buildings weren't working either.

If you had stopped me on the street a week earlier and asked me what would happen if the traffic lights went out simultaneously all over New York City, I would have answered that there would be chaos. People would start driving anywhere they wanted, at excessive speeds, and would start colliding with each other.

The opposite happened. In the South Bronx, where I was, the traffic all slowed down and began regarding each dead light as a stop sign. Every driver stopped at an intersection, checked all four corners, made eye contact with every other driver and pedestrian, then went when it was safe. I never saw the streets of New York City so calm and orderly as they were the night of the black-out.

I was aboard a 911 ambulance. After September 11, all EMT's wait for the "next big one." That Thursday, we were all asking ourselves if this was it. The news radio stations were all off the air. Our dispatch radio was working and information came filtering in, that the black-out was city-wide, state-wide, covered the entire Eastern seaboard. I had jagged edges of thoughts: had terrorism caused it, would there be other attacks or incidents, would there be looting.

I was most concerned by the thought of looting, because I remembered the black-outs of 1965 and 1997. I was here and ten years old for the first, away at school for the second, when within fifteen minutes of the fall of darkness people with trucks were already attaching chains to storefront security gates and pulling them off. Pictures of men wheeling refrigerators or carts full of televisions down the street.

The most disturbing thing about looting, in black-outs or moments of political stress, was the idea of people with so little sense of community or of the future that they would pull down their own neighborhoods. You will have a new television, but the main commercial strip in your area will be blasted for years to come. In the sixties and seventies we thought of the city as being less than an inch away from a state of nature at all times. The juice goes out and at once there are no rules except the law of the claw.

It was mid-afternoon and there was full sunlight, so instead of immediate fear there was a countdown: how many hours would it be until things really cut loose.

Sometimes you sit at an assigned street corner, but sometimes ambulance people drive around randomly while waiting for a call. It is the same reflex that makes you get up and walk around aimlessly for a moment when you have been working for hours at a desk. We were circling the neighborhood when a woman waved us down and told us that there was an elderly neighbor trapped in an elevator in a nearby building. She had been trying to call 911 but couldn't get through.

We told our dispatcher, who promised to relay the message to the police. We drove on and were a few blocks away when we heard another unit saying they had just been flagged down for a woman in a stuck elevator. (There were people trapped in elevators all over the city at that moment, and we heard many more such calls in the next few hours.) The other unit said they were going over to the address to stand by while PD or fire broke the door open, and it occurred to us we should do the same thing. We informed the dispatcher and went back to the building.

Several plainclothes cops were already there, banging on the door with a sledgehammer while the building's super gave advice. The hallway was entirely dark, of course, illuminated only by large flashlights held by several residents of the building. It is very hard, but not impossible, to break through an elevator door. During a brief break, I spoke with the woman inside and ascertained she was not in any physical distress. I asked her to come up the small circular window so I could see her. I shone my flashlight in and saw a grey-haired woman in her seventies. She went to the far wall of the elevator again so that the officers could continue their work without danger to her. After twenty minutes of hammering and slow progress, it occurred to me that they should break out the window. This would allow us to give her water and I could administer oxygen to her through the hole if she became short of breath. At my suggestion, the cops immediately smashed the glass, and a few moments later realized that this was the key to the problem. They were able to reach through and force the inner grille to once side. Then they were able swing the outer door open; some sort of safety device had kept the door locked as long as the grille was closed.

The lady came out and said that she was fine and not in need to any medical asssistance. We looked her over, agreed, and went back to the ambulance.

For the rest of our shift, we took frightened elderly people to the hospital. New York was full of old people who couldn't reach their apartments without an elevator, or who were afraid to remain there without power. Our first patient was sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. She only wanted us to carry her upstairs, but it wouldn't have been safe to leave her there in case she had a problem later. She needed some medication up in the apartment; we took her to the ER where they could provide it to her. Our next several jobs after that involved getting people downstairs who were frightened, feeling short of breath, and afraid they were goiung to have a medical problem in the course of the night. Sometimes we had to strap them into our "stair chair" and carry them down pitch-dark stairwells, illuminated only by a spouse or friend walking behind us carrying a flashlight. We went very slowly and leaned on the wall to maintain our bearings, as the light came in flashes, drowned too often by the shadows we cast. We counted the steps so we knew there would be fourteen to every landing and then we counted them out loud as we went down.

As evening came, stores were locking up everywhere, even the ones which usually stayed open all night; soon there would be no place left to get food. I had only some grapes left but I was high on adrenaline and not expecting to feel hungry any time soon. I kept wondering what kind of adventure and what danger the night held.

They had told us to expect to stay all night but unexpectedly our reliefs showed up at nine p.m. and the supervisor told us we could take off. I asked if I was needed anywhere else and he shrugged and said that due to the breakdown in communications he really didn't know. My partner had a car and was driving back to Brooklyn. We hit no traffic until we were in lower Manhattan, where everything ground to a halt. We exited the FDR Drive and made through the streets towards the Manhattan bridge. There were crowds of people walking slowly home to Brooklyn and others who had given up and were sitting or lying on the sidewalks. Everyone's mood was festive and kind; we didn't see any anger or aggression anywhere.

It was eerie to see Manhattan so dark, but it wasn't entirely so; many buildings have their own generators so there were pools of light here and there. We inched across the Manhattan bridge. My partner was heading deeper into Brooklyn and I realized I could walk home to Brookyn Heights faster than he could drive me, so I got off and joined hundreds of others who had just walked back from Manhattan. It was now almost midnight. As I passed the Brooklyn bridge, I saw that they had closed the lane into Manhattan and converted it into a walkway. On September 11 it was the lane coming out of Manhattan that was thronged with refugees.

The following morning I listened to a battery-operated radio and heard that the power was starting to come back on but that there would be no subway service available until late that night or even the next morning. I waited by the Brooklyn Bridge for more than an hour, hoping to see one of my company's ambulances. Minutes after the traffic lights came back on, I hailed an ambulance heading to uptown Manhattan. From there I walked across the Third Avenue Bridge and up to 149th street in the Bronx. The power was still out. I caught a city bus the rest of the way to my hospital. The ride was free. All that day, until the power came back, we took more frightened elderly patients to the hospital.

That was my black-out. In 1965, when I was eleven, the power went out on the entire East Coast and I sat frightened in my kitchen the whole evening, nearly overthrown by the idea, which had never presented itself before, that the solid foundation of the world might be no more than a thin easily cracked layer. At one point, a neighbor's child came by with his mother, bringing candles to everyone on the block, and I envied them for being merry, calm and compassionate when I was frightened and immobilized. If you live long enough, you have at least a shot at becoming everything you want, so I am pleased I was able to spend the black-out of 2003 outdoors in the South Bronx.

Recently, I re-read The Bonfire of the Vanities, which I thought was a fine, almost Balzac-quality novel when it first came out. It hasn't aged well. It portrays a South Bronx where the young black and Hispanic men all swagger (Wolfe calls their walk "the pimp roll") and where white people who must work late in the city courthouse "wagon train" their cars from the surrounding streets into the parking lot. When the protagonist, after picking up his mistress from LaGuardia, takes a wrong turn and winds up in the neighborhood, where two young black men stop his car and attempt to rob him on an entry ramp to the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Although it was written in a more violent time, the novel uncritically adopts many of the stereotypes of the time. Wolfe has most of his black characters speaking an embarassing transliterated jargon or patois. The South Bronx is presented as a state of nature, a jungle where whites enter at their own peril, where the natives, pimps and drug dealers for the most part, are colorful, interesting and vicious. I can't speak for what the Bronx was like twenty years ago, the era in which the novel is set, but I wonder how much time Wolfe actually spent there. The Bronx I know is inhabited by people, not stereotypes, and I have never felt in danger there, even when I go into projects in which I am the only white person in sight. My Bronx is full of people eager to help: to guide us to the sick or injured person we have come to find, and then aid us in getting him out to the ambulance. Even when he is a stranger to them.

I have a very strong sense that this is a city of more human interconnection, less violence, fewer racial divisions than before. When the black-out began I looked forward to finding out whether I was right about this or not: looting, or its absence, would help answer my question. I am always ready to discover that I am hopelessly naive about human nature, so when there was little looting I was greatly pleased to find out that I was not widely off the mark.

While September 11 reaffirmed that all New Yorkers are on the same team, we had been discovering that for decades before. We share interests, listen to common music, like the same actors, wear the same clothing and speak the same slang, none of which was true in 1965. Our workplaces are integrated, even if our neighborhoods are not. Renan's statement about nationhood is applicable here: that communities are based on a shared remembering and forgetting. Today, the things we have in common are more in the front of our minds than the terrible things which happened or were done and which divided us before. We speak to each other in the subway--to complete strangers--without expecting or receiving hostility or condescension.

This represents an admirable triumph of common sense, and it would be nice to see it spread everywhere. I always wanted the world to make more sense over time, and I am glad when it does.

Another more sinister type of interconnectedness was revealed when problems in Ohio pulled down the electrical grid across much of the eastern part of the continent. The grid is no safer or more rationally run than it was in 1965. After an initial fluctuation in Ohio, turbines everywhere else apparently switched off to avoid reaching a dangerously high frequency. The sending of electricity from state to state is reportedly much more common than before, but nothing special has been done to make the system strong enough to handle it. And the utilities have been left to themselves by government to determine the rules. New York City may not have been, but the electrical industry is in a state of nature.