A month ago, sitting on the uptown train, the lights suddenly went out in Penn Station, followed by the emergency lights, and then the lights on the train. After a Dalek-like voice asked us to exit the building, I began to suspect a local blackout. It turned out to be a little bit more complicated than that – surely also suspect to a number of conspiracy theories, though I am inclined to doubt it was anything that serious.
I had just had a friend over, and had dropped her off at the Long Island Railroad platform from which her train was departing, and as I sat down on the train I started thinking about what I was to be doing that evening. The lights turning off came as a bit of a surprise, of course, but what came as more of a surprise was the emergency lights cutting out as well. A pity, I thought, that there were such problems at Penn Station. Followed immediately by the thought, “Is this train going to get going now or what? I ran to make it and now it’s just sitting here?”
It would continue to sit – the doors didn’t close, and the lights turned off in the train as well. It was then that I began to suspect that the problem might have been a bit more serious. It was also then that the voice, ever so reminiscent of 60’s television program Dr. Who came over the PA system and gently told us to get out as quickly as possible. Well, it didn’t really say to get out quickly – but it was rather insistent that we get out. If you’ve ever seen the Daleks, you know it’s not a good idea to try to say no to them, particularly when they have that gun pointed at you that flashes a color inversion for a few seconds before killing you in some mysterious manner.
As luck would have it, there was a gentleman who was either a smoker or who had recently attended a rock concert, for he took a lighter out from his pocket. Between the man with the lighter and the light coming from upstairs, we somehow managed to make it outside. Coming outside, I was suddenly confronted with two gentlemen who assumed that I was fluent in the Hebrew language because I have a moderately Jewish appearance. Unfortunately for them, I have a much better grasp of the Romance languages than of the holy tongue, as it is often called, and so I had to work with them in English. I guessed that their French was probably as good as my Hebrew.
Walking along 7th avenue, I overheard a few people talking about how there was a blackout and that none of the subways were running. I looked up and suddenly realized that not only was the Madison Square Garden sign turned off, but all of the traffic lights were not on as well. My stomach sank as I began to think about the possibilities. With September 11 less than a month away, could this be some kind of new strike? For the past couple of years I have been hearing reports about security around power plants being increased and how there was some concern about nuclear power plants in particular being vulnerable to attack. I tried to reassure myself that perhaps this was not the case, that it was just a blackout and nothing to worry about.
I began walking back to my friend Joe’s apartment, where I have been staying, to try to perhaps get a hold of Joe. I had purchased tickets earlier to see Avenue Q, the musical, with Joe and my first inclination was to go up to get the tickets so that when the power came back on (I imagined it would be a matter of an hour or two) we would not be scrambling to get to the theater on time. Around 48th street I suddenly received a phone call from my friend Jessica, who was still at Penn Station and in a state of panic. I told her that I would come and find her – and so I tried to do. I ended up walking around Penn Station for an hour and a half before finding out that Jessica had made it back to Joe’s apartment. This left me with little option other than to walk the 55 blocks back to the apartment.
It was one of the slowest, longest walks I have ever taken in my entire life. This was partially because of the fact that it was a length of 55 blocks. It probably also had to do with the fact that there were so many people on the street at the time that would normally be at their place of work or riding on the trains. There were just so many people everywhere that it wasn’t all too easy to keep up a good pace. This was when I had a second pang of fear that there could be something foul afoot. What better way to spread a deadly airborne disease amongst millions of people than to get such a blackout into being, thus having everyone on the streets and rather vulnerable and open to attack, I thought. Thank G-d, this did not come to pass. A few people tried to sell me flashlights, and there were the standard water merchants that seem to pop out of nowhere in times of such need, but nothing hostile.
Over the course of the walk, I continued thinking about the possibility that this was another attack, and the ramifications of that possibility. I reflected on the September 11 attack of two years ago, and how much has changed since then. Perhaps even how much has not changed. It seems that we have been in a constant state of war since then, with no end in sight. Then again, I was terrified in the eighties that the cold war would end in some sort of nuclear holocaust. I wasn’t even pronouncing the word correctly (and still probably do not) and yet this was what worried my young mind. Thankfully, that did not turn out that way at all.
By the time I had gotten back to the apartment, I had already heard several conflicting stories of what was going on. All of them seemed to agree that power would not be seen until at least the next morning, if not the next afternoon or night. Someone mentioned that problems could have started as far out as Michigan, which was problematic for me to hear, since I’m still not entirely clear on where Michigan is. Geography has never been my strongest suit. Sometimes I get lost in Chinatown! In any case, none of the reports that I was hearing had anything to do with any sort of terrorism – it was more to do with the fact that we use an antiquated power distribution system that is apparently not exactly perfect, so to speak. That so much of the east coast of the United States was completely without power testifies to this fact.
Only a few days after the blackout, there were already t-shirts for sale bearing the slogan, “I survived the NY Blackout 2003”. People began talking either about how well prepared the city was, or how poorly prepared the city was, depending on the point of view. We should only hope that such a thing should not happen again, if only to spare us of more ridiculous t-shirts with slogans on them.