Esquire, November 1995

The night the lights went out

One night, not long ago, as I lay in the dark, the Blackout came back to me. Every New Yorker knows what I mean by the Blackout. It is the New Yorker's equivalent of the assassination of JFK, a historical moment that was felt personally, yet collectively, and that seemed to turn the world upside down. Wasn't it, I wondered, exactly 30 years ago? The next day, indeed, the almanac confirmed a round anniversary under 1965: "Electric power failure blacked out most of northeastern US, parts of two Canadian provinces the night of Nov 9-10."

My role in the episode was a mod-est one. I was seven years old and living with my parents on East 96th Street and Park Avenue. At 5.27 pm, when the Blackout hit New York, like some Japanese movie monster, like Mothra or Godzilla, I was at home in our apartment watching television after school: probably The Sandy Becker Show on Channel 5, or some such rubbish. The picture disappeared into a grey dot.

Like everyone else, I became gradually aware and increasingly amazed that it was not just the apartment, the building, the block or even the neighbourhood that was without electricity, but the whole city. Instead of a tessellated fabric of incandescent light, all one could see out of the window, across Park Avenue, towards Central Park, was an infinity of dirty black monoliths, lit by a full moon.

Within three weeks of the Blackout, the New York Times published a quickie book called The Night the Lights Went Out, cobbled together from reports by its news staff. I hadn't seen it for 30 years, until, to my delight and astonishment, I found this rare ephemeron again in the British Library, a bound paperback with 158 crumbling pages. Putting aside serious work, I relived the Blackout, and lit an emergency candle in its honour.
At 5pm, electricity supply and demand were normal across the Northeast Power Grid. No one knew this until long afterwards (sabotage by communists or anti-Vietnam war students was immediately suspected), but at about that hour "a telephone-sized automatic control device" at a power plant in Ontario went wrong, setting in motion  snowball of malfunctions across the network, until most of the region, and all of its big cities, were without electricity. It was the biggest power failure in American history.

Worst affected were people on their way home from work, whether travelling vertically by elevator or horizontally by subway or commuter train. The book's reporting has the absurd, dated, scratchy tone of an old newsreel. "A 31-year-old slacks salesman, Martin Saltzman, spent six and a half hours squeezed in an elevator car with twelve other people near the 21st floor of the Empire State Building."

Eight hundred thousand people were trapped in subway trains, and had to be guided out of the tunnels along catwalks by guards with flashlights. Some people wouldn't leave motionless subway trains because they didn't want to walk home from "strange neighbourhoods", so they spent the night where they were, guarded by police.
It only lasted at the very most twelve hours, and power was restored to most parts of the northeast in a couple of hours. The very worst that happened to anyone was that they got stuck in something for longer than was convenient, although in the city's hospitals, "the emergency rooms were crowded with patients who had tripped over something in the gloom..." The telephones were even working throughout the crisis, because the Bell system used its own generators.

Yet for one night, all the rules and routines of the regimented consumerism of urban life were
repealed. The cheques at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York didn't clear. People slept on cots in the lobbies of expensive hotels, ate cold food by candlelight, and became actors in a group jeopardy drama that was not a movie. Commuters who had never spoken to each other in years of daily travel slept in each other's arms. While "one delighted lady, a guest of Bloomingdale's, stated that she had slept in a bed with an $800 price tag on it," United Nations Secretary General U Thant had to walk down 38 flight of stairs from his office suite in the UN building to the street. In one night, in a city of eight million, everyone acquired a story worth telling.