Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Remembering the Blackout, 10 Years Later

Ten years ago today, I experienced the most epic night of my life in New York City.

It was the Blackout of 2003.

It was a year after I'd started a new job at Razor & Tie. Sitting in my cubicle, I watched the digital display of my phone disappear. The lights went out, but since it was late afternoon, we could still see the panicked looks on each other's faces.

It was less than two years after 9/11.

It was silent - eerily silent, especially for a record label office where literally every desk would normally be blasting different music.

We couldn't believe it.

We thought it was terrorism.

We looked around at each other.

And then I looked under my desk. I remembered something.

"I have vodka!" I shouted.

I'd gotten a free case of it when Nick Broomfield, the director of Biggie & Tupac, had appeared on the Carson Daly Show. He hadn't wanted any part of his gift basket (or to have to carry it back to England with him), so, as lead marketing person on the project, I inherited it.

One of the upper execs of the company, who I treated as my boss even though he wasn't actually my boss, asked, "Uh, Sandi, do you really want to drink right now?"

"YES." I responded, and began setting up my bartending station at the receptionist's desk in the front, appropriating the ice, juices, and cups meant for our conference room guests.

I served everybody: underage interns, assistants, radio promotion, product managers, sales, and myself. We were biding time. We were coping the only way New Yorkers know how.

When we were finally released from our duty and sent home, there was a caravan of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge home. Living in Greenpoint at the time, I could have joined them. Although in another borough, across the bridge and across the river, it wasn't actually that far.

But I chose to stay.

A splinter group of us went off to some Mexican restaurant nearby in the West Village, drinking margaritas we weren't charged for, and might never be charged for. I had a cell phone, but the network was jammed. I tried calling Freddy from a pay phone. It wasn't the first time I couldn't reach him since first dating him in May that year. I tried to check in with other friends, mostly to no avail, but I somehow managed to connect with my friend George, with whom I'd had plans to see a movie that night, and who'd been rollerblading around Lower Manhattan when the power went out. With no shoes in hand, he picked up a pair of flip flops in Chinatown and rolled on over to join us for margaritas and the Odyssey that we were about to embark on.

At some point, it started to get dark. Hours had passed, and the lights still weren't on. The quietude of the initial outage had given way to a different kind of buzz - the buzzing in our own ears, the chatter of speculation, the rumble of car engines whose drivers used their headlights to illuminate the road and their car radios to inform the entire neighborhood as to the latest updates.

We walked.

We weren't walking towards my home, but our group was heading towards the apartment of the girlfriend of a coworker - a safe place to go, a place with more alcohol, a cool courtyard, and plenty of room for our group.

We trudged up Third Avenue, not far from the bonfires of Tompkins Square Park, of which we were unaware at the time. Restaurants had hauled buckets full of beer and ice out onto the sidewalk and were selling bottles for $3 apiece, open container laws be damned. I bought a Corona but my thirst was soon eclipsed by my urgent need to pee, and it took very little begging on my part for a restaurant to not only let me in, but walk me back to their restroom, flashlight in hand, and then handed off to me so I could see where I was wiping.

We eventually made it up to the East 30s, where we cracked open a bottle of Jack. I laid my sweaty body upon cool cobblestone, and rocked back and forth. Near my 30 pound weight loss peak (in preparation for my 10 year high school reunion), I started doing yoga poses on the ground, demonstrating for the group, who egged me on. I kept trying my phone, hoping to hear from Freddy, hoping to hear from anyone, but nothing.

I had to pee again, so I brought my phone into Melissa's bathroom, and somehow while I was flushing the toilet, I dropped my phone into it. My drunken eyes couldn't quite understand why the light went out on my phone display as it sailed through the air into the swirling bowl.

"Shit shit shit" I muttered, retrieving the phone from its tidal pool and wiping off its dewy residue. Dead.

I returned to the courtyard with a story about dropping the phone in the sink and not the toilet, and kept trying to turn it on. It surely was a goner from the water exposure, the worst thing I could imagine happening during a blackout.

At some point - without my phone, I'd lost all sense of time - I'd given up on the idea of ever making it back to Brooklyn that night, so George offered to walk me through a darkened Times Square to his apartment in Hell's Kitchen. I remember the feeling of abandonment, isolation. Although I know now that there were hundreds of people stranded on the street from hotels whose electronic keys no longer admitted its guests into its rooms, at the time, I couldn't sense them. I didn't hear them. They silently awaited reentry, as we walked through them to George's place.

Upon arrival, George announced that he'd just made ice cream sandwiches that were in the freezer and would surely spoil if we didn't eat them right then and there. That was probably the best thing I ever tasted, credited either to George's culinary skills, or the urgency at hand, or the alcohol-induced hunger pangs, or the hours since wolfing down salsa and chips and licking the salt from the rim of my margarita.

George put me into his bed, while he slept on the couch, glasses of water by both our sides, a cold compress to alleviate the heat.

I woke up in my gym clothes, into which I'd changed somewhere around the first margarita, sweating in George's bed, into the harshness of daylight, and the deafening silence of a continued power outage. It was a weekday, and we wondered if we'd have to work, but it seemed that the power was still out everywhere.

We could stay in George's smoldering apartment, or we could venture out, and see if we could find power anywhere. We hatched a plan to walk me back to Brooklyn, or catch a bus, or figure out some other way there, to see what life was like on the other side of the river. We found an actual working ATM (a miracle!), and made our way to Queensborough Plaza - somehow - and a couple of hours later, Greenpoint. One of the Polish restaurants was actually serving ice in their water and cooking pierogies, which we ate voraciously, impressed by the industriousness of a restaurant actually open and operating despite no power to be found anywhere nearby.

We thought we were at our end of days. We'd already seen more in New York than we'd ever wanted to see, and I think we all thought we would eventually meet our timely or untimely demise there, surely there, if anywhere, then there.

And then, a buzz.

The noise of the city returned.

As the sun once again began to dip in the sky, the artificial light returned.

And George went back home to Manhattan.

And nearly 24 hours later, we returned to our lives, with our own lights, in our own apartments, sleeping in our own beds.

But for one night, we were one city - sharing beers, sharing beds, sharing light and news and fear and excitement and intoxication and bewilderment and wonder.