This week I was in NYC, and more specifically, at the Met when the power went out.
"No one should come to NY, unless they are very lucky." ~EB White.
New York is a great town to have a disaster (htm) in (this is my fourth, including two blizzards and a hurricane) and when the city shuts down (htm), people just hang out (htm) and get a drink (exceptions for those suffering in subways/elevators). In short, they drop the pretense, the worry, and get nice. New Yorkers help each other when they need to. And when was the last time you saw stars from Times Square, and I mean the real ones? So Thursday around 4pm at the Met, the only people with panic on their faces were the guards. They didn't know what to do when everything went dark. At the Boathouse, the electric toilets stopped working and all of them were filled within 15 minutes of powerloss.
We used the one GSM phone to get news from the west coast, and then walked to the sheep meadow, but not before strolling past a park warden who could see we knew what had happened, but that most of the people deep in the park did not. She said she just didn't have the heart to tell them. Further south at the meadow, people were hanging out on the shady grass, loosening their ties and taking off their wingtips, giggling, while thousands walked home from midtown, splitting east or west, nary a cell phone in sight. It was 5pm and already nervy guys with $10.00 beer in milk crates on luggage racks were rolling past. We snoozed. New York relaxes when it can't work and can't get media. We could smell BBQs. Frisbee was the name of the game, and getting high for many of the people around us, removing their ties and shoes and running through the warm breeze. (Does everyone in Manhattan bring pot to work? How did they know they would need it today? So clean cut. So nicely dressed. So prepared.)
Walking back to the hotel on 8th around 7:30pm, with very few cars, only the occasional caravan following a police car, people walking uptown everywhere but the center of the five lanes, police and ambulance lights now and then. Lots of people were chatting with the firemen at the station there, with it's doors open, a few suited women sat on the firetruck drinking beer. We seemed to be the only ones going downtown in a sea of people walking calmly in the sultry heat, uptown. Only a few places were open, mainly liquor stores and delis, with their refrigerators wide open dripping water, selling the last of whatever they had cold. We stopped to buy cold wine near the hotel, the last customers before rolling down their steel doors. At the NY Times across the street, we saw a friend who worked there, hanging outside with coworkers. They were only letting in previously registered guests, so we walked up to get food they had made on the third floor. At the bar, one of us went in, where she said she realized the depth of the crisis when the bar was pouring red wine into white wine glasses. We could see the bar jammed with drunk sweaty people and it appeared that most of the patrons were planning to sleep there. Bloomberg over the radio said that the power would be back on in Manhattan in an hour or two. We carried our loot all up many stairs to our room, dark but for the hall lights with the door open.
We ate good food (the Westin really rocked!) and drank good wine by candlelight, lying on our window seats, and watched too few candles in the thousands of apartments up the westside, stars up above. Down at the Port Authority, thousands of people were crowded around still dressed for the office, and straight down, we could see people bedding down on the sidewalk outside the hotel doors. At 5am, I looked out the windows at NY, dark but for the police lights, the people were still outside the Port Authority waiting to go back to New Jersey, lit up across the Hudson.
In the morning two of us walked downstairs to the hotel's breakfast and brought back food and got a little news (htm). One bottle of warm 1990 Dom Perignon (it was supposed to celebrate a big business deal the night before), some Sambuca, and wine later, we thought about taking all the pillow cases (there were 17 in the room), ripping them into shirts and writing in pen "I survived Blackout 2003" (htm) and selling them downstairs. Except we weren't done surviving it yet. So we packed, showered with cold water in the dark. At 2pm we called to ask the hotel, still with no electricity or hot water, whether we could get back into our room if we went to the airport and then had to return, and the front desk asked if we had requested a late checkout. Huh? We hadn't, but then we hadn't requested cold water and darkness either.
45 minutes after calling the one elevator to get us and our bags, giving away a Blackout 2003 care package to our nextstore neighbors in the hotel (bottled water, beer, Godiva chocolates, subway tickets), we got down to the street. People we'd seen the night before were getting out of cabs after a round-trip to Kennedy, saying that no flights were leaving and the police had turned them away, while others in their groups were yelling into cell phones at American and United agents who were telling them to go back to Kennedy. We decided to go, because Jet Blue and American assured us they were flying but the news confirmed only Jet Blue. By 3pm, the hotel, and 8th Ave, had just gotten power, but crossing 57th to Madison, we could see that most of Madison was still out. We called our friends at Newark, who told us that it was like nothing had happened there, no evidence of the blackout; they were boarding in a few minutes.
Arriving at the American terminal, the police told us no one was flying, and we should go back, but my friend went in, and found the American agents in the darkness yelling at people that only four flights would be leaving, filled with people scheduled from the day before, and people scheduled that day should go home, while there were other agents using battery operated electric bullhorns ordering people off the counters and the crowd to step back; the mob ignored this, getting uglier and continuing to surge the agents. My friend decided to come with me to Jet Blue, where we found Jet Blue actually flying out almost all flights. So we went in, and while I checked in for Oakland, my friend managed to get special services to let her onto a flight, even though there was no electricity in the terminal, no regular cell service, and no way to charge the ticket. But her GSM phone worked, and so she called 800-jet-blue, charged a ticket over the phone, handed the phone to Robert Murphy (an Analyst in Corporate planning working temporarily as a counter agent) in front of her, who hand wrote her a boarding pass, and we were on our way to security. The line snaked back and fourth with around 2000 people in it, just to get to security, but they were taking people on flights departing, so my friend, now flying to Long Beach which has a curfew, was pulled out and taken through. Oakland does not, so our flight didn't even have a gate yet.
A surging cheer ran through the crowd as the lights came on, and Jet Blue employees plugged in fans and pointed them towards the sweaty crowds. Announcements played continuously for people to get off the baggage carousels so the could be turned on. One of their Help Desk guys, working security and incredibly gracious with the crowd, wrote an L onto my hand-written boarding pass and let me through to the scanner area which I cleared an hour after our plane was supposed to depart. On the departure screen, my flight was listed as leaving On Time, with no gate. An hour later, we were assigned a gate, and 300 people went running for it. Arriving there, the agents repeatedly yelled for order, two lines, yelling at the crowd to step back. Most of the older people did, but with a bad PA system, and large rectangular columns, lots of people wanted to stay to hear what they were saying, but there were also about 60 people, age 20-25, mostly guys, who just kept pushing forward. I stood way to the side, out of the line. A lot of the people were from the two flights early in the day that had been cancelled. They were only going to take people confirmed on my flight first, so I would get on regardless.
The crowd was getting dangerous, so they called Jet Blue security, then Kennedy security, then the regular police, then the state policy. Finally, about an hour later, they started letting on parties of 4 or more. Everyone suddenly made a party of four, and tried to board, so they abandoned that after letting on a few families with little kids. Near 11 pm, three hours after our scheduled departure, they started boarding, but 15 people had snuck on who were not confirmed, so after we were all seated, they had to call roll, and managed to get 10 of them off, but then they had to start checking IDs and boarding passes, sweeping the plane, after midnight to get the last 5. Finally with the last five confirmed people boarded, they let us take off around 12:45am. We arrived into Oakland at 3:30am, and I was in bed by 5am. My LA friend was home at midnight, and left a message saying her plane was half full. We were lucky. Great trip, great wine, never bored.
Update 9/3/03: Found this on the internet.
10. Governor Gray Davis wanted to show that California's mess wasn't really his fault: see, there were blackouts on the East Coast too!
9. Overstressed computers in West Coast attempting to tabulate all the candidates for California Governor.
8. Osama bin Laden and his compatriots check into a motel in New Jersey and turn up the air conditioning *really* high.
7. All innocent persons on death row in Texas prison system electrocuted at once.
6. Justice Antonin Scalia seeks return to original conditions when Constitution was written.
5. Department of Homeland Security seeks to confuse terrorists by hiding location of New York City.
4. Liberal paranoia comes true as country is returned to Dark Ages.
3. Latest new excuse by Bill Clinton to explain to Hillary why he can't make it home for dinner.
2. President Bush attempts to divert electricity from middle class to the wealthiest 1 percent.
1. Fox News sues Con Edison for trademark infringement for using the word "con."