Science & Spirit: New York City Sees Stars

During this summer’s blackout in the Northeast, stars-and native New Yorkers-came out, both dressed in their finest.

November/December 2003

In the first few hours of August’s blackout, my father, a Brooklyn native and survivor of two massive Manhattan power failures, said to me, “I’ve always said that a candidate for New York City mayor would win if he could guarantee us two blackouts a year.”

Though I doubt purveyors of fresh fish or those stuck underground in subways would agree, the people in my downtown neighborhood might. People spilled out of bars and sidewalk cafes, drinking by candlelight on owner-extended credit, enjoying the balmy night and the aura of mellow excitement that comes from surrendering to an unexpected change in routine.

This tone was the antithesis of the last major citywide change in routine. During the days and weeks following September 11, my neighborhood and its people were a post-apocalyptic mess. It was what New York-based clinical psychologist Elizabeth Goren called, “a total sense of death immersion,” during which we were all, literally, steeped in the smoke, smell, and taste of trauma, horror, and death.

In contrast, Goren, who did extensive counseling with Ground Zero workers, firefighters, and victims’ families after September 11, called the blackout “a positive crisis with a sense of order.” She noted that even the most urbanized New Yorkers have a mental blackout checklist to help them feel safe and in control: batteries, candles, flashlight, radio, water, food, patience, kindness.

And with September 11 behind us, that list seemed like benign simplicity. “Having coped with September 11, the loss, the terror, the magnitude of it, we could see the smallness of this inconvenience,” said Hara Estroff Marano, editor at large at Psychology Today magazine.

Marano, who had just perfected a particularly difficult passage of writing on her computer when the power quit said, “Everything went out in one huge exhale.” Her first impulse was to curse loudly into the silence.

Like many people in eight states and two countries who heard air conditioners hush and saw lights and office equipment cut out at 4:11 p.m. on August 13, Marano’s first thought was: terrorism. She was in New York on September 11, 2001-her apartment overlooked the towers; she cried for days. But once she learned this was a large but ordinary blackout, she relaxed and prepared for the four-mile walk home to Brooklyn, seeing it as an opportunity for exercise. “Grid failure” is soothing compared to “under attack.”

This flinch-relax reflex was common among New Yorkers, said Dr. John Draper, director of Lifenet, a mental health hotline run by the Mental Health Association of New York City for those suffering post-September 11 trauma. Lifenet has not experienced a surge in calls since the blackout, Draper said, even though this year overall, call volume spiked twenty percent from last year. Though some September 11 survivors were badly shaken by the blackout, the stresses of everyday life like losing a job or going through a breakup have been more potent triggers, Draper said.

The blackout may have actually helped those traumatized by months of living in “orange alert” and through the events of September 11, he added. “People talked about feeling a sense of community during the blackout,” said Draper. “This lets people know that when the going gets rough, people are there for each other. This might be reassuring.”

Kindness indeed abounded. New Yorkers showed again that northern hospitality isn’t sweet, but it is sincere. We’ll tell you to get out of our way if you’re in it, or lean on the horn if you’ve dallied a millisecond at a green light, but we are kind and flexible when it matters most. Pedestrians directed traffic through gridlocks that were a city planner’s nightmare. At a 24th Street beauty salon, a woman with foil wrap in her hair wearing an “I Love New York” T-shirt smiled and waved. On Bleecker Street, sandwich store owners gave away melting chocolate and cherry gelati. For days, stories surfaced of people driving strangers home, carrying disabled neighbors up many flights of stairs, and opening their homes to the stranded or scared.

On Marano’s walk home, one aggressive driver was pushing through the chaos caused by the lack of traffic lights. When she raised her palm to stop, he leaned out the window and deadpanned, “But I’ve got the light.” They both laughed.

She made it home, called her family, and relaxed. Sitting in a candlelit glow, she thought, “This is a beautiful moment. I hope people can see it like I can.” Outside, “other people’s candles sparkled like jewels in their windows,” she said. For her, this quiet night was nothing like September 11: “The only similarity was that something happened that wasn’t planned.”

While many found solace in solitude and each other, I saw plenty of New Yorkers also turn to another familiar city comfort: alcohol. About 150 patrons at the Ear Inn near the Hudson River sat outside in chairs pulled from the sweaty bar, downing still-cold Heinekens and wine. The hostess-or maybe just a cute girl being nice-set down a glassed-in candle next to each cluster of friends.

When the sun set behind the silhouette of New Jersey across the river and the streets got dark, I had the thought. “Oh my God,” I said, looking at faces bathed in flattering light. “Stars.” We looked up and there they were, like mythic gems not seen since 1977 or 1965 or the late 1800s: constellations in Manhattan. One friend who was either drunk or astro-savvy, or both, pointed out the Big Dipper, Gemini, and the Little Dipper. I was giddy with the excitement of a natural world permeating the city I grew up in and love. Like watching a beloved reveal a new kind of genius you knew was in her all along, sleeping.

Dropping one woman off at her door with a flashlight, three of us set out to see more. Remembering, thankfully, how fleeting this would be, and how magical.

The West Village was silky and dark. When we crossed into the East Village it felt like stepping into a can of jumping beans. People sat in circles on sidewalks, passing bottles, drumming, telling stories while wax melted on the ground. The few lights here and there stood out like midwestern hills. Police set red, sparking flares on the streets. On Seventh Street a guy hooked a light and a mirrored disco ball outside his car, turning a building across the street into light-dappled water. Tompkins Square Park was delicious, relaxed anarchy. Bonfires raged in garbage cans, drums pounded, people danced. One friend gathered abandoned phone books for kindling. Hundreds cheered a handsome, shirtless fire-twirler for his deft between-the-legs, over-the-head, non-stop rhythmic flame-spinning.

Of course it was not all fun for everyone. Local phone and cellular lines jammed. Thousands slept on sidewalks outside non-functioning Times Square hotels, Penn Station, Grand Central, and La Guardia airport. A handful of stores were looted. A friend’s co-worker was robbed of everything, including his two-year-old daughter’s clothes. The Fire Department responded to sixty serious fires, some caused by candles-six times the usual amount. According to The New York Times, 911 received 90,000 calls, triple the average, and completely shut down three times during the night.

The next electricity-free day New Yorkers woke on roofs, sweaty sheets, and hard sidewalks to their most trying test yet: NO COFFEE. The few places with power and coffee-making abilities had block-long lines of hung-over, cranky, caffeine-addicts jonesing for a fix.

By Monday, though, even this glitch was a dim memory as people swapped stories in animated tones-the absolute opposite of solemn post-September 11 storytelling. My friend Michael told me he hopped on the back of a friend’s Harley and cruised through each borough. “Broadway was like a dark country road,” he said. “It was one of the most fun nights I’ve had in a long time.

“It was good to see New York pushed off its perch and a little bit vulnerable,” he added, “in a non-threatening way.”

In my yoga class the teacher, Brian, asked cheerfully, “Who had a fun blackout?” Hands went up and a murmur of about twenty-five yeses went through the room. Blackouts teach us to be flexible and let go, he said. Marano, the editor, echoed this sentiment: “It’s the same with rainy days. I hate what they do to my hair too, but they also remind us that we’re not in control.”

© 2002 Science & Spirit Magazine. All rights reserved.


Valerie ReissScience & Spirit: New York City Sees Stars

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