Sunday, August 17, 2003

The Citywide Blackout of '03
OR Electricity, Money Problems and My Landlord's A Dick

by Jessica Delfino

We lost electricity a little after 4 pm, just around the time the youth of America is about to take a hit for the clock's sake. We live in a tiny studio apartment on the upper east side; my fiance and I. A tiny studio apartment is just what it is, no description necessary. Things haven't been so easy for us since we decided to live with wild abandon at the same time in the same field in the same apartment. Work isn't as readily available as we'd like it to be, but it pops up amazingly, right when we need it most. As one friend put it, "You guys have the amazing talent of finding money right when you need to." However, the hiding places are thinning out, and when money runs low, the importance of paying the utilities takes the rear to more necessary things, like food and entertainment. This past month, the electric bill was not high on our list of priorities.

I turned and looked at my fiance with fear and anger in my eyes. "Did you call the electric company?" I asked. "Um...." he said. He didn't have to finish. "They left a message for you on the answering machine," he said. We argued for a few seconds about how it shouldn't ever be either of our responsibilities to have to listen to messages, when we heard one of our neighbors just start howling. I opened the apartment door and realized the lights were also off in the hallway. Relieved, I picked up my cellphone to call my landlord and give her a grade A bitching out.

Our apartment, besides being small, is a piece a shit. We don't get our mail in our mailbox because the boxes don't lock and the post office refuses to leave it there because it's constitutes some kind of federal violation like mail fraud or something. The landlord refuses to fix it because it will cost $800 and she won't spend that kind of money on the rights and regulations of her tenants, who she likens to gentile trash. So we all have to walk seven blocks every day or so to pick up our mail at the big post office, or else it gets returned to sender. What a bunch of bullshit. Add that to an unreachable superintendent, 5-foot ceilings, pet-sized bugs, heat when there should be a/c and double heat when there should just be heat, and you've got a partial understanding of how we live.

I dialed my landlord's number, which I have on speed dial, three or four times before I realized my cellphone couldn't connect. I started to get a bit nervous. No electricity, no service on my cellphone - then I heard the sirens. There are always sirens but living in New York, you develop a sense - like a mother being able to recognize the difference between a child's whining cry and a child's broken limb cry, I heard a real emergency in those sirens.

"Let's go downstairs," I said. "I think something is going on." I always think something is going on. I am Italian and I grew up in a big family where some shit was always going on. People were always getting locked into laundry mats, we had that one fucked up uncle who always showed up on a motorcycle with a makeshift weapon, the cops knew more than 2/3 of my family members on a first name basis - I guess all of those things combined or any one of them was enough to help me develop an ultra-sensitive intuition to the possibility of something going on.

Sure enough, just as my magic Italian nut family senses had told me, there was something going on, alright. It was like a scene in End Of Days or something. Everyone was standing out on the street, looking around like a meteor was coming. It was like we were having a block party except we were on the upper east side, and there was no music I didn't recognize or chicken-beef hotdogs or second-hand shirts for sale on hangers. My fiance and I walked down the road, twin smoking like Marge's sisters, listening to snipets of stranger's conversation and radio broadcasts. "Fire downtown - no electricity in all of Manhattan, in major cities all over the east coast, children stuck in an elevator, terrorism?" I started farting nervously and we made our way to our closest neighbor's house to co-miserate.

Upon realizing he wasn't home, we walked up to the Comic Strip. Air conditioning, cold beer, fallout shelter in the basement - it was the logical place to try to survive, if survival was possible. Within an hour, every comic and waitress who had ever set foot in the Comic Strip wandered in, confused, misdirected, desparate for that warm, empty, comfort-like feeling that being in a place of comedy gives us all.

We gathered our bearings and decided to just start cracking open some beers. We drank to eachother, to air conditioning, to fear of death, to not working, to the sorrow related to not working, to no lights, to hope for the return of lights and to the next beer.

Together, all of us - some of whom loved eachother and some of who didn't, chain-smoked, ate comfort food, gathered around the radio like it was 1956, heckled passers-by and tried to claim dibs on pieces of conversation that might or might not become bits at some point in the near future.

Around 11 pm, after a solid 6 hours of drinking, we all found ourselves drunk and bored. My fiance and I grabbed a couple of candles and made our way back to our 4-story walk-up apartment. At that point, even the safety lights had gone off and our stairwell was completely dark. Though it was darkety dark dark outside, one thing it wasn't was quiet. The streets were littered with beer bottles and candle wax and used-up batteries, but mostly lots of drunk buffoons, screaming up at the 3/4 moon like a bunch of banshees. People carried babies, flashlights, six packs, back packs as they walked up, up, uptown to their dark abodes.

My fiance and I made it through the mess and safely into our little cave. I found a huge candle that I got for Christmas - one of those numbers that comes in a huge jar and is named after some flavor I've never tasted, like Burgleberry or something. I did it with my fiance with the lights off for once, by candle light, which was not nearly as romantic as they make it seem in porn. Immediately after, I fell asleep to the sounds of smashing bottles and a guy playing the bag pipes. Every so often a group of nomads would howl and I would wake, thinking, the power must be on. But it wasn't, they were just howling because they could, for no other reason than because they wanted to.

I woke at 9:15 am and I wasn't sure which made me more disappointed - the power not yet being turned on, or the bag pipes guy having gone home. I thought about crying, then decided against it. I thought about going back to sleep, then realized I couldn't. I thought about making some coffee, then again, realized I couldn't. Just at that moment, the whir and fizz and rumble of all the electrical appliances I'd left on filled the room and all our possessions charged back to life, ready to serve us.

I got up and took a shower with the lights on, and it was like I'd never taken a shower before. I'm not going to end this story by saying something like, I never realized how dependent we all are on power in this day and age, or how cool it was that there was no looting, or how New Yorkers really came together and high fived eachother all night. I guess I will end it with my true feelings on the whole ordeal - I wish I'd seen the bolt of lightning that made that mess, and fuck PSE & G anyway, whether it was their fault or not.

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