Darkness in Good Guy Land

This is another first-draft segment from the forthcoming memoir: Fire Bone! When complete, the book will cover some of Bob’s adventures in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the U.S. Three other snippets appear just below this one. (Comments entered below on this blog are welcome, and all will be acknowledged.)

blackout[1]

© 2013, 2014 by Robert W. Bone

Everyone still alive who was residing in New York City that day has a story about the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965.

There was another power failure in 2003, which was a very different experience. But on November 9, 1965, the effect on New Yorkers was stronger. The lights failed during rush hour, just before 5:30 p.m. At that hour during the winter, the northeastern section of the U.S. is totally dependent on electric light.

Native New Yorkers especially felt that inconveniences affecting less fortunate parts of the country could not take place in their modern metropolis. Tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and power failures — these would not be tolerated within the Five Boroughs.

This collective hubris probably does not exist today. But in 1965 the blackout was a major shock to the psyche of a city of more than 6 million. Many – perhaps most – thought that such a thing could not take place in New York simply because it had never occurred before.

As it happened, I had a grandstand view of the island of Manhattan from the 32nd floor of the Time & Life Building at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue. The normal work hours of the Time-Life Book Division, where I was a junior editor, were 9:30 to 5:30, so nearly all were still at their desks.

I first heard researcher John Hochman say, “The lights are dimming all over New York!” So I stepped over to look through the windows in a large corner area where John’s desk was among those of a half dozen other researchers. Everything looked normal at first. Then I was rewarded with what appeared to be a blanket of total darkness suddenly thrown over the entire island of Manhattan.

There was complete silence for a second or two – no talking, no clatter of electric typewriters. Then one young woman’s voice bordered on panic: “I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” she repeated.

After a few minutes, someone found a transistor radio, and that nascent feeling of dread was compounded when only static was heard. Then a far-away station sputtered to life, its announcer reporting nothing more enlightening than what we could see — or not see — for ourselves.

We learned later that in the blacked out area of 80,000 square miles, and populated by about 30 million people, some were helped by a bright full moon. But here amid the looming dark skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan, the blackness was penetrated only by the lights of vehicles on the streets far below us, now all jockeying with each other at intersections for which there were no traffic signals.

On the 32nd floor, some uneasy good humor began to return. Bottom desk drawers were being opened and alcohol began making appearances as editors, writers, researchers, artists, and others began trying to take it all in stride, joking nervously while passing around paper cups of whiskey, Cokes, and whatever snacks could be found and shared.

Elevators did not work, and for the first half hour or so, everyone on our floor seemed to believe that there was no reason to take the staircases to join the chaotic scene down on the street. Some local radio stations began returning to the air on emergency power, and we found we were not alone, with reports of outages coming from as far away as eastern Canada.

Click for larger view.

A Manhattan snack bar with a lantern, 1965.

We were encouraged to see that across the Hudson River some lights were glowing in New Jersey. And after an hour or so, some of us gave up waiting and began the trek to the street via the emergency stairs. I think that tiring descent took me almost an hour.

I couldn’t contact Sara, who was at work at BIDO, the British Industrial Development Office on Third Avenue. But almost everyone had already left that office except Sara and one lone Englishman who had just arrived that afternoon from London.

The Englishman had never before set foot in the United States. Sara said that he seemed to believe that perhaps this sort of thing happens frequently in foreign cities like New York and maybe New Delhi.

In any case, the gentleman had no idea how to find his hotel in this dark foreign city. So Sara invited him to dinner, as long as he was willing to walk with her to reach our apartment on West 21st St. About the same time, I began my own trek south from West 50th street. I don’t believe I had ever walked about 30 New York blocks or so before. I was surprised at how relatively painless it was as compared with descending the stairs at the Time-Life Building.

As Sara and the Englishman made their way to the West side, they heard WMCA’s “Top 40″ disk jockey Dan Daniel’s cheerful voice coming from a radio in a bar:

“Yes, folks, the lights are still out. The lights are out all over Good Guy Land!”

“My goodness,” her companion said, his fears apparently confirmed. “Where is Good Guy Land?”

Sara’s brother, Ian, also showed up at our place, with his own reports. He said he had observed a drunk directing traffic at a major intersection, and that the drivers of all vehicles were paying strict attention and following his directions.

Since we lived on the ground floor, there was no elevator problem at home. And Sara managed to cobble together some sort of a hot meal on our gas stove. We lit a candle and some light leaked into our place, perhaps from battery-operated bulbs on the 20th street fire house across our back garden, and maybe a little bit of that full moon after all.

After power was restored in the morning, it was discovered that the city’s crime statistics took a nose dive during the blackout. Apparently just about all New Yorkers, rapists and muggers included, had been sufficiently awed by this heretofore unthinkable event in the “Greatest City in the World.”

But, of course, that was then. Nearly a half century ago.

skyline

3 Comments

  1. jules older says:

    I was on the 6th floor near Washington Square Park, seeing a therapy patient.

    He said, “It’s dark.”

    I said, “It’s dark.”

  2. I was at my desk in a literary agency on Fifth Avenue at 47th Street. A co-worker’s first thought was that the Soviets had attacked. (If the Reds *had* attacked, they would have had to pay a small-time capitalist five or ten bucks for a flashlight just like everyone else.)

  3. Dick says:

    (Bob, back to reading…) From dark humor to good humor in the (whisky) still of the night…! Must have been a bit unsettling, indeed. Fascinating.

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