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Published on September 27, 2003

Blackout

Yes, I was there.

I was at the Museum of Modern Art, in Queens, with a dear friend who was in the process of explaining why Ansel Adams' photographs on display look as crisp as they do, both of us so engrossed in this learning process that we barely noticed the lights dimming, then going out completely. Soon enough, very serious security officers ushered us out of the museum, with a tone of urgency that left at least myself slightly uneasy.

Once out, the scene was alarming: the streets were brimming; pedestrians overflowed from the sidewalks onto the sardine-packed roads, making traffic impossible; subway exits were pouring more sweaty New Yorkers out onto the city pavements, informing anyone who attempted entry that the subways were not operating; eight out of 10 people stood fiddling with their cell phones, an expression of confusion and disbelief visible on their faces -- all lines were dead. In fact, in a matter of minutes, the entire city seemed paralysed, and the worst part was that nobody knew why. Terrorism? Quite honestly, that was my first thought.

Soon enough though, and bit by bit, we began to comprehend what had happened, and also began realising that, just like all other carless New Yorkers (by far the majority) our own two feet were the only option if we hoped to ever make it home. Even cabs could not operate for fear of running out of gas and gettting stuck in whatever part of town they happened to be in, since gas stations were not functioning.

In moments like these, when the authorities advise you to buy lots of water, you try to put aside whatever distrust you may generally have in authorities, and you just buy the frigging water. And so, everybody was buying water at the same time from the very few stuffy shops (no electricity, no air-conditioning) whose doors were still open, the majority having decided -- for practical and security reasons -- to call it a day and let the employees figure out how they would get home. Another problem was, however, that most people in the West -- at least in New York -- do not carry cash anymore, but credit cards (no electricity, no credit cards), which means that they could not afford buying that many candles, torches, or bottled water for that matter.

Once we had answered nature's call, following long queues to use dark and unflushed public toilets, and bought four bottles of water plus a banana each, we were ready for the big trek -- from Queens to Manhattan's upper west side. And thus a fascinating journey began on this hot and humid day.

If you saw the sea of humans walking across Queensboro Bridge on TV, you should have looked very closely, for surely you would have found two clowns goofing amongst the hordes of mostly lively people taking the hike. The most amazing detail about this blackout day is that despite the immense inconvenience and, in some cases, danger, it posed to New Yorkers, I can only remember a jovial atmosphere permeating the day. Of course there were those for whom one's heart ached: not only could an octogenarian lady we passed on the bridge barely walk, but she was also physically unable to drink from her water bottle without a straw. The beautiful thing is, however, that immediately after my spirits plummeted seeing her ordeal, they rose right back up again when I saw how many strangers had tried to locate a straw for her in the midst of the pandemonium that affected them equally.

But it wasn't until sunset that the festive spirit was really unleashed. We had been walking an insane distance when we finally reached Central Park. My flip-flops having caused blisters on my poor feet, I just took them off and strode down the staircase leading to the fountain barefoot. The sight of so many dogs splashing in the water (as half of New York seemed to have decided the park was the best place to be for them and their dogs) made me delay dipping my feet in the water until I got the dirtiest look from a lady sitting next to me who happened to glance at them. That was it -- the feet had to be washed instantly.

That day was so much like a movie, or a dream, that I don't even recall if we crashed on the lawn of Central Park listening to a live concert by the Indigo Girls before, or after, the dirty look about the feet. What I do vividly remember is that by the time we left the park, it was nightfall. And this is when the day took a really surreal turn. Why? Just imagine New York City, with all its flashing lights and neon signs; its theatres, cinemas, restaurants and ads; its hotels and cars -- imagine all of this city in the dark, and only the shimmer of candles on the steps of front doors glowing faintly, or a torch held by a little girl illuminating the way. Absolutely beautiful.

There was a little left to walk when we passed by some youths who had obviously gathered all the beer they had in their fridge, put them in ice boxes, and were selling them for five dollars on the street. Such individual efforts, and a few pizzerias running on gas, were the only remaining source of food and drink until further notice. True, we refused to stand in those extensive lines leading to the mouth- watering pizza smell wafting through the air, but we could not resist the cool beer which had us singing Those were the days my friend all the way home on our tired soles.



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