Where Was I When the Lights Went Out?
This week is the 50th anniversary of the first New York City blackout. I was a welfare caseworker back then, and in the late afternoon of November 9, 1965, I had just taken the L train to Union Square and transferred to a Number 4 to Brooklyn, feeling lucky because I managed to beat the rush hour and had a seat. By the Wall Street stop the train was packed. Then, halfway under the East River tunnel the lights flickered and the train stopped.
Five hours later we were still stuck in the tunnel, without a clue as to what was going on. Finally a transit officer came through the car and announced that the entire Northeast was without power and there was no guarantee that help would be coming anytime soon. However, passengers had the option to walk through the tunnel to the Clark Street station. Responding to the chorus of groans, he assured us there was no danger of our getting electrocuted by the third rail. “But the rats!” my neighbor shouted. “No way!” I, however, was first in line to walk to that front car, descend into the tunnel, and follow the worker’s flashlight beam. It wasn’t bravery. It was a by-then desperate need to, as we say in the Midwest, go to the biffy.
I remember the couple that drove a carload of us home. I remember the people directing traffic at each intersection. I remember a certain camaraderie. Even the people on the train who had to stand through this entire ordeal did not cause a rumpus. The one thing I don’t remember is being afraid (well, with the exception of the rats). The strange thing about memory is that the entire experience was pretty much reduced to my need to pee. Now, as I look back on the bigger picture, a far different story emerges.
Here’s what was happening in New York City in 1965: Riots in Harlem and Bed Stuy over police brutality. The assassination of Malcolm X. The Wiley-Hoffert murder trial (two young women stabbed in their apartment). The Kitty Genovese murder trial (a woman stabbed on the street while neighbors ignored her cries). Shocking headlines: City in Crisis!” “Marauding Negro Hordes!” “Fear Enters the Bloodstream of the City,” “Can New York Be Saved?” The campaign theme of the newly elected mayor, John Lindsay: “Something has gone out of the heart and soul of New York City.” And who can forget the disembodied voice heard every night on the radio: “It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”
Fear did not grip the citizenry on the night of November 9, 1965. No riots, no spike in crime, no public apathy. The legitimate heart and soul of the city was on full display, shining through that very dark night: people helping each other, inconveniencing themselves, crisis camaraderie. And that experience has been repeated a number of times since then. Today I’m not afraid of my fellow citizens. I’m afraid of the city I love being turned into a billionaire’s enclave. Now, that’s scary.
November 10, 2015