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The Rediff Special/Prem Panicker
August 20, 2003
At 4.11 pm August 14, the lights went off in our 24th Street office. By 4.20, we were out on the street, discovering the lights had gone off in the entire neighborhood.
By 4.30, the crowd outside our office - by now swelled to some three-dozen - knew that the lights had gone off in other parts of the city as well. 'I tried my home in the Upper West Side, lights are off there as well,' reported a colleague. 'It's gone in the Bronx,' said a girl who works in a neighboring office. 'Queens is out as well,' a passing stranger chipped in...
By 4.45, we knew the worst - a large swathe of America had been rendered powerless. We knew too it was not terrorists (It is a sign of the times, perhaps, that the first official pronouncement after the Blackout hit was aimed at reassuring New Yorkers their plight was not the handiwork of assorted nasties).
Once it was clear power was not coming back in a hurry, the building super decided he was going to shut the place down. There was no point in hanging around outside any more -- heading home seemed the sensible option.
I had company on the ten-block walk to my 34th street apartment -- Columbia University journalism Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan, interrupted in the midst of a presentation, was heading towards his home in the upper nineties, bulky laptop in one hand, doffed coat in the other.
The walk was largely an exercise in amateur juggling. Here's the trick -- you have books in one hand, office bag in the other, you are clutching them tight as you get jostled on all sides by New Yorkers spilling onto the streets in their hundreds and heading to all points of the compass, and the sweat on your brow is streaming down, steaming up your spectacles. How do you cope?
Damned if I know. Damned if any of us knew how we coped, on an evening that recorded the second highest temperature of the New York summer. Oh, you'll hear the stories in pitiless detail -- of the Indian lady caught on the 80-something floor of the Empire State Building and who walked down all those stairs, as warm up for the even more arduous trek home. Or of the guy who set out to walk to Brooklyn, or Queens, or Flushing, or New Jersey...
People will talk for hours, taking you through every step of the odyssey. You will listen, and tell war stories of your own, but after all that, you still won't know the answer to the question: How did people cope?
You just know - from having it proved to you for the nth time - when the going gets tough, people discover an inner core of strength and sensibility. And they cope.
I paused in my walking to watch, bemused, as a nattily attired man in front of me dropped his briefcase on the pavement. He stripped off his coat, his tie, his shirt. He bent to take off his shoes and socks. His pants followed. He was wearing green boxers with some kind of hieroglyphics on them (decency precluded an even closer examination). He rolled his clothes and shoes into a bundle, he tied the two legs of his pants together to form an impromptu knapsack, he swung it onto his shoulder, and he resumed his trek.
He was coping, in his own fashion.
There were crowds everywhere. For some reason, it seemed particularly dense on the road outside Andrews, the new restaurant next to the 34th Street Loews. I went to the periphery of the crowd, and found everyone craning towards a car parked by the kerb. Turned out, the car had its radio on full blast, and passers by gathered to listen to the news.
In front of them was Loews. Across the road was the Manhattan Center. A block or so away was Madison Square Garden. A stone's throw away was Times Square - the area is, in normal times, New York's playground.
Yet, on that day, it had all been neutered. What was left was technology at its most basic - a National Public Radio reporter, his voice crackling with static from the telephone he was using to call in his story, live, from Brooklyn Bridge; and a bunch of anxious citizens listening, via someone's car radio.
All it took, that day, was a wire snagging in a tree, to reduce life to a series of existential questions: Do we have enough water to last? Did you use the loo? Did you flush? You did? Oh - now we have no water, not a drop, except those three, four bottles in the fridge...
Back home, I emulated the man on the road. I stripped off the surface veneer of civilization as symbolized by my shirt, my jeans, my sneakers and socks. Wearing the barest minimum I could get away with, I sat down to ponder a conundrum: It is hot; heat means thirst; thirst means you drink water; if you do that you have to take a leak; if you do, you can't flush; if you don't flush, pretty soon the place will emanate the kind of smell that...
It was 12 minutes shy of 24 hours before power was restored to my building. For all that time, there was nothing to do but lie on the floor (as being cooler than a bed covered by a sheet made of some seemingly radioactive material) and think.
Of how civilization, when you cut through the hype and got down to brass tacks, was nothing more than something called 'electricity' running through a wire. Benjamin Franklin reportedly snagged a bit of that stuff, by means of a kite, from a passing lightning bolt long ago. His countrymen built on that to craft the most advanced civilization known to man. Today, millions of his countrymen were discovering comforts they take for granted hung on a thread as fragile as the one attached to Franklin's kite.
A funny feeling interrupted my eyes-closed reverie. I blinked my eyes open; blinked them again to take in the sight.
Hanging up there, proud now that she didn't have to compete with a few thousand neon signs, was the moon. It was the first time, in the nearly 12 months I have spent here in New York, that I was getting to see her.
She was beautiful that night.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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