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The Indefinite Article.

Friday, August 15, 2003



It�s not very often that one gets a snow day in August, but today it was virtually impossible for most New Yorkers to get to work, making it the largest �snow day,� or power blackout in U.S. history.

Where were you when it happened? That is the topic of everyone�s conversation on the streets throughout the city. It was 4:10 p.m. and I was getting a signature from someone verifying that his plants had been taken care of for the day. He looked out at the digital clock at Penn Station to get the time so he could make a note of what time I had been there.

�Damn clock�s out,� he said. Just then, someone yelled down that the power had gone out in the building. �Must be something going on at Penn Station,� he said. �Probably another bomb scare.�

I started walking toward the office when I noticed people were suddenly spilling out of all the office buildings nearby. People were frantically waving down taxis.

�Power�s out all over the city,� I heard someone say.

A cop was standing on the corner of 34th and Seventh Ave. busily fielding questions from passersby. I asked him if the subways were still running.

�Yeah, they have their own generators, so service shouldn�t be affected,� he said.

I walked over to the A-C-E subway entrance and looked down the stairs. It was all dark down there and I could here a Metro Transit worker on the intercom below, �Everyone stay perfectly still! No one move!! We�re going to get you all out of here as soon as we can, but everyone has to be quiet and stop moving!�

Bad idea, I decided, and began to scan around for taxis. A few of them were still empty, but they were filling up fast. Then I noticed the traffic was coming to a standstill. Suddenly, I realized there were 9 million other people on the sidewalks with me and we were all trying to get out of Manhattan!

I�ll get there faster walking, I thought, and started to steer myself in a northeasterly direction. I walked 25 blocks north and seven avenues east, passing by Times Square, Grand Central, and Bloomingdale�s on my way to the 59th Street bridge.

People were very calm, almost too calm, I thought, considering this looks eerily like September 11 all over again. Still, it was a blessing to be surrounded by so much level-headedness in a situation where mob mentality could have easily ruled the day. Lots of people simply congregated outside of their office buildings, talking and smoking as though waiting for the power to come back on any minute.

Not me, I thought, the last place I want to be right now is Manhattan, and kept walking. Manhattan may be the only city in the U.S. where there are more pedestrians and mass-transit users than there are automobiles, a fact that quickly became evident as the amount of people on the sidewalks surged and overflowed onto the streets, taking up entire lanes of traffic with their thronging multitudes � the huddled masses yearning to be free.

People were in good spirits, smiling, even cracking jokes, stopping to buy ice cream from the traveling ice cream van (in times of crisis, business can be very good for a few � ice cream vendors were particularly fortunate on this 94 degree August day without air-conditioning).

As I approached the 59th Street bridge, I was quickly enveloped in such a mass of people as I had never seen before. I had caught glimpses of this sort of mass gathering at a few rock concerts, but this stretched the entire length of the 59th Street bridge, from Manhattan to Queens, on both the upper and lower levels.

�We�re packed in like sardines,� someone said good-naturedly.

Great, I thought, just where I want to be, suspended 100 feet above the churning waters of the East River with hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of cars packed in as tight as they could be. It looked sturdy though, no swaying beams or shuddering wires, so on we went.

Again, the swarms of people outnumbered the cars, shutting down two of the four lanes of traffic on the bridge after they had completely filled up the pedestrian crossing area and overflowed into and between lanes of traffic. The cars were moving much slower than the people at that point. The people in their cars obliged us all by turning up their car radios to the news stations, so we could hear snippets of information on the long walk home.

�All of New York is without power and parts of New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, and Canada.�

�The mayor says it is not terrorism.�

�People are stuck on subways all over the city, including tunnels underneath the East River. Teams of Metro Transit authorities are working together to get everyone out in the pitch dark conditions.�

Two hours later, I had made it across the bridge and up Northern Boulevard to our apartment in Astoria, Queens. Anthony hopped around excitedly, showing me the battery-powered light globes he had set around the apartment to keep things well lit throughout the night. We listened to a battery-powered radio, each of us connected to an ear-plug, off and on for several hours.

Later, after dusk had fallen, we climbed up to the roof of our apartment. For the first time ever, we could see stars lit up over New York City. �There�s the Big Dipper!� Anthony said, �I�ve never in my life seen the Big Dipper before in the city.�

We could also see the Manhattan skyline, for once dark and silent as obelisks against the lighter blue-black of the night sky. Only the U.N. had light�s on, backed by their own internal generators. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were completely dark and strange looking. A few red air traffic lights blinked red on the roofs of some of the skyscrapers. Everything else was quiet and calm. And for one night, the first in nearly a century, the city slept.


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