Seeing the Light

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Taking in the sunset on the banks of the mighty Hudson. Photo: JH.

Wednesday It’s August again as you may have noticed. And when it’s hot it seems like it’s here to stay. Yesterday was a good example — 98 degrees when I went out about 6:30 to get some dinner.

The city is quiet and frankly so is the desk at NYSD. The only interesting news (the kind you can emotionally handle) is the weather. Rain has been forecast but at the hour of this writing it seems like that might have come and gone. Nevertheless the forecasts are for cooler days and nights beginning about now.

Escaping the rain that came and went in a flash around 6:30 PM.

With next to nothing to report on the social scene on these hot days and night, people tend to isolate to keep cool and comfortable. It is the time when we over here at NYSD tend to look back on our nearly quarter century of stories and reporting to see if there’s anything to catch your interest that you may or may not have seen or exposed to. Frankly it’s always interesting for me and for JH because of the pleasure of the Reminder.

So today we’re running a Diary that first saw the light of day in 2003 when NYSD was just turning three.  It’s always fascinating to see “what it was like back then,” especially when there was a crisis. And so it goes …

Originally published on August 6, 2003I went to lunch at Michael’s with public relations executive Leslie Stevens. It was a very hot humid day and there was no rain in the forecast to cool things down.

I left Michael’s about two-thirty and with digital camera in hand, took a brief stroll up Fifth Avenue. I’d wanted to photograph the Asprey’s and Louis Vuitton renovation billboards – those walls that conceal any eyesore of the ongoing construction and herald the grand openings.

L. to r.: Walking up Fifth Avenue past the Asprey billboard; The northeast corner of 57th and Fifth.

A hundred years ago, on the corner where Louis Vuitton is installing its New York flagship store, it was known as Marble Row, and Mary Mason Jones lived in a limestone mansion. Before the house was built in the late 1860s it was raw land. Mrs. Jones’ niece, Edith Jones, later became a famous novelist under her married name, Wharton.

I am always fascinated by the radical transformations of the city. The Louis Vuitton corner demonstrated how radically Fifth Avenue has changed over the past century, and how proletarianized the conception of luxury has become since the days of Edith Wharton’s aunt.

Mary Mason Jones House on the same corner, circa 1890.

The avenue on that day was streaming with traffic and pedestrians despite the temperatures. I walked up past the Plaza (which had been standing in its present structure for ninety-five years). I never look at that fountain without thinking of the legend of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in their drunken exhilaration, drenching themselves in its cascading water.

Walking past The Plaza and the Pulitzer Fountain. 3:00 PM.

On this particular day its mist offered a sweet relief even at the sight of it.

I was back at my apartment by 3:30, and at this computer at 4:05 or thereabouts when the screen suddenly went dark and the desk light dimmed and the fan on my desk slowed to stop.

The first thought was that it would be temporary. I went downstairs and heard from Mark the doorman that it was a power outage extending to Canada and Detroit and far south. I knew then, having been here during the 1965 blackout, that we might be in for a long wait for restoration.

I also knew, from the 1965 experience, that despite the great  inconvenience, people are generally very good to each other in these crises. I also had the passing thought – something I heard expressed frequently in the next 24 hours: terrorists. However, the previous experience mollified my fears: a certainty that everything would be all right.

I don’t have an air conditioner. When I first moved in here I couldn’t afford one. Then when I could, I found I was away most weekends and so didn’t need one, and the machine takes up a lot of window space. I’d rather have the light. So I have fans. And when it’s been very hot, I open my terrace door and open the windows and turn on the fans. It has not been unpleasant. However, Friday night I didn’t even have the fans. But it didn’t bother me. It was just hot.

I was alone when the current went out, and the hallways were pitch black. There were emergency lights in the stairwells although they had only six hours of power.

The scene on Park Avenue South. 5:15 PM.

I found a flashlight. It had no batteries. I had no idea what size. The third deli I went to had the right batteries. I was not prepared and already in the dark before the sun went down.

I took the dogs out. They wouldn’t move in the dark hallways, even with the flashlight, and were uncharacteristically afraid of the stairs, so they had to be carried down and up four flights.

The neighborhood was lively. There were many in the stores buying water and batteries. At seven I went down to the Promenade by the East River. I’d never seen it so jammed. Hundreds, maybe more, all came out for the cool breezes by the river. The benches were full. The dog runs were full, and walkways were mobbed. There was a very strong sense of neighborliness in the air, and even a good time.

Back at the apartment, as it began to get dark I was feeling disoriented, feeling strangely isolated, strangely vulnerable. I wasn’t fearful, but I was very conscious of my being solitary in this uncertain moment. When it occurred here in 1965 I was married, and friends and family came to spend the evening with us. We put out candles, drank wine and became a (very good) party. 38 years later, no friends or family within easy reach. No cell phone, no water, no toilet and just me and the dogs.

I read a book by candlelight, entertaining myself with the notion of what it was like when candles were the only source of light in the dark. I quickly found that it is very inconvenient as an alternative light source, and there is no romance.

The doormen had pizza, I’d noticed. So I went out about 8:30 looking for pizza. The side streets were dark except for the many stoops and doorways where people had congregated, often with wine and cheese by candlelight. The passing cars and police cars frequently broke the darkness. There were no streetlights but the traffic on the avenue was, like the pedestrians, proceeding with great caution.

The avenues were busy. Wherever you saw candlelight, there were crowds. It was a full moon (as it was in 1965 also). In the bars they were drinking and smoking. The mood was upbeat and festive.

On the northwest corner of 28th and Park Avenue South. 4:15 PM. Five minutes after the blackout.

Back home, however, I felt that strange isolation again. I was thinking about those who lived on the floor high above mine (the fourth), especially those who would not be ale to walk thirty or forty flights up or down; especially those who were by themselves and with no way to communicate with anyone else.

Friday morning I awoke about eight o’clock. Very warm. Still no power. There were New York Timeses in the lobby, which was a very welcome surprise. People on the sidewalks were carrying containers of coffee (and feeling very buoyant) from a luncheonette five blocks away on First Avenue. I thought that’s what I need, and I went over there. They were serving breakfast – without electricity. Plastic forks and knives; paper plats. The coffee wasn’t very good. But it was coffee. Hope.

Back at the apartment I sat by the window and read the paper. I took the dogs out for their walk. I dropped my flashlight down the stairs (while carrying the d’s) and the light plastic number smashed to smithereens. I reproached myself for not being more careful, reminded once again of the truth – I’m a klutz.

It was a beautiful Saturday, but I was feeling depressed. A different kind of depression. A sense of dread coupled with the newly acquired reality that I was “alone” in this life, at this time, and maybe always. The catastrophe of 9/11 also left the residual notion that we are quite helpless in the tide of history. And indeed there now are times, at least at this age of mine, when it seems entropic.

However, all grimness aside, it was a beautiful Saturday in New York. I heard the West Side had power. The buses were running and fare-free. I went over to Zabar’s, figuring we on the East Side would be getting our power back soon also.

It was four o’clock when I took the bus across 79th Street. It was thrilling to see neon lights in store windows. It seemed like the greatest gift bestowed on all of us. Over on Broadway, New York was the bustling town that it is. The stores were full. The ATMs were working.

Looking south along Park Avenue South. 5:00 PM.

On the bus ride back, as we traveled east, out of the Park and onto Fifth Avenue, a teenage girl very loudly said to her two friends: “Now we’re on the DARK side of New York.”

They all laughed but then the same girl said in a far less caustic tone: “This day sucks.”

I knew what she meant. It was that feeling again. It came back as soon as we returned to the unlighted zone. Back at the apartment I put everything in the (warmed up) freezer and lay down for a nap. It was five o’clock.

I was awakened at 6:30 by my phone ringing, for the first time in more than 26 hours. We were back online but there had remained that residual feeling, lessening but nevertheless, its impact felt.

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