How I Spent My 2003 Blackout
The folks down in Esquel, who frequently don't have or need any electricity of their own as they ski down the slopes La Hoya in battery-operated miner's helmets slurping pisco sours and chanting revolutionary's songs, have asked me to update them on the big Blackout of 2003. These folks, students mostly, who spend long, cold nights in typical Patagonian student housing drinking hierba mate and learning how to play Led Zeppelin tunes on ukeleles, don't get much news of the outside world these days and rely heavily on Desultory Turgescence's skewed and painful renditions of world events so, para mis amigos abajo, here is the lowdown and school report on How I Spent My 2003 Blackout:
The first thing to know was that I missed Manhattan's 9/11. I got stuck in DC with the crappy, low budget version of 9/11 with one lousy burning Pentagon, super hunk Donald Rumsfeld emerging from the ruins with his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow like the new great American hero and alot of unsubstantiated rumors, like planes flying into Congress and bombs going off at the State Department which, although they sounded intriguing, never quite materialized as reality and thus kept DC far below NYC on the great terrorist disaster stories totem. I was infinitely jealous of all my friends who got to bond during all the terror, who got all the hoopla and highlights, had the cool Mayor who seized control of the situation and garnered all the sympathies of Americans everywhere, while the stupid capital of America got sloppy seconds for news coverage, once again, Manhattan hogging the spotlight.
So when the lights flickered and went dead, as I emerged from the darkness of the emergency exit stairway and shoved open the emergency doors onto the bright sunlit street, there was a vague sense of anticipatory redemption running through me. Finally, a brush with real chaos, I thought to myself. Traffic, as it always is, was at a standstill on Varick Street. Big deal. No Godzilla versus Mothra battles across the skyline. No shrieking pedestrians, sprinting down empty avenues towards the Hudson River with the wild look of catastrophe written across their panic-stricken eyes. Just the lack of traffic lights, the same endearing horn-squashing assholes who typically populate the traffic tie-ups and slightest slowdowns and alot of people milling around aimlessly like animals in those safari zoo places where they're roped off within 40 acres to roam, get regular meals and have no natural predators but still wander around looking slightly confused and out of place as though they've walked on stage five minutes before their cue and didn't know how to improvise.
When I'd covered the twenty minutes it normally takes to get home, wanting to burst into a song called "It's the WHOLE East Coast!" and spread the good news to everyone around me, the old neighborhood was in a cautiously festive mood. After all, it was just a blackout.
Here's where it got comical: Mayor Buffoonberg told everyone hey kids, it's not terrorism, it's just a blackout. The power failure appears to be an "accident", not terror oriented, he said. What a comfort, I thought, recalling how only two days before, there he stood in all his stumpy anti-smoking bloatedness lying to anyone who would listen that the cops had been "right on top of it" when those kids wandered onto the tarmac of JFK airport for an hour before walking in themselves to the airport police and to seek help in figuring out where the hell they were. On top of it? Christ, those kids practically had to assault those cops to get them to pay attention. So our dear Mayor's credibility is a little apocryphal.
Things became even more ominous when I heard through the grapevine that beloved and heroic President Bush even assured anyone naive enough to pay attention to him when he managed to mumble:
"One thing I can say for certain, this was not a terrorist attack."
That was when I started getting all sweaty, testing the water from the sink every ten minutes for radioactivity and longingly eyeing the duct tape and plastic sheeting at the foot of the windows. (By the way, the Department of Homeland Security's suggestion that we duct tape plastic sheeting over our windows doesn't do us much fucking good when it's 500 degrees outside and we need the windows open to be able to breath!)
But back to the matter of plausible excuses. First of all, he could say for certain, like 10 seconds after we lose power, that it wasn't terrorism. This from the same Idiot Collective that tells us every day that terrorists will attack us again but they just don't know when, where, how or how much. On the other hand, one could view this information with even deeper skepticism. Perhaps the reason the federal government can tell us with "certainty" that it wasn't terorrism is because THEY are the terrorists. Hmmm. Wonderful things to ponder as the room temperature in the apartment increases from a meatlocker-like 55 degrees Fahrenheit to a tropical 85 degrees in a matter of hours.
Inventory and Reflection on Modern Technology
Upon arrival to the slowly broiling apartment, some sort of long-dormant survivalist instincts began to kick in. After a prolonged inventory of the apartment contents for emergency kits, canned foods, potable liquids, flashlights, candles and lighters, I discovered there were no candles that hadn't already been burnt down to a nub, serving as a contemporaneous ashtray, but I did find a tent and mosquito netting that had gone missing somewhere in the depths of the closet several months ago, three lighters, three cans of tuna, two cans of refried beans and a variety of still-cold juices and water.
But all this was just nervous activity to prolong avoidance of the real issue at hand as the disheartingly brutal truth finally began to hit home. There is no internet. There is no television. There is no music. Quite nearly total sensory deprivation. This lead immediately to the acknowledgement that for the first time in many, many months, there was going to be something called Idle Time to deal with. No internet? No tv? No music? What the fuck are you supposed to do to keep yourself from crawling up the walls in what looks like some LSD-induced freak-out, screaming and throwing sheets of classical music around the apartment like a rabid chimpanzee who has seen Space 2001 too many times?
Ah, yes. The bucolic pleasures. Reading. Writing. Sexual release.
Then of course, there was the enticing alternative of figuring out how to survive if the whole city went mad and there was a need to defend oneself. So a new inventory was taken.
First was the typical stuff you could throw out your window at the marauding civilians attempting to attack the fortress and rip it open to grab all the goodies inside. The first thing would be the electrical shit:
a.) Because without power, you realize how utterly useless your television, computer monitor, heavy stereo equipment and assorted electrical appliances are.
b.) Because these assorted electrical appliances are oftentimes heavy and work well as a weight to drop on the heads of and kill rioting peasants below with.
Then I eyed the books. Yes, it's true that without power, the value of books grow exponentially with each day that passes without power. But beyond their practical use as entertainment, books have other uses as well. For example, the heavier tomes, the hardcovers, the encyclopedic volumes, and the dreaded coffee table books can all be used as weapons. When seige is lain upon my castle, can you imagine, for example, the damage that could be done with a hardcover copy of Infinite Jest?? What about I drop all 870 pages of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on them?
Later, I hit upon some of the more obvious choices for weapons. The cutlery. And beyond that, ALL the silverware for that matter. If people can grind plastic cafeteria spoons into deadly shivs in prison, then certainly my elaborate collection of chopsticks and my plastic utensils, still sealed along with the salt and pepper and the little napkin inside their plastic wrapping from years of getting delivery, are going to come in handy.
The other use for books, especially the paperbacks, is that they are great for indoor trashcan fires. This is more a use in the winter months when the room needs heating than in the summer months when the indoor temperature is already high enough to roast marshmellows in, but fire itself, whatever it is created out of, can always prove to be a useful weapon.
This then brings us to the old lighter and aerosol spray can trick of making huge flames dance out like the St. Elmo's Fire scene when Jules suffers a quasi-nervous breakdown, locks herself inside her apartment in the dead of winter, opens every window and attempts to freeze herself to death and Billy saves the day, busting through her front door, shutting the windows just in time and talking Jules back from the brink with wild tales of electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere and uses the lighter and aerosol spray can to prove his point. This kind of fire-spewing act is sure to repel looters and gawkers.
But things got a little boring when I began measuring bookshelves for handleability. How well does it fit in an enclosed hand? How easy is it to swing like a club? How well does it burn when dipped in lighter fluid and tossed out the window onto the street? I decided that, lacking a transistor radio and a flashlight, I could at least take a peek outside to find out what the other natives were doing by then.
Outside, It's America
I headed for the corner bodega to see what sort of chaos and havoc was being wreaked on the neighborhood. The hardware store on 7th and 2nd Avenue as well as the drugstore at 5th and 2nd, had already produced conga lines of desperate, sweaty and frightened potential customers looking as though they would begin foaming at the mouth once the minimal stock of flashlights, spades and power mowers were officially sold out. The bodega on the southwest corner of 7th and 2nd was dark and filled with more obnoxious people surreptitiously shoving into lines and selfishly trying to buy up everything their greedy little paws could hold with complete disregard for their neighbors. It was then I realized for the thousandth time how the old neighborhood is slowly metastasizing into a haven of non-smoking yuppie nutritionists with cellphones surgically attached to the sides of their heads.
This reminds me: Don't believe all the bullshit you read about New Yorkers being such a placid, loving folk bleeding altruism on every street corner during times of chaos and struggle. They are human, after all. Like everyone else, they shove their way through emergency exits and subway tunnels, pushing pregnant women out of the way as survivalist corporate raiders and Wall Street cannibals grind the rest of humanity beneath their heel like a smoldering cigarette butt. It's true that in a city that seems as nasty and as cut-throat bottom line as does New York, it is surprising that they haven't killed each other off by the following morning after any remotely chaotic incident but is it really this schmaltzy bullshit about being a New Yorker that does it or is it simply being a fellow human being?
One of the things that nauseated me once power was restored and I had access to the evil New York One News channel all over again, was watching these nonchalant, self-congratulatory "sufferers" recite like a jingoistic mantra, the belief that they were New Yorkers so they had to shrug off extreme adversity, as though there was something inherent in the DNA of brushing against unhygienic commuters ten times a week in a smelly, overtaxed underground transportation system. Had to wait 30 hours in crushing rush hour traffic? No problem. Nearly asphixiated in the crush of commuters trampling you in the subway tunnels as they rushed to escape the rats and find fresh air above ground? Simple. Walked home from Manhattan to the far reaches of Rockaway Beach on the bloody, ragged remains of what used to be the soles of your feet? Big deal! "Oh, nothing but kryptonite phases me baby, I'm a New Yorker!"
The funny thing is, instead of the pseudo-refined savages they normally burlesque, during times of chaos, New Yorkers revert to acting like Suburban Americans. They hold BBQs in the street, play music, sing, greet and treat their neighbors like fellow human beings instead of some sort of toxic subterranean human replicants. For awhile, they were almost normal.
We really should have more ruinous emergencies and breakdowns like this if it means that people get to walk down the middle of avenues like cool human beings again. For awhile, as I wandered down Second Avenue towards Houston Street, I hallucinated vast expanses of grasslands where once there was asphalt and honking horns. The surrounding neighborhoods and streets had almost begun to metamorphasize into one brobdingnagian Deadhead village of non-looting catastrophe joyriders. Where normally there were taxis and delivery trucks and teeming masses of traffic, there were now slack-key guitars and Hari Krishna finger cymbals being played, mothers dancing with their babies, meat roasting on impromptu street barbeques, the occasional emergency response vehicle and the slowly slackening stream of Downtown office workers schlepping it back to their apartments on the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem.
Oddly enough, even though I don't smoke "tobacco" anymore, one of the first things that crossed my mind as I wandered around was that at least all those tortured smokers were finally going to get some relief. After all, with the power out everywhere and the cops and designated enforcement employees or whomever it is writing tickets to enforce Mayor Buffoonberg's criminally inappropriate no-smoking regulations, were going to have more important things on their minds. Maybe the city wouldn't go hellhound mad with looting but you can be sure that in the middle of a power outage and the unairconditioned indoor bars steaming up like saunas, no one was going to worrry about a little second-hand smoke gushing down into their lungs and instantly killing them.
Boredom Zenith, Part Deux
While the block parties blared on, I sat sweltering inside the apartment listlessly thumbing through a pamphlet on alchohol-induced blackouts and waiting for Sigrid to make it back from Roosevelt Island. Having already assessed the chaos of rush hour traffic, I figured there was no way she was going to make it home by car before nightfall. Little did I know that because the electric pumps at gas stations were useless, she couldn't tank up to get across the bedlam of the 59th Street Bridge. While I began developing a mild carpal tunnel syndrome from flicking on my lighter so many times to touch to the rim of the bong's bowl and further, coughing up spasms of high-grade weed and nearly passing out from a lack of oxygen, Sigrid had grabbed her bike with the flat front tire and rode it all the way back to the apartment.
When she arrived, simultaneously gasping for air, sweating, begging for a cold beer and dying of hunger, I had worked myself into such a stupor, I could barely speak. Something like those patients in the Turkish prison in Midnight Express only I wasn't drooling yet. A flicker of recognition passed vaguely into my slowly focusing eyes.
"We should have no dialogue," she murmured. "Just beer and cigarettes and food, in that order."
So we headed back out into the black lung streets of coal mine Manhattan to join in the fun. Out past First Avenue on 5th St. there is a series of bars and clubs that melded together in an outdoor party of suddenly-brazen automotons breaking beer bottles on the pavement, overturning lawn furniture and making weird shrieking noises when tenants above dropped stink bombs down on them to break up the noise and the party. The only thing missing really, were the Mardis Gras beads and the hurricane glasses.
Without flashlights, it was difficult to see our path by the glowing embers of cigarettes. Everywhere you stepped was the sound of crushed glass beneath your feet. We circled the block, coming down Avenue B towards Tompkins Square Park where you could see the trashcan fires burning from a block and a half away. The worst part, the part that almost drove us in prematurely, was not the threat of looting or wilding or the fires or the randomly dropped bottles, but the rats. Especially in Tompkins Square Park where you could almost hear them and their high-pitched squealing on the periphery, waiting to move in and take little nibbles off of everyone's toes. Ironically enough, just that afternoon, Mayor Buffoonberg had planned to unveil and publicize a new get tough, "War on Rats" policy but amid the excitement of the blackout of course, this absurd new effort was lost. He can end smoking and preach his ill-suited morality to all the world in New York City but the rats are another matter altogether. The rats, like the pigeons, will be here long after the last light has been turned on. The rats, it seems, are mirrors of ourselves in New York City; a revelatory psychology of desperate, overpopulated, hungry, looking for action. What we really needed, in this Heideggerian counteraction against the mechanistic tendancies of the modern world, was some fresh rat meat to grill ourselves some burgers with.