Thursday, August 14: During the Blackout
by Mina Hamilton
August 18, 2003
Manhattan: Third Avenue and St. Mark's Place, 7:30 PM. The bus is crammed to the gills; we are the quintessential, proverbial sardines. The mood is festive. Why wouldn't it be? We already know the power outage is probably not a terrorist attack. It's just American technology breaking down.
Besides, we're the lucky ones. After miles of walking here's an air-conditioned bus and some of us have acquired the unbelievable luxury of a seat.
Usually on New York buses there's a strict protocol. No talking to the driver and vice-versa, except for necessities like "Do ya go to 23rd Street?"
On August 14 this rule -- and many others -- are suspended. The bus driver waves away the proffered Metro cards. Then, he's laughing, "Oh I can see I have some train riders here. Well, don't worry, I'll make you feel at home." With every start up of the bus, he convincingly imitates a train, "Chucka, chucka, chukka." This is greeted by friendly guffaws throughout the bus.
He calls out, "Do you'll know what's happening? Want to know the latest?" He's greeted with shouts of "Yes, please. Tell us." His news bulletin: "It's not a terrorist attack. It started somewhere near Buffalo, maybe in Canada. That's all I know." Everybody already knows this; still a ripple of relief sweeps through the bus. Someone in authority has confirmed the rumor.
A passenger calls, "It happened because someone forgot to pay their electric bill." More loud laughter. The jokester repeats his bad joke (actually a rerun of a joke from the 1965 blackout) even more loudly. More laughter.
We grin and wave at passengers in other buses. We are, after all, the winners, the smug ones, unlike those left behind on the sidewalks. In subway-less, sultry-August, 89-degree New York the baking pavement is packed with wanna-be passengers. Sweating, wilting, they lean against buildings, sit on the curbsides, gather in clumps around bars dispensing beer, and drape themselves around car radios dispensing news. They mob any approaching bus.
Another festive feature: stops are randomly selected on the basis of passengers calling out what streets they desire. It's the people's bus, not the Mayor's bus or the Transit Authority's bus. It stops where we want it to! At stops, tired New Yorkers surge from the street towards the front door. The bus driver shouts and laughs, "Use the back door. Go around to the back door." He repeats this over and over. He's encouraging what in normal times would be strictly forbidden. These are not normal times.
The conductor: "Can you give me three inches. I need three inches. Move to the back of the bus. Now, it's okay to touch each other. Go ahead it's okay." Then with the full throaty rendition of a Baptist Church Minister, our African-American conductor assures us, "It's okay to touch each other because we all love each other." The passengers reply with gusto, "You said it. Right on." Probably everybody on the bus would-at this moment-agree we all do love each other. Good will and harmony exude from our rollicking, frolicking bus. Yea, it's not a terrorist attack. Yea, we are not caught in an elevator suspended at the 29th floor or a subway trapped underground. Yea, we'll get home sometime, somehow.
Reality-time. This bus is not going anywhere. It takes one half-hour to move one city block. This is no exaggeration. Massive gridlock has set in. A city without streetlights is an amputee without crutches. Every intersection is pure chaos with cars, buses, and trucks nudging into the center and then unable to move. Where are the cops? Civilian volunteers leap into the fray and bravely, with flashlights, flags and signs, try to clear intersections. They definitely help, but it's a losing battle.
I realize if I want to get home before midnight I must leave the bus and again start plodding along the hot asphalt. I'm reluctant. It's not just the air-conditioning; it's the joyful, free energy pervading my temporary home.
I get off, hike west and try another bus on another less crowded street. Within seconds this street also quickly becomes wall-to-wall-stationary vehicles. I enjoy air-conditioning and another cheerful crowd. The man by whose seat I am standing is constantly sticking his head out the window and asking bystanders, "What street is this? Where are we?" He shouts out the info to the rest of us. For a brief time this information is vital. It's now dark and nobody on the bus can see the street signs. Then, there is no need for the question. We are not moving.
I give up and once again hoof it.
The last mile is along streets that are pitch dark. So dark several times I almost bump into people. No streetlights, no traffic lights, no shop lights, no lobby lights, no apartment lights (except for the soft, dim glow of occasional candles) means that the sidewalks are almost impassable. It is only the sudden sweep of automobile headlights that briefly provide illumination. (Here in northern Manhattan there are surprisingly few cars.)
Stumbling on potholes, almost veering into brick walls and hedges, I think this must be what it was like to walk along a street in 800 AD in medieval Paris, except in that case you risked slops being thrown down onto your head.
Finally at 9:45 PM, four and one-half hours after leaving Brooklyn I am back at my apartment in Manhattan. I have walked a distance of approximately 7.5 miles.
I am home to an apartment that looks delightfully cozy with candles burning in every room.
What astounds me about this experience? The assumptions we individually and collectively make in emergencies. Even when all the data is flowing in an opposite direction, we draw the absolutely incorrect conclusion.
When confronted with how did I get home without a subway to whisk me home, I immediately thought, "No problem. I'll just take a bus to downtown Brooklyn, walk across one of the bridges to Manhattan and take a bus uptown to 92nd Street." Wrong. Twice I fell for this bait. Twice I got onto a bus that was moving at a pace I could have bested crawling on my hands and knees.
The point is I had an idea in my head and the idea refused to budge even though a different reality was unfolding before my eyes. Yes, Sirree, my tired feet and sweaty self wanted to believe in the idea of a moving bus. I didn't see the full picture.
My bus didn't move because it was caught in a fantastic traffic jam, the result of hundreds of thousands of people walking across the Manhattan bridges to get home to Brooklyn or Queens. Therefore the bridges were closed to vehicular traffic. That, plus the lack of traffic lights, meant massive gridlock and lines of traffic that were literally dozens of miles long.
Car drivers were also trapped in their fixed ideas. They made the assumption, "Oh, I'll just hop in my car and drive there," wherever there was. They too wanted to believe in the efficacy of their preferred mode of transportation.
Meantime, the pundits, the politicians are already manifesting their fixed ideas: the problem is not enough supply. Rebuild the "antiquated, Third World" grid and, soon to be heard from Bush & Co, build more power plants, preferably nuclear power plants.
Presto, another mistaken fixation on an out-of-date idea. Yes, the grid could be modernized and new transmission lines could be built, as could nukes (or far better, new wind energy farms), but supply is really not the problem. Antiquated thinking is the problem.
In a time of global warming (can anybody doubt it after this year's heat wave in Europe with 3000 dead from heat prostration?) we still live in a profligate society. We still consume energy like bandits. Go to Best Buy and find out how many energy efficient refrigerators are on sale. Check out how many states mandate energy-efficient appliances in new apartment buildings. Notice your friendly, local supermarket that's so cold you have to don a sweater upon entering.
Yet, easy, painless fixes are available right now. For example, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, air conditioners account for one-third of peak demand. One third? That's a staggering percentage of the problem! Require the use of energy efficient air conditioners - and a big chunk of your problem is solved. Holy-moly let the US government take some of those billions we are squandering in Iraq and buy everyone in the United States a new air conditioner. Great for the grid, for the economy, for the air conditioner manufacturers.
Will that happen? No. Already the Republicans are lining up their ducks to push through an antediluvian Energy Bill that, among other provisions, would provide billions of taxpayer subsidies to the construction of new nuclear power plants.
The restaurant owner who lost $25,000 worth of fish, the woman who had to brush her teeth at the fire hydrant, the surgeon who sweated through an operation in an un-air-conditioned OR, plus millions inconvenienced and angry over an error that shutdown 100 power plants will be ripe for the distortions and lies of a Tom DeLay or a Dick Cheney. They want to build 50 NEW nukes by the year 2020. Yes, folks that's 50 nukes!
Is there another way? That wonderful, joyful energy that was overflowing from the stalled bus seems to me to have within it the seeds of a different way. It had a touch of the effervescent, heady chaos of the 1960's. When people reach out to each other in new ways, when we converse with strangers, when we talk about love on a crammed-to-the-gills bus, when we break down the old class barriers, when we citizens cobble together unofficial solutions a fresh outlook is possible.
When we throwaway the old rules anything can happen.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. For information about the Energy Bill contact Public Citizen at www.citizen.org/cmep/energy_enviro_nuclear