At 8:37 p.m. on July 13, 1977, a lightning strike at the Buchanan South substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers in Westchester County. At Buchanan South, which converted 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant the breaker wasn’t able to reclose and allow power to resume flowing.
A second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, with only one reclosing properly. That meant loss of power from Indian Point. As a result, two other major transmission lines became over-loaded. When Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.
That’s when the lights went out in a Morningside Gardens apartment at 123rd and Broadway, along with the lights in the rest of New York City. I just had returned from four years in Liberia, and was visiting friends for a few days before heading to California. We’d finished dinner and were enjoying the twin pleasures of good conversation and the view from their 12th floor apartment, when New York simply disappeared.
It’s common enough for storms to start lights flickering and dimming, and not unusual for power to go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode, winds bring down powerlines, squirrels play tag, and people sigh as they wonder how long it will be until they can make coffee, or turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort again.
But that night in New York, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the starting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Looking off toward the horizon, there was no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss.
The night was one of the longest of my life. The vibrato of the sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of merchandise looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal, surrounded as they were by the orange glow of flames and smoke from burning cars.
Eventually, as the fires in our neighborhood began to be extinguished and the crowds seemed to be losing their enthusiasm for mayhem, we began to rest – two people sleeping as one person watched, and all of us wondering what might be next.
As the first tendrils of light began to wrap themselves around buildings and climb down into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night – not only because of the arson, looting and general rioting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged inexplicably into that abyss, our candles and flashlights did nothing to allay a fear so primitive it was only the rising of the sun that brought release.
In the morning brilliance, an entire city seemed to stretch and heave a vast sigh of relief. In the street outside our apartment, someone had opened a fire hydrant just enough for a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Suddenly filled with good humor and ready to trade stories, a city lined up at its hydrants with soap and towels, toothbrushes, wash basins and razors, and prepared to become human again.
As I think back to that amazing New York night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Looking down into the chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to “civilization” in any number of ways, not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.
I first experienced darkness as a blessing during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my Dad, and off we’d go. Traveling country roads, we’d roam as far from the lights of our little town as we could. If it was summer, we’d pull out a blanket and lie on the ground, amazed at the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap the blankets around us for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate and admire Orion, my favorite winter constellation.
I learned the constellations first - Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio. Later, I began to learn stars -Antares, Aldebaran, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius – and little verses that helped find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica”, the verse went, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing over and again into mysteries that seemed close enough to touch.
Eventually, I began to grow up. Trips to the country with Dad weren’t as much fun, and adventure became measured in lumens. We hadn’t heard of light pollution, and we were seekers of light, real or metaphorical. The bright lights of Broadway, the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, even Paris, the City of Light, drew us out of our darkness toward their flames like a great, fluttering cloud of moths. If we sometimes had to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah or Evansville, no matter. Our lives began to arc in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.
Forgotten that, is until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into the darkness, amazing me with the realization that “star” light is real. Even without a moon in the sky, starlit paths cross land and sea; night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows and ribbons of spume stream across the waves, hardly distinguishable from milky rivers in the sky and lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars.
There is darkness that is an absence – an absence of the neon, incandescent and fluorescent lights that mark the presence of humans and their activity. When that darkness comes, as it did in the New York City blackout, it can be unnerving and awkward, occasionally frightening and quite capable of releasing all the darkness in the human soul.
But there is another darkness which is all presence: velvets folds of night sprinkled with tiny bits of light and time that testify to our presence within a reality far older than human life. Wrapped in that darkness, secure and at home as child with parent, our souls begin to arc to Arcturus and beyond, toward the galaxies beyond our heavens and into a more compassionate understanding of our own place in the universe. Arcturus is already there, waiting at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.
Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water -
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (more than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be -
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland
© Text copyright Linda Leinen 2008