Darkness, Light, and the City

A historical note from the Museum of the City of New York  ~ July 13, 2019
Photo ~ Ariella Axelbank
Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless. Given the remarkably coincidental blackouts, my 2014 reflections on the experience seem timely; New York’s power is back on, but the memories linger.

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South should have been converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose in order to allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly. Given the loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines, Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Newly returned from my time in Liberia, I was visiting friends who also had worked there. While we enjoyed the twin pleasures of after-dinner conversation and the view from their eighth floor apartment, all of New York seemed to disappear.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and power can go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode; winds bring down power lines; squirrels play tag; and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting 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. Scanning the horizon, we found no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us.

The night seemed endless. A vibrato of sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of goods looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene resembled an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds gradually lost their appetite for mayhem, we rested: three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what would be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to climb around buildings and 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 and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, plastic wash basins, and razors, ready to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so inclined. But at the time, looking down into those 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 had learned to experience 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 graveled country roads that led far from the lights of our little town. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazed by the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap in blankets for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate, and admire Orion, with his belt and his sword.

I learned the constellations — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio — and I began to learn those exotically-named stars: Aldebaran, Antares, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius. Little verses helped me find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into sky-borne mysteries seemingly close enough to touch.

With passing years, trips into the country became less frequent, and adventures with my friends were measured in lumens. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore — even Paris, the City of Light — drew us out of our midwestern darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If circumstances forced us to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah, or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing 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 darkness, teaching me its pleasures anew.

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. Ribbons of phosphorescent spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When unexpected and unwanted darkness falls — as it has in New York City, and Louisiana, and California, and Venezuela — the experience can be unnerving at best. At worst, it can make life seem unbearable, even as it gives free reign to the worst of human impulses.

But that other darkness, that more comfortable darkness, still enfolds the world like a favorite childhood blanket. Wrapped in nature’s darkness, safe and secure, we’re free to lift our eyes until our gaze arcs to Arcturus and beyond: toward galaxies beyond our sight, and a universe beyond our understanding.

The poet reminds us: Arcturus already is there, steadfast 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

Comments are welcome. For more information about poet Eavan Boland, please click here.

94 thoughts on “Darkness, Light, and the City

  1. Oh Linda, I can well imagine your desire to return to Liberia, when the city chaos began. I sense we’ll see more of that as the system collapses, hence my choice of housing.
    My horse and I would go out walking at night, and she taught me how to sense unseen things. Getting out Bush away from even small town lights is a relief; a simple pleasure city folk cannot enjoy.
    Mind you, chasing an errant cat in the darkness is not as enjoyable to the human as it is to a cat!

    1. There’s no need to wait for a blackout these days. Anyone who’s experienced shopping brawls on the day after American Thanksgiving or the melees associated with sports team victories in an assortment of countries (most recently in Paris) knows how thin civilization’s veneer can be.

      On the other hand, it would be naive to think western civilization is alone in its descent into violence. In some places, including Liberia, the violence can be as horrifying as their most recent civil wars, or as hidden as the human sacrifices that are an accepted part of political campaigns. When I was there, child sacrifice was an acknowledged reality, and, according to this article, things haven’t much changed.

      That said, it isn’t darkness that’s the enemy, and learning to live in it is an experience of grace. I did laugh at your mention of the cat chase. My friend who’s made the transition to life on wheels has discovered only one of her two cats is content to stay close to home. I anticipate stories — maybe from you, too.

      1. There’s a bloke who travels with his cat Willow, around Oz, and he uses and recommends a product to locate his cat, and I’m hoping to get one for mine soon too.
        These days I don’t have the chases much, but the previous tortoiseshell cat I had when I lived mostly in the suburbs, was ingenious at it. Many a night I crept around a neighbours garden whispering to her to please come home :-)

  2. That was quite a coincidence of dates, wasn’t it? I looked back to see what I wrote five years ago: “The title of Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, prompts me to say let us compare blackouts. I was in Morningside Heights as a student in 1965 when a blackout hit a little after 5 PM on November 5th. Curiously, we could see that the lights stayed on across the Hudson in New Jersey, so we had no idea how extensive the power outage actually was. In that year I was still traveling home to the suburbs at the end of each class day, but without power the subways couldn’t run, so I started walking down Broadway heading for my uncle’s house in Chelsea, five miles away, where I ended up spending the night. Buses were still running, and I suppose I could’ve taken one, but walking was more of an adventure and it saved a poor student 15¢.”

    What I didn’t mention was that the place from which we could see across the Hudson River was the teacher’s apartment a little north of campus where we students met for our Portuguese class. I still remember details of the blackout but the whole semester of class is largely a blackout in my memory.

    1. Last night on social media, ‘coincidence’ and ‘conspiracy’ seemed to be running neck and neck as explanations. The theories of causation ranged from the plausible (a transformer fire) to the fantastic (a plot to take attention away from the Epstein business).

      I remember your story. There were some walkers and bicyclists last night, too, although it seemed from photos and postings that most people chose to stand in the middle of the street and consult their phones. That’s part of what makes today’s blackouts so different from 1965 and 1977. Answers to questions like “What’s happened?” and “How long is this going to last?” were harder to come by then. You mentioned your class semester being blacked out in your memory; I can’t remember if we even had a radio to provide information. There were television stations broadcasting, but with no electricity they didn’t do us much good.

  3. I can relate, after having been in the blackout of 1965. I was a teenager and we had the only gas stove on the block, having taken it from my grandmother’s house when she passed. My mom made coffee all night and I carried it out to all the neighbors. If someone said they were hungry, mom cooked up something. I was heartsick to learn of the looting and fires going on in the cities; Dad tried to explain why they were doing it, but I just thought they were making things harder on themselves when the dust cleared.

    1. The parallels between these electrical grid failures and hurricanes (or blizzards, or ice storms) are obvious. Whatever the cause, the same coping skills help get through it.

      The story of your mother making coffee and food for people reminds me of the manager of the LaQuinta in Nacogdoches, the port-in-a-storm for my mother, my cat, and me during Rita. Despite the press of people looking for accomodations and willing to pay almost any price for them, that manager kept one of his rooms vacant. Then, he made it available to the people camped out in their cars and trucks in the parking lot next door. They were able to take a shower, charge their phones, and so on: that room became a kind of clubhouse/clearinghouse for uncounted people — and no one cut the shower line or stole someone else’s gear. Amazing.

      1. My upstate NY grandmother used to talk about the ice storm of 1991, the worst one of the century, hearing limbs cracking and trees coming down all night, even maple and oak. The power was off in Rochester for days, and in the country, for weeks. Her street was blocked from one end to the other, for over a week, and there was no electricity or heat, but she had a fireplace, and stayed, and played cards with the neighbors by candlelight. My father would walk through the pastures in back to bring in food, etc. When a utility crew finally showed up, she would make pots of coffee in the fireplace for them – – and they turned out to be from her hometown in Pennsylvania! So except for the loss of all those maple trees, she always talked about it as a pretty fun time.

        1. There is something about the experience of an ice storm, blizzard, or hurricane that brings people together, and in the aftermath, there are all those good stories to be told and re-told. People still sit around our local cafés telling stories their compatriots have heard a hundred times, but want to hear again.

          It’s also true that during those times, it’s the simple things — like a hot cup of coffee — that bring solace and pleasure. I still remember the faces of the church youth group members who showed up at our door after tropical storm Allison, with sacks filled with peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and water.

          After Hurricane Ike, I took my mom up to her sister’s place in Kansas City for a few weeks, until things got back to what would pass for normal. I remember how I felt when, not so very far north of Houston, I passed long lines of utility trucks and workers coming into the city from Arkansas and Missouri. It was enough to bring me to tears. That kind of dedication and national commitment still exists. It’s too bad that it doesn’t get any publicity from a media dedicated to violence, salaciousness, and general pot-stirring.

    1. I just read an article that mentioned a lack of looting and other bad behavior during the 1965 and 2003 blackouts. It suggested that the 1977 blackout taking place at night probably multipled the problems, since many businesses had closed, and shopkeepers who’d gone home weren’t around to help protect their businesses.

      Those weeks after Ike were no fun. Having lived through outages caused by blizzards and ice storms, as well, I sometimes play the “Which is worse?” game. If I were in a cabin with a wood-burning stove, I think I’d take the cold. But in my all-electric world? I’d say it’s a tossup.

    1. It was quite an experience, Laurie. Storm-caused outages are one thing; you almost expect them. But system failures are something else, particularly when there’s no immediate and obvious explanation. We can get frustrated by trees taking down power lines, but at least that’s understandable.

  4. I would have been sixteen in 1977 and likely far more interested in boys and afternoons at the town pool back then! My experiences with power outages have always been good ones. Living in small town Midwestern rural areas, it’s an appreciation and delight not to hear the buzz and hum of power. I wrote about a night spent under the stars when I was protecting our deer Emma and Ronnie before we could finish some fence work in the deer pens. It was the most amazing night I think I’ve ever experienced – laying on my camp cot, with no protection above or around me. I would love to do that again!

    Forrest works in the power generation industry. I’ve learned a lot about how crazy the industry can be, and all that regulates it and dictates the grid. We consumers see it in such a simplified manner, we want what we want now, and we don’t want to pay much for it. The industry is complicated.

    I loved this post, Linda. There is something to be appreciated in the quiet of darkness out here in the middle of nowhere.

    1. Your mention of your night under the stars on your cot reminded me of the days before air conditioning, when dragging out cots and putting them under the trees was a summer tradition. In the midwest, mosquitoes weren’t much of a problem, but at my great-aunt’s house in Baton Rouge, the cots went onto a sleeping porch: a concrete slab with light framing and screening to help keep mosquitoes at bay. Being able to choose darkness is a gift; what’s sad today is that so many are denied that opportunity.

      I can’t say that I’ve always enjoyed power outages, especially after hurricanes or tropical storms. The weeks after Ike were ghastly, and some people had to go for nearly a month without power after Harvey. It’s hard to appreciate the darkness when you lack running water, refrigeration, gas in the car, and food in the stores. On the other hand, the occasional hours-long outages we have are good reminders of how dependent we are on the people and structures that keep the current flowing.

      In truth, the fact that there are occasional disruptions isn’t so surprising. What’s surprising is how dependable our systems are; we almost seem offended when something goes wrong.

  5. I had completely forgotten about the lights going out in New York City back then. What a scary thing that would have been to live through. I was only in New York for six days and hated every minute of it and was none too glad to get back to vacations where you heard crickets at night and could count the stars in the sky.

    Every time you write about your dad I admire him all over again for the way he instilled curiosity in you. I hope he is or was still around to see what a talented writer you became/are.

    1. I had friends in New York during the ’70s and ’80s, and an aunt who lived on West 16th. It made extended visits to the city possible, and I loved going there. I always felt safe, and my experiences there were rich and varied.

      I haven’t been able to find quite the right word for my feeling during the blackout. I wasn’t precisely frightened; ‘uneasy’ might be a better word. It is amusing that as soon as the first light of dawn appeared, the anxiety disappeared. The only other time I’ve experienced that transition is during offshore sailing, after long, pitch-black nights of standing watch and trying not to run into things like unlighted oil platforms.

      Unfortunately, my dad died in 1981. I wish he were around; there’s no question we’d still be exploring, and having fun together. He did live long enough to see me get my degrees and be ordained, and of course he and Mom came to Liberia for an extended visit. He loved that experience, too — but I never got to take him sailing.

  6. “Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago” – So there will probably not be (such) an increase of births in 9 months as it was at that time!

    1. Probably not. The outage only lasted four hours and it affected areas where a lot of people were out for an evening’s entertainment anyway. It is worth noting another big difference from 1977 — during that blackout, no one had a smart phone or social media to occupy them while they were waiting for the power to come on!

  7. That sounds very frightening. I think about my status as a country mouse sometimes. It would never occur to me that a blackout would bring out such a dark and ugly side to humans, because in the country, it just wouldn’t, at least in my experience. When my family moved here to northern Illinois in 1975, (ish) my parents deliberately chose a house with a bit of land, a bit of water, and a fireplace. Their thinking was that if the powers-that-be were to fail, we’d be able to live independently, at least for a time. Now I don’t have those things and wish I did. When a big storm here took out trees and power lines all over Lake County and we were without power for a week, we were acutely aware of how trapped we are in even a neighborhood in a small town. Without electricity, we were cooked! Still, we didn’t face the dangers you speak of.
    I’m glad you have the sea. I believe we desperately need nature’s blanket of darkness.

    1. It was as astonishing as it was frightening. There were reasons for the destructive behavior in 1977: it happened at night, it covered a much larger area, businesses were closed, and so on. From what I’ve read, there was far less mayhem during the 1965 and 2003 blackouts. On the other hand, we’ve seen riots after sporting events that weren’t under cover of darkness at all, so there’s that. Some people believe in “any excuse for a party.” Others seem to favor “any excuse for a riot.”

      Your comment about being trapped after the storm that took out the trees and power lines reminded me of a story from last night. A woman who described herself on Twitter as living on the 25th floor of a high rise was panic-stricken and feeling trapped, not knowing how to get out of her building.

      A number of people responded to her at the same time, saying, “TAKE THE STAIRS!” She said she couldn’t, because the keycard she had to swipe to gain access to the stairwell wasn’t working. That sounds to me like a second system failure, because backups are built into electronic access systems, but it had to make the experience even more unnerving for her.

      1. Oh, gosh, I wouldn’t think of a keycard failing at that moment. What a disaster. Of course, I realize nature could take me out at any moment as well, but still, I’ll take my chances with her any day!

  8. I think that there are millions of people, city bred who never leave either through lack of desire or lack of ability, that have never seen the Milky Way, much less a starry night and I think what a travesty. Light pollution is one of the things that eventually drove me out of the city but I didn’t go far enough or isolated enough. Yes, I do see more stars but living in a neighborhood, even though the lots are half to an acre, means neighbors that keep lights on all night. Fortunately, not all. still I am disappointed.

    I remember visiting my parents’ friends’ bay house in Clear Lake growing up. It was black as pitch and the Milky Way shone. I would stargaze and that’s where I learned some of the constellations. During my mid 40s to mid 50s I was a river guide and the place I most often worked was through Boquillas Canyon on the Rio Grande in Big Bend. the night sky was glorious.

    1. Today, you wouldn’t fare so well in Clear Lake. Light pollution has ruined the skies here. Between Houston, the Port, and the petro-chemical complexes to the north, and Texas City to the south, it’s a wonder we can see anything at all. There are times in the fall that more stars are visible, and I have been able to see the planets, certain comets, and the space station, but we need a strong front to scrub out the humidity.

      I’ve yet to make it to Big Bend, but I hope to some day. The timelapse photos I’ve seen of the stars there are phenomenal. My best viewing ever has been offshore, but even so, you have to pick your spot. Sailing through the oil platforms off Louisiana’s like a stroll down Broadway, light-wise.

      Have you read about the efforts in Dripping Springs to curb light pollution? It’s quite a story, and one that I hope can serve as a model for other places.

  9. I traveled to Ireland via planetarium software, set the time to 10:30, and followed the arc of the Big Dipper to Arcturus in the SW sky. Spica was spiked to the horizon at that time.

    1. What fun! Even with all of the glorious technology we have, it’s worthwhile to hold on to the old sayings and memory aids. They don’t weigh a thing in a backpack, and they don’t require upgrading or updating every two weeks.

  10. Someone said to me recently, “honor darkness, you will feel love there.” I can imagine that looking down on the streets of New York during the blackout you didn’t feel the love—but perhaps you did with your friends waiting in the darkness. A reader described their mother making coffee and cooking for the neighbors through the night of a blackout. Most certainly you felt it lying beneath the stars with your father.

    The only blackouts I experienced were in my house in the country. I had a wood stove, kerosene lanterns, and candles. I even cooked on the wood stove. But blackouts were so infrequent I missed them. I loved the stillness and quiet without the hum of lights and that darn refrigerator. When the lights came on I would recognize how much noise I lived with everyday…in the country.

    1. I smiled when I read your description of your blackouts in the country. I’m not sure I’d consider a blackout that comes furnished with a wood stove, kerosene lantern, and candles a “real” blackout — but I’m the one who spent years going up to a cabin in the hill country in order to carry water from a spring, use a wood-burning stove for heat, and Coleman lanterns for light. Darkness by choice beats enforced darkness by a mile, and learning the joys of darkness by choosing them makes the enforced darknesses of life more bearable.

      Still, I take your point. When the power goes out, the silence is noticeable, even in the daytime. The most obvious noise producers here are the AC and refrigerator, but even the computer, the water heater, and one light fixture have something to say. What I do like is my parents’ grandmother clock, which sits in the living room. Its comfortable ticking goes on, electricity or no. It’s one of the most comforting sounds in the world, and for some entirely odd reason, if I take the time to really listen to it, I always end up remembering this song.

  11. It’s not the darkness — it’s the sounds and smells that go with it. The shadows that one can’t identify. The crash, the scream, or as you mentioned, the sirens. I can see why blackout in the big city would be far more frightening than the darkest of night in just about anywhere, including Liberia, in the world. We don’t have a lot of them here. The system rarely gets that overtaxed, although a few years ago at Christmas, Rick was without electricity for 11 days. Fortunately, I had it. But much of our city was out for at least a week. The days weren’t so bad — apart from bloody cold. But at a time when the world seems flooded with extra lights, it felt sad. (Not to mention those trying to grab a hotel room or hit the road for relatives and hope their pipes didn’t freeze.) I’ve learned at the lake to keep the flashlight handy, though it seems we’re rarely out of power at night. Still…

    There is much to see in the dark. You mentioned the constellations. It’s shocking how many more stars I see here in the north than at home. And of course, I’m still getting a bit of light…

    That would be quite the experience, Linda. Not, I think, as lively as the Doris Day movie, “Where were you when the lights went out?” I guess if I’d been with James Garner, it wouldn’t have been so bad!

    1. Getting used to darkness in the country takes time, too. A snorting deer can sound remarkably human at 3 in the morning, and as for armadillos, just one of those can sound like an army marching through the woods. At least a siren’s recognizable. When I first began spending time in the woods, I didn’t have a clue. Much more recently, I came to realize that I hadn’t been hearing really big bullfrogs in the slough; all that grunting came from the alligators.

      I well remember your Christmas storm, and all the complications it brought. We have brief outages of a couple of hours every now and then, so I have flashlights in several places. The last one wasn’t weather-related, though. A drunk driver took out a utility pole, and there went the neighborhood.

      When you mentioned that movie title, it brought back a childhood ditty that certainly predated the 1965 blackout. It went: “Where was Moses when the lights went out? Down in the cellar eating sauerkraut.”
      There are variations, but that one goes back to at least 1901; there’s a recording of it in the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

  12. I recall a time over 50 years ago… close to 60 something…. my parents carried me outside into the dark. They and the neighbors were looking up… looking for a moving object that was placed in orbit. They talked of their worries that Russia is becoming stronger than the USA…
    I was more interested in what all those tiny lights were in the night sky. It was the very first time, I had ever seen the stars. Before, my mother always had me inside away from the cold or the summer mosquitoes. Never had been shown the stars… I started asking questions and my parents quickly understood my lack of knowledge and sat about making sure the hole was filled in… soon afterwards, I was introduced to lighting bugs…
    To see a sky full of dots of lights and tiny yellow pin points of lights in the air around me… made the nighttime into a special magical time… and worth all the mosquito bites which mom rubbed Clorox on… and dumped into the bathwater.

    1. And I like it when the lights go out…. there’s just too many street lights around and love the certain kind of quietness without the humming of electric power.

      1. There are a lot of us who enjoy that, although I must say I enjoy the benefits of air conditioning. When that’s not humming along, it can be uncomfortable, and even dangerous. We don’t build for hot weather down here any more. Those verandas, high ceilings, and breezeways in Victorian homes had a purpose!

      2. Patti, I just realized my first comment to you went in the “wrong” spot and might not have shown up in your notifications tab if you’re using WordPress — just a note to let you know it’s there. Usually, I”d just repost it, but I’m temporarily without my usual computer, and it’s more complicated on this iPad.

    2. Stars and fireflies are a magical combination. I’m so glad your parents noticed your curiosity, and took the time to nurture it. Did you ever catch fireflies? I remember punching holes in jar lids, adding some wet grass, and then a few fireflies. I’d put them on the window ledge and watch them until I fell asleep. Then, my mother would take them outside and let them fly free again.

      There aren’t many fireflies in my immediate area, and it’s a little hard to see the stars, but I know they’re there. I suspect you’re still enjoying both — despite the mosquitoes. Now that we have the space station and an assortment of other things to track, the sky’s become an even more interesting place.

      So good to see you, Patti. I hope all’s well, and that you’re not badly affected by the remnants of Barry. Those are some serious rain bands moving across your area.

  13. Linda, there’s something almost magical about total darkness when one lives in a small Midwestern town. One learns to cocoon in, to put on more clothing (or remove some, as the season demands). One realizes the darkness won’t last forever. Power outages from hurricanes are more frightening. One questions whether one is ever going to see normalcy again, and the value of fresh drinking water and electricity to cook on soars. But I can’t imagine being in total darkness in a place as immense as NYC!!!

    1. Even a city as large as New York is made up of many neighborhoods, and life goes on within them much as it does in any smaller town. When I lived in Victoria, I knew a woman who never had been to San Antonio, and she was over ninety years old. When I asked her why, she said, “Why should I go there? I have everything I need here.” The same’s true in New York. My aunt, who lived on West 16th in Chelsea, made it to Jersey frequently, but never got farther north than Manhattan’s midtown.

      Power loss means more than darkness, of course, and people who’ve had to cope with hurricanes, blizzards, serious ice storms, and wind storms know all about that. Drinking water’s one thing, but not being able to do laundry is something else. When the Tide Corporation brought in their mobile laundromats after Ike, you would have thought the heavens had opened and the angels had arrived. Little things aren’t always so little.

  14. We do not know the dark as they did before the advent of gas, and later electric lighting. We have become so divorced from the natural world that few of us ever know how precious the camp fire becomes on a long, dark night.

    1. You’re exactly right about the great divorce from the natural world. We’ve both been lucky to have experiences along the way that have kept us connected, and aware of the value of that campfire. I’ve wondered a time or two whether the growing popularity of chimineas might not be related. Things that go bump in the night — whether in reality or only metaphorically — don’t seem to bad when we gather around the light.

  15. Wonderful post, Linda. I experienced the darkness during Hurricane Harvey. Weh I was finally let back in I was in a line for five hours to get through the checkpoint. When I got to my house, darkness had fallen. I had no light except for my phone. The neighborhood, normally alive and well lit was quiet and dark. I went in and finally found a flashlight. I couldn’t see the damage well but did look out at the total blackness of the night. It was unnerving. I can’t imagine being in New York.

    1. There’s at least one way in which your experience and that of the New Yorkers was the same; there were multiple images and videos posted of people using their phone flashlights to do really important stuff: like getting a sandwich at the local bodega.

      When we have “normal” power outages here, it’s interesting to look out and see how people are coping. Some places, like the Hilton across the lake, obviously have generators. Someone in an apartment down the way always drags out the sort of spotlight used on boats and plays with it for a while, while the soft glow of battery-powered LEDs shows up here and there. But even then, the glow of Houston and the ship channel offer some reassurance: someone has power. After a storm like Harvey, and even in NYC in 1977, that kind of reassurance wasn’t so easy to come by.

  16. You are the best at taking a current event, linking it back to another (this one was pretty easy!), and then unspooling a whole other narrative on the topic and its offshoots. I enjoyed your path that led to night and darkness in general. I love the cloak of full night in circumstances like the ones you had with your dad, but after I was burglarized here in Houston, I’m a little more fearful on the rare and short occasions we lose power at night. My imagination before that might have scared me a tad, but now it seems that little bit worse.

    1. That’s right — this one was an easy connection. When the lights went out last weekend, I cancelled all plans for a different post and pulled this one out of the archives. I did some editing (I am a better writer than I was five years ago! — or at least a different writer) and enjoyed the process.

      Experiences do shape our response to events and circumstances, and the effects of something like your burglary can linger much longer than many people understand. Sometimes differences in response don’t seem entirely rational, either. I was in a very bad hit-and-run accident that totaled my car in the early 1980s, and it hardly affected me. I got back in my new car and took to the freeways with no problem. But a recent almost-disaster on a local highway where three cars behind me were t-boned, smashed, and totaled made me unbearably nervous for a couple of weeks. I’m over it now, but it still seemed odd to me that a near-miss could seem worse than a real hit.

  17. From what I just saw on the evening news, New Yorkers turned the blackout into a street party with song and dance. Good for them. There are strong passions and community angers still but at least for one night folks tried to look on the ‘bright’ side.

    Here in Western Massachusetts we had our own extended blackout in 2011 due to a Halloween surprise snow storm. At that time of the year, snow is heavier than during winter months and that made trees break and wires come down. We lost our magnolia. Five days we were without lights etc.However, our wood stove was an advantage as we could at least have hot meals. I personally ended the blackout by taking a cold shower. Power returned a half hour later. :)

    My family spent summers in the Adirondacks during my childhood. We were in a small town with few street lamps up on the hill so nights were brilliantly starlit and, once eyes adjusted, one could make his or her way down the dirt roads and enjoy the country style of nightlights.

    As always, your writing evokes thought and, in this case, memories. Thanks for the good read.

    1. My favorite part of watching New York’s event from the outside was seeing the number of people who took over directing traffic. Some of them were quite good at it; they might have been transferring skills from some other part of their life.

      We don’t get any real snowstorms here, but we do have ice storms from time to time; they can have the same effect, taking down trees and power lines galore.During an ice storm in the ’90s, there were probably hundreds of trees that toppled. Even in a treeless marina, ice storms can cause problems. A friend once neglected to turn her boat ahead of a storm, and ended up with her north-facing companionway frozen shut under a couple of inches of ice. That was before the cell phone era, and it took a bit of time for someone to notice her plight and chip her out.

      Most people don’t realize that starlight is real, and bright. The starshine that’s in the title of the famous song is equally real, and not only associated with our sun.

      1. Even in a fairly rural setting such as our neighborhood, the light pollution makes it difficult to see much aside from the few larger stars and basic constellations. I retire too early to really consider photographing the milky way, but if I did I’d have to travel a good distance to be able to do so. We are going to Acadia and shooting it over the ocean would work…but my sleep habits might get in the way.

        In watching all those everyday folks directing traffic I was hoping to see one like this guy.

  18. Thanks for sharing this timely, and rich post from 5 (!) years ago. It brought to mind an apocalyptic power outage about the same time in Ontario. I recall driving home and the freeway seeming chaotic, with cars pulled over and people looking lost. But I’ve come to appreciate (rare) power outages in the evening (in warmer seasons!). There is a balm in the dark that loses something of its potency when we know that light is a switch away. Forced dark settles you into it, maybe. A nearer approximation of that happens when camping, especially back country camping with its distance from cars etc.

    And what a lovely memory with your Father. Thanks for sharing it, it is just beautiful!

    1. I suspect you’re remembering the 2003 outage; I just read that at the time it was the second most widespread outage in the world. It’s interesting, too, that a software bug led to problems with the alert system: apparently the same sort of cause as in NYC last weekend. I found myself pondering how neatly these blackouts reveal yet another aspect of our dependency. Some is natural, like that of a child on parents, but other forms are created and nurtured by people who profit from our dependence. Hello, Amazon/Apple/Google/Facebook et. al.

      You would have liked my father. He was a wonderful traveling companion, even for a grade-schooler.

  19. Living for the most part in some place in the back of beyond, darkness is a sleepy ol friend.
    Stars are much more interesting than glaring city lights.

    1. The back of beyond’s a great place. On my About page, I wrote that my favorite place to be is a hundred miles from anywhere. That’s still true for me, at least partly because of that wonderful, shining darkness.

  20. This is such an interesting post, with so many tangents and details. I worked at an observatory for some time so I relate to the night sky touchstone. However ‘… only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us’ – complete darkness makes me feel claustrophobic, so I think that I would have felt the opposite, stifled, not that limitless unfathomable distance.

    1. I think there’s good reason the phrase ‘suffocating darkness’ stays around. It’s a familiar experience that can produce anxiety even in people who aren’t necessarily claustrophobic,

      I’ve never know anyone who worked in an observatory; have you ever written about those experiences? Observatories, like lighthouses, are steeped in romance, but I suspect the day to day responsibilities can verge on the mundane.

      Speaking of science, I was delighted to see Alan Turing on the new fifty pound note. It’s a good and refreshing choice.

      1. Definitely a step in the right direction re. Turing. Not sure too many people will ever see those 50s though. Lots of shops just won’t take them (typical target for counterfeit schemes).
        Working at the RGO on La Palma was a magical time, but only a short stint for me as I fell pregnant while working there. The day to day stuff was pretty normal, but the location and night work was anything but!

        1. I have my own memories of the Canary Islands. When I left Liberia, I traveled overland for a time and then took a flight to San Cristóbal de La Laguna,Tenerife, on my way to London. I stayed in the most wonderful hotel. How I ended up in such a luxe place I can’t remember, but I do remember looking around at the royal blue and white color scheme, the fresh flowers, and the chilled wine, and then saying to the bellhop, “I’ll bet you have hot water, too.” I have no idea what he thought, but I knew my priorities!

  21. We’re so unconnected to the natural world that we’re flummoxed and fearful when it reminds us of its power, and our true lack of control. I remember news stories of the power outage in NY and those since and have experienced minor examples when our area delivers thunderstorms and winds which leave us in the dark. Your essay is a good reminder of our dependence on artificial…everything.

    1. Speaking of our dependence on artificial everything, this may amuse you. Yesterday I came home to no internet service. I’m still without, although I’m promised a visit by a technician tomorrow. Presumably, he’ll make it all better. I certainly hope so. This iPad gizmo is fine for email and almost fine for commenting on blogs, but there are a lot of things that are a lot easier on my desktop. Still, the irony of it all — writing about the NYC blackout and then experiencing an outage of my own, is substantial.

      That disconnection from nature you mentioned is evident even where daily weather is concerned. People demand that meteorologists produce impossible forecasts (“Will it rain on my garage sale next week?”) and then get angry when the forecast isn’t right. I remember, and still use, the weather wisdom I learned as a child: halos around the moon, the call of the ‘rain raven,’ the flight of birds, and the building of fire ant mounds are filled with information for those willing to pay attention.

      1. I saw your lack of connection lament on Steve’s blog. It is ironic that you write about electric outage and lo and behold! Are you back on, in, or whatever? Moon cycles (and night skies generally) are also an area that most of us aren’t as aware of as our ancestors.

        1. I am up and running. The Xfinity guy arrived on time, and in forty minutes had the problem solved: it had to do with something outside. The best news is that he provided a new coax cable, too, and between that and my new modem, my connection speeds have taken a real jump. I was fine with what I had, but if I were inclined to play Fortnight, I’d be all set!

    1. Thanks, Carrie. One thing is certain — the events that are most fraught with difficulty often produce some of the best stories — once a little time has passed.

  22. Oh, the veneer of civilization is indeed thin. Cities are the worst possible places to be when disasters strike, or even something as simple as the lights going out. I was raised almost feral, I loved the blackness of the countryside and always feel at peace when the street lights disappear. Fab post, I did enjoy it.xxx

    1. On the other hand, there can be as much helpfulness and heroism as inconvenience and violence, too. I still laugh when I think of us all lined up at that fire hydrant with towels and soap, and I loved seeing the videos of people who stepped into the breech to direct traffic during the recent blackout.

      I’m thinking that your experiences with that country childhood helped to predispose you toward your engagement with wildlife of all sorts. It’s another example of an important lesson that needs to be re-learned in every generation: if we make friends with nature as children, we won’t see it as an enemy as adults.

  23. Living in cities make us forget the beauty of the night skies in the country. I miss those days growing up out up in the brush with no city lights around. But don’t want to be without power. We now have two solar generators ready for any loss of power. Great post!

    1. It’s fun reading your comment about growing up “out in the brush” and being able to visualize what kind of countryside you’re referring to. It’s a landscape that many people wouldn’t think of as conventionally “pretty,” but it does have equal beauty and interest — and those stars!

      One disadvantage of apartment living is that things like generators aren’t possible. On the other hand, around here, it’s easy to spot the places that do have generators when the lights go out. The Johnson Space Center and the Hilton hotel are obvious, but there are a few boats that have them, too. There’s nothing more amusing that seeing a trawler glowing away in the middle of an otherwise dark marina. Like you, there are a lot of boaters who utilize solar as well as gas, and it serves them well.

  24. When I saw “Westchester” for some reason I thought UK & I thought “MAN that is some butterfly effect!” Ha! You’re right that darkness in the city has a very different flavor than darkness in the country. Your experience sounded like the beginning of some apocalyptic novel. Love the painting and the poem!

    1. Facebook outages can go worldwide, but so far the electric grid blackouts, however large, haven’t found a way to cross oceans yet — one benefit of real, versus virtual transmission lines, I suppose. On the other hand, internet outages can be just as disruptive, and maybe more so, depending on which service is disrupted, and where.

      I loved that painting and poem combination, too. If you haven’t read much of Boland, I think you’d like her work. Some of her poems don’t appeal to me at all, but that’s true with every poet. She’s got a bit of what I think of as a comfortable edge, which makes her poems especially interesting.

  25. Gosh, I remember that big blackout. I can still recall images of thousands of people trying to walk home. Heaven knows how far they had to go.

    There’s many a night I spent as a young girl, lying on my back in our backyard looking at the sky. Back then, there wasn’t as much light pollution and I could see the Milky Way and stars strewn across the sky, like a mad painter had flicked his brush full of silver paint everywhere.

    I didn’t see stars like that again until Dad moved to Lake Greenwood. I got a crick in my neck!

    1. Cloud formations by day and stars by night — those were our backyard routines, for sure. And it’s true that the streetlights weren’t much of a bother when it came to obscuring the view. I’ve been trying to remember whether we had much commercial or neon lighting back then, and I just don’t remember it. Even gas stations had only the occasional spotlight on their signs, and minimal lighting at the pumps — at least, in my memory. Of course, those were the days before 24/7 everything. I still can recall Dad going to get gas on a Saturday night for our Sunday trip to Grandma’s house — and doing it before 8 p.m.,when the station closed.

      1. I’m definitely telling my age but I remember when everything shut down by 8:00 or 9:00 in the evenings Mon-Sat. and very little places were open on Sundays. A few eateries. If you didn’t get what you needed before closing times, you just had to wait. Or borrow.

        A far cry from today, where everything, pretty much, is open 24/7 with all the accompanying lights. No wonder we can’t see much more at night in The Burbs besides the moon, Venus and the Big Dipper.

        The local beaches try to enforce lighting bans during turtle nesting season, so stars might be a bit more visible there.

  26. In 1977 I was 18 and living in NYC, but for the life of me I can remember nothing about that blackout. Strange. I am definitely a city person, but I do miss the clear night sky with brilliant stars that can be found in some places outside of cities. I remember it best from the countryside in Israel.

    1. That really is fascinating, that you don’t remember the blackout. I really shouldn’t do this, but — is it possible that you blacked it out of your memory? I know — bad pun. But it is interesting how selective memory can be. There are events in my life that I feel I ought to be clearer in memory, but they just aren’t.

      I’ve lived in cities, and loved them, but urban life isn’t as appealing these days. For one thing, cities I’ve loved have changed remarkably, and I suppose age has something to do with it. The pace of life and the crowds once seemed stimulating. Today? I find myself preferring that life move a little more slowly, and I’m more inclined to take time for those stars.

    1. It’s just as well. My own experiences of urban blackouts, large and small, suggests that the darkness of night in the mountains (or desert) are much preferable. I still remember a few of those sunset photos you’ve posted, and how appealing the encroaching darkness appears.

  27. I’m in awe of your writing and loved how in the morning brilliance “the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief”. I also enjoyed the Edvard Munch painting and the poem below. I’m looking forward to following along for a while and enjoying your posts.. there’s much I can learn from you! Thanks for the ‘follow’.

    1. I’m not sure how I never found your blog — somehow, I think I did, but never followed? I just don’t know. But I’m there now: looking forward to a browse through your site, and to your future posts.

      I’m especially glad you enjoyed the painting and the poem. I thought they fit together well. Most people know Munch for that famous scream, but I’ve always found others of his paintings more memorable.

    2. Just a note — most of my photography lands in my other blog, called Lagniappe. There are links to it in the sidebar and up at the top of this page. I’m only learning, but I’m having a great deal of fun with it.

      1. Thank you. I’ve just posted an intriguing sign that features a little bit of life advice derived from photography terms. It’s rather endearing :)

  28. We do need more darkness, of the purposeful kind. My memory has never been very good, and though I was there, I hardly remember the blackout. Actually I think I’d moved across the river at that point, an early “homesteader” in Hoboken, which I left way before it got crazy with yuppies. I can imagine how traumatic it must have been to be staying with friends in Morningside Heights in the middle of that. The city was so much rougher, even with the lights on, in those days. No wonder your first thought was, “Get me back to Liberia!”

    1. Darkness, space, and time: more of any (or all) of them would be immensely helpful to almost everyone in the nation, I think.

      It’s interesting that another reader who was living in New York at the time doesn’t remember the event. I did smile at “Homesteader in Hoboken.” That (or “Homesteading in Hoboken”) sounds like it should be the title of an HBO mini-series, or at least a memoir. I’m just quirky enough to imagine a combination of text and photos. If McPhee can do the pine barrens, surely there’s room for someone to do the grittier, urban side of things.

      I’ve been trying to recall my feelings from that night, and what I remember is a strange absence of feeling. Looking down on the mayhem in the streets from so many floors above made the scene seem unreal: very much like a tv documentary. Who knows? Maybe part of our problem in this country is that so many who are responsible for decision-making are removed from real events. It could explain some things.

  29. The thin veneer of civilisation that shows itself when darkness hides misdeeds; why must it be so?
    I am very fortunate in that I live in a small place in the hills where lights are turned off at night, houses are dark and there is peace all around, the kind of peace which allows you to stand outside looking up at a starlit sky. The longer you stand and stare the more lights up above appear. It’s magical.

    1. You’ve reminded me of a wonderful insight from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk:
      ““You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

      It’s the standing and staring that’s hard. We’re so often impatient, and when we live in a light-permeated world, we forget some of the simplest physical facts of a different sort of existence, like “letting our eyes adjust to the dark.” Of course, letting our spirits adjust to the dark is a somewhat different, if related, matter. You’re one of the lucky ones; you still have some natural darkness to enjoy.

  30. I’ve only endured “normal” power outages. The longest one, in mildly cold weather, lasted several days. I remember sitting in the dark reading a novel on my IPad, cozy under some blankets. We ate out, and hung out in cafes to catch up on email. Fortunately the outage was local to some neighborhoods, but widespread enough that it took a while to get power back.
    I love the night sky, and spent many hours when I was younger with binoculars or a telescope, learning the constellations, planets, and nebulae. Thanks for reminding me of that beauty!

    1. That’s the kind of outage that can feel like a vacation. It sounds as though it was inconvenient, but not particularly dangerous. The 1977 blackout in NYC, as widespread as it was, didn’t last particularly long. After ice storms and hurricanes, things can go on for a while, as they did for you. What’s amazing is how relatively quickly things can be restored. In Houston after Hurricane Ike, 95 percent of CenterPoint’s 2.26 million customers lost power, but in ten days 75 percent of them had been restored. It took another week to get the rest of the people back online.

      The night sky’s beautiful, and full of stories. While I love the space program, and am fascinated by the various sorts of exploration going on now even in the farthest reaches of the universe, I find myself ambivalent about things like space tourism. The commodification of space isn’t something that appeals. How long, I sometimes wonder, before we gaze at the moon and find an Elon Musk billboard in our view.

  31. I must say that you had an incredible childhood that was filled with love, attention, and teachings. I believe your parents definitely shaped you to become the knowledgeable and curious woman that you are today. I so enjoy reading these essays of so many interesting experiences that are coupled with wonderful poetry.

    1. My childhood and youth were the same mix of struggles and joys that I suspect everyone experiences, but I will say that my parents were the best kind of nurturers: attentive, involved, but not overly protective, and willing to let me explore the world on my own. They allowed me to play, and taught me to work — not a bad combination at all. I still have a few interesting experiences and bits of family history lurking about; if I’m going to write about them, I need to get going!

  32. Mmmm. I’m really liking that Munch painting and those lovely fluid colors. Thanks to your mention of Arcturus, I will look on it anew the next time I’m out walking. It’s one of the few stars I can see easily even in our light-polluted suburbs.

    1. How far behind am I? Why, this far behind, of course! I’m happy you liked the painting. Poor Munch has been so identified with “The Scream” that much of his other work simply isn’t known. I find many of his paintings deeply appealing: comfortable and approachable.

      I’m glad to know you can see at least some of the stars. There’s nothing better. One of the great treats of autumn here is that lowered humidity helps to clear the skies, and we can begin to see again what’s been there all the time.

  33. ” Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless… ”
    I read this, paused, read it again and thought, “Blackout?”
    Earth to Lisa! Yes, and via bloggers like dear Linda, I often learn about current events that would have otherwise passed without ever reaching my reading field. Thank you, and thanks for again weaving stories into a lovely narrative,

    Once a tornado barreled through downtown Natchez, and that night we hosted a gathering/dinner with neighbors and guests at the house/B&B. Still without power, the home was extra lovely with the candle-lit atmosphere, and many guests stated, “If the power comes back on, please, let’s cut it back off.”

    Here in the tropics, I sometimes am delighted for power outages, as with the absence of power, there is also an absence of cumbia music being played at full volume! Ah, silence, glorious silence!

    Some of my most-favorite memories of the absence of light in the evening are of meteor-viewing nights – or of watching eclipses when the moon turns lovely colors of orange. There’s a quote, ‘When it’s dark enough, one can see the stars.’ — I am writing off line, so am unable to search for proper credits for that quote!

    Now I’m moving to the other post about Sweet Betsy from Pike; I scanned that post before logging off, and of course the song was on repeat mode in my mind for another few hours!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.