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