The lights went out on July 17, 2006 in New York City. They stayed out in the northern part of the borough of Queens. When exactly does a power outage become a blackout? If that particular blackout was any indication, it seems to be when the power company cannot tell you when electricity will be restored. Perhaps the very nature of a blackout is that nobody really knows when it will end.
It was extremely hot during that part of the summer. When the power went out, it gradually became obvious that it would not be repaired anytime soon. People experienced something akin to the stages of grief. Although smartphones were nothing like they are today, the use of texting and cell phones was prevalent enough for concern among their exclusive users. As time went on, people quickly missed air conditioning. It was REALLY hot! Finally, everyone realized that keeping food cold without it spoiling was going to be a major problem.
The Time Factor
As with most of my stories, this one does not focus on the actual event, but how it changed people. Once again, an unexpected and seemingly innocuous happening transpired, but left a lasting impression. And that had everything to do with time.
As the hours turned into days, Astoria, Queens began changing. People came out of their houses and apartments. Suddenly, with no air conditioning, television, computers, or lighting, the sidewalks became populated with folding chairs and people I had never seen before. Older couples sat next to their neighbors and spoke about the past, present, and future. People speculated about when the local utility, Con-Edison (Con-Ed), would have things up and running. The actual Con-Ed power plant ironically spanned a stretch along the East River IN Astoria. Of all places for a blackout.
Con-Ed quickly became the local villain. While supporting the workers on the streets, people began rallying against the company brass. Petitions were signed and seemingly each day Con-Ed would offer more and more to its customers. At first they attempted to require food receipts. Nobody keeps those! They finally bowed to pressure and gave $350 to anyone in the neighborhood who could prove residence. All one had to do was show up at a few centralized locations and checks were handed out on the spot. Businesses could get up to $7000. Corporate PR, under duress, made the correct decision.
Impromptu Gatherings and New Friends
Finally, it was clear that the blackout would last at least a week and possibly more. A few local establishments bought ice from Manhattan, filled bins and buckets with beverages, and opened their sidewalk cafes. One of them was called 718, a French restaurant named after the local telephone area code. It would later become the place where I met my wife. [Read about how we met here]
718 became the go-to place for several of us. It was on a convenient corner and lit with candles. Some folks knew each other, while some simply walked up and joined in on conversations. There was no need for forced introductions, as the blackout was an immediate ice-breaker.
Groups of people ranging from twenty-somethings to people in their sixties gathered at 718. Each evening there was a core group of us, with a new person or two joining in each night. Within days, we only had fleeting conversations about the blackout and began to know one another on a very personal level. These were not weather-report type conversations, but the kind where you truly learn about people. Sitting by candlelight, sipping cold drinks, we became better and better acquainted.
The Power Returns
After approximately eight days, the power returned. With the continuous heat wave, it seemed like a month. People were relieved and slowly went about their regular daily routines. However, the folding chairs stayed out a week or so longer. For a few weeks, more people went for walks. The group of people who spent a little over a week listening to one another’s life stories at 718 continued to meet. To this day, many of us remain close friends.
In My Unexpected Life, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
Even if my writings do not produce the desired result—please enjoy the blog!