Last time, a glow came out of the darkness. New Yorkers, those salts of the earth, handled the 1965 crisis with cheerful good humor. During that blackout they coped by being kind. They took it all in stride.
That's what they were trying to sell this time, during the second plunge into the dark. "New Yorkers are taking it in their stride," was the theme of the early radio commentary.
It wouldn't wash. Terror, screams, looting and violence came out of the darkness, along with the acts of kindness and camaraderie. This time, for many New Yorkers coping with the latest blackout meant attempting to survive.
The truth about New York depended upon where you were during the blackout. Parts of the city had a holiday air. Others wore the looks of a war.
Here are some of those scenes and some of that "truth" as garnered from news dispatches or Post reporters:
Uptown, the Bronx, looters broke into the showrooms of a Pontiac dealer. Fifty new cars where driven out into the city through the smashed windows.
At the same time, in Harlem, store after store was being looted and destroyed systematically. A cop said hundreds of stores had been wiped out "as if a bomb was dropped. There is not a single television set left in Harlem."
Another cop added his assessment of what he had witnessed:
"It was the night of the animals," he said.
On the East Side, in midtown, Frank Caride had never slept. He had transformed his restaurant into a community center and place of easy-going good will.
At 11:30 yesterday morning, the two dozen or so tables located outside his cafe were filled: normally, they would be empty at that hour. Somehow, Caride had managed to find an iceman. He was serving chilled Bloody Marys and cold beer. Some of Caride's customers had partied the night away during the blackout. The morning light found them asleep on the restaurant's balcony floor.
To the north, several blocks away, Frank Ottati viewed the blackout from a different perspective. He was sitting in front of his fish store in a cold rage. It had been a terrible night, and a worse day. In typical New Yorker fashion, he began venting his frustrations in a torrent of words:
"First, you couldn't sleep for sweating. Then here were my daughters scared and screaming. Then I get up early to come here and check on the place to see everything is all right to order ice and fresh fish from my supplier. But there's no business. Con Ed - I hate them. I pay bills for $1,100 to $1,200 a month. And if you're a little late they threaten to turn off the service."
Ottati depends on the office-worker trade. There was none yesterday. By noon he had sold exactly a half dozen clams. Thast brought in a buck and a quarter. His final frustration: he couldn't even ring up the sales on his cash register. It runs on electric current.
Hospitals in the city come prepared for power emergencies by having backup generators in place. But a crisis occured at one of New York's and the world's, most celebrated hospitals. Bellesue. The backup power system failed shortly after 10 o'clock Wednesday night.
Fifteen patients were on electrically operated respirators in intensive care units. Their deaths were prevented when doctors and nurses squeezed air hags by hand to revive the patients. The hospital staff worked in a darkness cut by the beam of flashlights. Those lives were saved, and one was delivered - a 7 1/2-pound baby girl was born during the power emergency.
In Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg section, tough by any city's standards, the words of one cop coming over the police radio network starkly sketched the scene:
"People running in the street with cases of liquor, cartoons of shoes, even couches balanced on their heads . . . There's a mob . . . shooting . . . "
An elegant air was maintained in an elegant establishment. The dinner and alter-theater crowds at the Algonquin, the gathering place for the witty and the fashionable, were what they should be. They were orderly and pleasant. Candles in the lobby, naturally. And, in keeping with the moment, there was the ubiquitous presence of Tom Whitside. He was collecting vignettes for Talk of the Town in The New Yorker. Of course.
The Algonquin had its problems, however. Guest rooms there are opened by an electrically operated card-key system. When the power went out, so did the system.
A nightmare came true at Coney Island. The amusement rides were grinding and zooming along in their way when the current went off at 9:34 p.m. Those on top of the 150-foot high "Wonder Wheel" suddenly felt a jerk, a halt of the machinery and found themselves suspended in darkness high over the carnival area. They were saved when 16 policemen and passersby pulled the 200-ton wheel along its track until they reached the ground.
Terror of a different sort swept throught a Greenwich Village apartment when an elevator alarm bell, apparently operated by an emergency power source, sounded ominously. Police, climbing the stairs, heard screams of "There's no air in here, there's no air in here" coming from an elevator stalled above the 17th floor.
They pried open the elevator door enough to see inside. A woman was sprawled on the floor, fainted, and a child huddled in fright. It took them a half-hour more to open the doors and pull out the people inside, one by one, six of them in all.
Business acumen - or cupidity - was present too. Outside the Grammercy Hardware Store on 23d Street the proprietor had posted a sign saying: "But it now, batteries, lights, candles, Stock up." The store opened at 5 a.m. Five hours later it was sold out. "We sold 3,000 candles," said Richard Taylor, a clerk. "We could have sold 1,000 transistor radios."
Perhaps the most important truth about New York, this time in this crisis, is not how different it was from a decade ago.It was why it happened again. This was the Blackout that wasn't supposed to be: New York thought itself safeguarded by a better system.
Yet once again, the electrical unbilical cord snapped, setting off severe shocks to 10 million people scattered over tens of miles of city and suburbs. It hit them all, from the grandest apartment dwellers to the most embittered inhabitants of the slums. And they all reacted, it seems, in keeping with their environments: flames in the slums, calm in the co-ops.
One voice, out of the many, offered this thought: "Suddenly the lights are out and it is very dark, you can't be seen, you're not easily identified. Strangers may be mysterious, but they are not neccessarily malicous."
But not neccesarily mild, either.