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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

It Takes Darkness to See the Light   

A Pittsburgh reporter's adventures in a blacked out Manhattan


By Tom Barnes
     

They picked the least likely guy in Pennsylvania to cover the big blackout in New York City.

I was stunned, shortly after pulling into the state capital in Harrisburg late in the afternoon of August 14, when my editor in Pittsburgh wanted me to get back in the car and go another four hours to Manhattan.

One of my guiding principles has always been steering clear of New York. Can't say why, exactly. Always hated the Yankees. Never liked the Mets, Jets or the Rangers either, but that's probably because I'm from Pittsburgh. I guess I just thought the place was too congested, too noisy, too arrogant and, maybe, too dangerous. "You want me to WHAT?" I blurt into the cell phone. "Are you nuts? I know nothing about Manhattan streets even during the day, and I won't be able to see anything when I get there."

I'd just driven four hours from Pittsburgh on my first day as the paper's new Statehouse correspondent. I had been enjoying an hour-long nap when my editor called with news that much of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada had lost their juice. Post-Gazette editors in Pittsburgh--which didn't lose power--were dispatching reporters to Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo and also wanted someone in New York City.

Though I told them that was a lot of trouble for something that AP could supply, they weren't looking for my input. "What am I supposed to do if and when I get there?" I ask, feeling wimpy. "Call me on your cell phone when you get into New Jersey," an editor says. "They may not even let you into the city. We heard the tunnels were closed."

I've been in many situations where I've been clueless but never learned to like it. I don't even have a map in the staff car. I'm not even sure which highways to take. About 8 p.m. I stop for gas halfway across Jersey at a station with lights. "Did the lights ever go out here?" I ask a kid. "Yeah, but they came on an hour or so ago," he says.

Just after 10, I near Manhattan. Passing Newark, lights become more sporadic. Some billboards and road signs are lit, but not most. A faint glow emanates from a few buildings in Manhattan. Backup generators, I guess. It's spooky.

I'd been following signs for the Holland Tunnel, but they disappear about five miles from the city. I feel lost and ready to admit defeat and seek a motel. Then all of a sudden there it is--cars disappearing into a two-lane hole under the river. I pull off to the side and asked a Port Authority cop if the tunnel is open. It is. So much for not getting into the city.

Halfway through the long, darkened tunnel, the cars begin lining up. Thanks to my non-air conditioned staff car, sweat is pouring off me. Two lanes of traffic snake for 20 underground minutes before I emerge in lower Manhattan. The night sky is so dark that at first I don't even realize I'm out of the tunnel.

I admit it, I'm intimidated. It was close to 11 and I'd already missed at least one deadline, so I pull out of the heavy street traffic and try to dictate impressions of the scene to a colleague in Pittsburgh. "You can't park there, buddy," barks a cop, emerging from the blackness. I foolishly plead for mercy as a reporter on deadline. "Move it," he insists.

Hardly anyone is out, but I find a lone guy. I figure he's not gonna like a stranger approaching him in the dark, but he calmly says he's just walked for four hours from Brooklyn to stay with someone he knows in the city. A few weird interviews later, I feed the quotes to an editor in Pittsburgh who, under the conditions, weaves them into a decent story.

About 11:15 p.m. my editor suggests heading to Midtown, thinking there will be more people there as well as a shot at a hotel room. Having no idea how to get there, I ask a traffic cop who, after snapping at me for talking on the cell (it's illegal in Manhattan while driving), nicely adds, "And turn left on 6th Avenue."

As I near Times Square, people are everywhere--hundreds, probably thousands, lining both sides of the street. I creep along, afraid of hitting someone. I happen upon the Algonquin Hotel and remember something about famous writers of the 1920s hanging out there. I famously need a room.

But there's nothing at the Algonquin or at several other lodging spots around Times Square. Hundreds of guests at the Marriott Marquis spill outside the hotel, leaning against luggage or sprawled on the ground, unable to get into their rooms.

Though the situation is lousy, almost everyone's spirits are up. There's no panic, no anger, no screaming. People are helping each other out. I'm thinking I'd unfairly judged New Yorkers all these years.

On the way back to the car, I spot a hotel on 44th I'd somehow missed, the Iroquois. The clerk says there's one room left, reserved for a guy who hasn't shown up yet. His boss says I can have it. "The bad news is it's on the 12th floor," the clerk says. Out of 12.

I'm not complaining. The bellhop grabs my bag and, flashlight in hand, leads me up a narrow staircase. Puffing all the way, we finally make it to Room 1205. I pull a Nestea, then a Coke, then a bottle of water from the small refrigerator and quickly down them: The paper is paying. I take another bottle of water into the bathroom and pour it over my head.

The next morning I'm back on the street--I can see where I'm going this time--and spend several hours interviewing folks on how they handled the blackout. It wasn't that hard, they say, especially after the horror of 9/11. I phoned the story in from none other than the New York Times.

So what have I learned from 24 hours in a darkened city? For one, I was wrong to doubt my editor's idea to send someone there. And, perhaps, I may also have been wrong about New York. With the lights back on, I may even come back.