Notes on the Great Manhattan Blackout of 2012

The machine has stopped. The night after the hurricane took a bite out of the Big Apple, I lay in my West Village apartment dangerously close to three tea lights trying to read. I couldn’t concentrate on the book, though. The silence was too distracting. I could feel myself descending into my own personal darkness. Without electricity, hot water, heat, and cellphone service, the loneliness ran deeper within me than anything I’d experienced in a very long time. Like there was an impenetrable fortress wall around me; a solitary confinement sort of alienation; or, worse, a purgatory-like solitariness, as if I’d been condemned to live in this blackened paralysis for the rest of my life.

It sounds dramatic, but the machine really had stopped, to paraphrase the title of a prophetic 1909 short story by E. M. Forster. The sci-fi tale is about a society in the future who lives underground and in isolation from one another; they communicate via instant message and video using something called “the speaking apparatus.” Their quotidian existence, their very being, is totally dependent on this Kafka-esque machine – until one day it inexplicably stops and no one really knows what to do or how to interact with each other.A hundred and three years after Forster’s story was published, it’s safe to say we’ve become very used to being connected to the machine. In 2012, if we’re lonely we need only hang out on Facebook or Twitter or watch last night’s “Daily Show” online, transporting us away from ourselves, making us feel connected to something larger, and/or giving us something we’re becoming alarmingly in need of: self-affirmation.

I woke up the next day and the apocalypse that Forster portrayed hadn’t happened. But clearly New York City was in disaster mode. Electricity, someone told me, could be found north of 26th St. So I began walking north to Midtown, joining a steady stream of people marching toward where the machine was still feeding a population desperate for milk. I strode by mobs of people waiting for infrequent busses running up Sixth Avenue. Others tried to flag down cabs, which were low on fuel and in high demand. One woman on the corner of W. 18th St. and Sixth Ave., stood with her cab-hailing arm in the air, next to her sat an aquarium, her 5-foot pet snake waiting patiently for its ride.

In the distance, I could see it: flashing of lights. Streetlights. Electriciity. “Normality.” I crossed over 26th St. and it felt like being transported into a Technicolor world, a magical land where things buzz and flash and produce commodities. I left SoPo, South of Power, behind and strode right into the 21st century, leaving in my trail a cold medieval world lit only by fire. Are there unicorns in Electricland? Maybe. Can I get coffee and check my email on my cellphone there? For sure.

I spent my days working at the Midtown offices of the travel magazine AFAR, who generously let me camp out in their conference room so I could access the machine. I showered at Midtown locations of New York Sports Clubs. After that first day, the magazine’s co-founder and CEO, Greg Sullivan, wanted to descend into the eclipse that is my neighborhood, to see what a once-dynamic part of the city looks when it’s frozen in a technology-less tenebrosity. I immediately volunteered to play Virgil to his Dante and show him around this newly made obscure nether world.

We strolled the narrow, winding streets of the West Village. It felt like – it was – a ghost town. We occasionally passed other explorers, unable to make out a single physical characteristic of each other. We finally retreated into a bar, only lit by candles, but half full with festive drinkers who proudly wore a we’re-in-this-together spirit on their sleeves. Without the machine to keep us distant and distracted, strangers seem more wont to talk to one another.

Afterward, I went back up to my apartment. After another 24 hours of the deafening machine-less silence, I had begun to become more used to it. I lit some candles, opened up that book I’d been reading the night before, and read until I fell asleep into the dark, quiet Manhattan night.

[Photo by Jeremy Kressman]