The night New York City went dark
Thursday, July 14, 1977, 10:02 a.m.
Nick and I are sitting slouched and dragged-out at the bar in Jimmy Day's, determined to drink whatever drinkable beer might be left in Greenwich Village before it all warms up. There is nowhere to go, no relief from the heat anywhere; the blackout has stopped even time. People sit around wherever they happen to be, or walk by outside the windows, limp and red-eyed, sticky with sweat. Everyone going about whatever they do in dim darkness inside and bright swelter out. But making no progress; nothing works and nothing gets done.
Even the bars, which had at first taken on a fresh, festival air of frolic, a kind of Mardi Gras-like larking, have grown dreary and wrung out, everyone weary, food beginning to rot in refrigerators, ice gone, beer warming helplessly on shelves of walk-ins and reach-ins everywhere — this last development being our principal concern at the moment, Nick's and mine.
It had brought us after a long night to Jimmy Day's, the high-ceilinged, big-windowed, early-morning corner place where people came after the afterhours joints closed and before other Village bars opened for the day.
Nick and I had not been in the afterhours; we'd just stayed on at the Bells, our bar, the place we worked, sitting around in candlelight after closing, waiting for some reason to leave.
Wednesday July 13, 9:34 p.m.
There had been a kind of a sound to it, more a whispered gasp than a shriek, as everything — the world — went black.
Then, unexpectedly, impossibly, Peter, the owner, was coming out of the back room, lighting candles from a box he had somehow come up with — telling us later that he'd remembered that the former owner of the place always kept them around for those inevitable occasions when he'd fall far enough behind on his bill for Con Ed to cut the power.
The papers and news magazines later report that at right about that moment, Mayor Beame was making this very point, when, while speaking with a group of voters at a synagogue in the Bronx when the lights went out, he quipped, "See, this is what you get for not paying your bills."
The waitresses began lighting and delivering candles to tables around the room and along the bar, the place taking on the glow of a bygone era.
Uptown, naked cast members of the avant-garde Broadway review "Oh, Calcutta!" crawl from the darkened stage, wrapping themselves in bits of clothing offered by people in the audience, then stumble out into a bewildering blackness on the Great White Way to look for cabs.
Within seconds, the front door of the Bells was choked with people crowding to get in, the room suddenly swelling with humanity that came spilling in from the neighborhood's instantly useless apartments and befuddlingly blackened streets.
In the skies over Queens, commercial pilots — who had moments earlier been easing their planes down through the humid summer night when the runway lights at Kennedy and LaGuardia and a vast blanket of glittering civilization below them suddenly blinked out and vanished — began on instructions from control towers to lift their planes toward Philadelphia, Newark or Boston.
Nick and I scrambled to keep up, strangers and regulars alike shouting for our attention across the bar. But it was pointless. Without electricity, the soda guns didn't work, the cash register was locked shut, and every second brought new hordes pouring through the door — their numbers seemed limitless, daunting.
In Brooklyn, amusement park revelers in summer shirts damp with sweat turn Coney Island's giant Ferris wheel by hand from the ground, bringing down those souls stranded aloft.
"I'll go get the crank from Hilly's place," I called to Nick, then ducked under the hatch, too many people leaning on top of it to open, and started to squeeze my way out through the crowd.
I knew the gay bar that had opened across the street where Hilly's art bar used to be had a mechanical lever that would open a jammed cash drawer. We'd used it before.
Passengers on subway trains stalled too deep down in the tunnels to allow escape through a nearby station begin what will become hours of tedium and swelter, awaiting rescue.
Outside, the streets were remarkably busy, filled with dazed but not unhappy people strolling and moving about in the darkness. People whistling and hooting and calling to one another —to complete strangers — everyone feeling somehow charged by the outage, stricken by the wonder and surprise of it all, as though they'd found themselves guests at a great surprise party thrown completely out of the blue in their honor, a gift from nowhere.
Crowds are growing on the streets of Bushwick, Jamaica and Harlem, Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
At the corner, a guy standing out in the middle of Sixth Avenue was playing traffic cop, directing traffic through the intersection with a flashlight, everyone, even cabbies, obeying his commands in the most unlikely, un-New Yorky way imaginable.
I rushed in and out of Hilly's place and back to the Bells, the throng inside when I yanked open the door having grown even in the brief minute I'd been gone.
The first of the 22,000 fans who'd been watching the Mets losing in the sixth inning to the Cubs, start to fumble their way down the dark stairways of Shea stadium.
I squeezed my way back behind the bar, the only few feet of safety and relative comfort in the whole place. People on the other side were now packed as tightly as riders in a rush hour subway car.
Somewhere in Queens a brick is thrown crashing through a store window.
By 10:30 p.m., Nick and I had settled into a steady rhythm. Nothing we did would help us keep up with this kind of crowd. We knew that. So we didn't try, just hit a certain acceptable stride and let things play out, waiting for the power to come back on. Which I kept thinking would be any minute.
Cars backed up to storefronts on Fordham Road in the Bronx rip down window bars with chains hooked to their axles. Iron pops. Glass shatters. Voices rise in frenzy. A faint smoke drifts from a Brooklyn factory warehouse overrun by looters.
In Manhattan, teen gangs snatch purses and rob pedestrians unchecked on East Fourteenth Street, blocks from the Bells. Uptown, grown men are hauling boxes of steaks and roasts from a breached meat market on 125th Street. Ten blocks to the south, two 10-year-old boys try to wrestle a color television out the smashed front door of an appliance store.
Video courtesy of PBS' American Experience, "Blackout."
Rules were the first things to go. I more than once noticed a certain woody fragrance drifting out of the back room, forcing me to leave the bar and go back there to tell people at one table or another to stop smoking dope in the place like it was bloody Morocco or somewhere. It's a power outage, you know, not an amnesty, I scolded. We could lose our license.
Sorry, man, sorry, they'd say, snubbing out a joint in the ashtray as casually as they might sitting around Timothy Leary's living room, the roach slipped under the cellophane of a cigarette pack and pocketed — Sorry, man, really. I wasn't thinking.
Thursday, July 14, 12:37 a.m.
Homeowners in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill stand watch from their stoops, sharing small talk and cigarettes with neighbors, their flashlight beams sweeping the darkness. Posses of teenage vigilantes patrol the Italian merchant districts of Myrtle Avenue armed with baseball bats. Fire fighters responding to the now-blazing warehouse fire are met with a hail of rocks and bottles from the crowd. The Jamaican security guard in an A&P supermarket drives looters back out the store's broken front windows by flashing his pearl-handled machete their way. Blocks away, a drugstore owner has just shot a man brandishing a crowbar, even as others continue to stream in through the store's bent window bars.
The Bells is stifling. People keep coming in, but no one leaves. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and noise. Happy noise. No one, it seems, other than Nick and myself, has the slightest concern or thing to do. Everyone is liberated.
A bagpipe's lonely keening rings without cease through the hollow caverns of Grand Central Terminal, the anonymous gift of an unknown piper.
Shortly before three o'clock in the morning, sick of it, but with no end in sight, I stopped to light a cigarette. What the hell was taking so long with the lights? What are the people in charge of these things doing, for God's sake?
Flames from the warehouse fire in Brooklyn leap the street, setting the first of four tenement apartment houses opposite it ablaze. Sirens wail in the night.
At 4 a.m., closing time, people simply refused to leave, just would not be driven off, as though the blackout had brought with it some abrogation of the liquor laws, as if, with no clocks to keep track of it, closing time had lost any meaning at all.
The latest of what will be more than 40 firemen injured overnight twists an ankle on debris fighting the Brooklyn warehouse fire.
While workers at Consolidated Edison electric company scrambled to restart their failed power system, New York City's police force tried to maintain order with no lights or radio equipment. Video courtesy of PBS' American Experience, "Blackout."
Thursday, 5:27 a.m.
Finally, when we'd cleared everyone out, Nick and I just settled in at the bar, the two of us, waiting, drinking, resigned to stay put — as though there were some purpose to our vigil. Peter had gone once it was clear the crowd would disperse. We were on our own.
A fire department rescue squad at last cuts through the back of an elevator trapped between floors of the New York Hilton, releasing its eight occupants.
We talked about people who'd been in, about people who hadn't, wondering why not, where they'd ended up. About books. About writers. Hemingway in Paris, Fitzgerald on blue lawns (Blue, Nicko? You sure?) and drunk at the Plaza.
Physicians at Brooklyn's Jewish Hospital tend the wounds of those battered by the blackout — knife and glass cuts, mostly — in a parking-lot-turned-emergency-room lit with spotlights powered by fire department generators.
I trusted Nick on the literary matters. He was a writer. A real writer, I thought, had a recurring, if occasional, column in "The Village Voice" and a couple of almost-finished novels that I'd never seen but some other people had.
He began to grumble now about the column he was trying to finish, how he couldn't get back to it now, not with the blackout and all, how the whole damned thing had made it impossible for him to meet his deadline — damned difficult, he complained.
Precinct lock-ups and courthouse holding pens swell. By daylight, some will hold 10 times the number they were built to handle.
We sat on, waiting for who knows what; ashtrays filled; the darkness eased.
Eventually, the unexpected sound of a key being slipped in the front door shattered our idyll. The porter, a cranky ex-merchant seaman had come, as he did every morning, to clean the place up.
As light breaks over the city, crowds thin, melting back into neighborhoods.
He was going to be a lot to deal with on a morning like this one. We knew that.
"All right, lads, let's have yous now."
We grabbed a cab for Jimmy Days, a few blocks to the south.
The Brooklyn warehouse and tenement ruins glow red and grey in the early sunlight, smouldering ash heaps.
From the the bar in Jimmy Days, we watched people tramping by outside on the sidewalk.
Across the city, more than a thousand fires burn at some point during the night, nearly 1,700 false alarms are called in. Police intake books tally nearly 4,000 arrests in the city's five boroughs.
"They say it was lightning, Nicko," I said, skimming the pages of a Daily News someone had left on the bar. "Lightning! Hit a power station or something."
Nick grunted in response.
I glanced over accounts of fires and looting with amazement; a spontaneous city-wide brawl seemed to have broken out without our ever knowing it.
Nothing like that had happened in the Village, other people at the bar confirmed. Only a few had heard anything about it. Like us, most said they'd been pretty busy.
The paper also reported that the city had reopened its mothballed Tombs prison — just so they'd have somewhere to put all the people arrested overnight. The Tombs! Man, I thought that sounded like an excellent place to stay out of.
Nick said to hell with it, he was headed home. "See you tonight, if it ever comes."
"Me too, I gotta get some sleep."
The streets outside were blazing bright, the air thick, difficult to breathe. It had grown old, this blackout. I yearned for the electric world.
Word in the Lion's Head, where I'd stopped in hoping for a quick bite of dinner before work — the kitchen was barely running — was that power would be coming back on sometime before daylight.
Several newspaper reporters at the bar — the Lion's Head counted a large number of newspapermen and writers among its regulars — confirmed that a few power stations were already firing again. But the re-lighting of the city will come gradually, they said, in waves. First, the outer boroughs. Then Manhattan, starting uptown.
Someone across the room said the lights were already on at the fringes of Queens and on Staten Island, places that right now sounded to me as distant as Wyoming.
I imagined early sparks of light glowing like fiery new stars in the city's crown, the glittering rebirth descending in a bright veil southward, bursting across Washington Heights into Harlem, pouring down around Central Park, through Midtown, Murray Hill, Hell's Kitchen, and Chelsea — then, finally, sometime before morning, reaching us here in tiny, tired Greenwich Village.
I felt myself relax. The twentieth century would be restored. We'd made it.
Editor's Note: NewsHour deputy senior producer David Coles was working as a bartender in Greenwich Village on July 13, 1977 when a massive electricity blackout struck New York City, plunging it into darkness. On the 40th anniversary, he shares his memories of those two days.
PBS's American Experience, "Blackout," is available for streaming here until July 17.