'How We Survived the New York Blackout'

'How We Survived the New York Blackout'

If you ever get the chance to stroll along the boardwalk at Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY, stop by "Gyro Corner" and treat yourself to one of those juicy Italian sausage sandwiches, dripping with sautéed onions and dotted with green and red peppers, oozing out of a fresh hot hero roll, made out of that kind of doughy bread you can only get in New York. Chances are Joe will be at the grill, trying his best to cook and create this concoction to greasy perfection, not only so that he can collect your $4.50, but also to see the pleased look on your face as he knows in his heart he has made you exactly what you expected — a sandwich to die for.

Tom (my husband), Mary (my 14-year-old daughter), and I had decided to spend 5 days of our summer vacation this year in New York City, from Aug. 11-15. By the fourth day of our NYC experience, we had already visited Ground Zero, enjoyed the Broadway musical "42nd Street," met some family and ate dinner at Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street, then walked around Greenwich Village. It was time to take the subway and pick up the A train from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan and ride it all the way to Coney Island, to the Stillwell Avenue stop in Brooklyn — almost an hour’s excursion, as we traveled through tunnels under the ground, followed by "the el" all the way to our destination. Tom and I are native New Yorkers from Long Island, and both of us had cherished childhood memories of Coney Island in the 1960s. We had related what we remembered about the amusement area to Mary and we wanted her to experience it for herself … even though it was now four decades later.

AFTER WE HAD GONE for a swim in what felt like close to 100-degree heat, and had finished eating our Italian sausage delights, Mary decided to play some games inside the Arcade with the $5 worth of quarters I gave her. At 3:45 p.m. (and it was Thursday, Aug. 14) … Need I say more? I was facing the ocean, bending down and tying my sneaker, when I heard Mary’s voice behind me — "Mom! Mom!" Still tying my shoe, I told her to wait a minute. She then said, "Look behind you, Mom. The Wonder Wheel stopped!" Sure enough, all the rides behind the boardwalk stood still. Good thing The Cyclone roller coaster has its own generator; those folks who were in the middle of their ride were able to finish it without much mishap. Those on The Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel weren’t as fortunate. Slowly, the ride operators were able to gradually turn the wheel manually so that the people in the swinging cars could make their exit. Meanwhile, we just walked around the boardwalk a bit, hoping the power in the park would turn back on soon. After we walked and took photos of the old parachute ride (which now stands as a monument to the past), it was 4:30 p.m. We walked back to the subway stop, hoping the train would somehow magically be able to make its run. Silly us … We then walked across the road to where there were all these empty buses lined up and down the street, and where the crowd of people anxious to get back to their homes got larger and larger. Then one of the Metropolitan Transit Authority bus drivers carried a big box through the masses and began yelling, "Free maps of Brooklyn here! Find yer own way home!" He told us that no buses were able to go in or out of Manhattan; all the tunnels were closed. And then anticipating our next question, he said, "Good luck findin’ a taxi!"

INSTEAD OF SITTING on the dirty, hot cement, mulling over our predicament, in the middle of countless frustrated individuals trying to use their cell phones to find out any more information on the blackout, Mary and I decided to go on this one water ride that was open for business called "Bumper Boats." For only "fi’ dollas" a person, we each got to sit in our own rubber tube in a 40-foot-square pool filled with water. It was definitely worth it to motor around on top of that small, cool patch of play land as we forgot everything and cooled off by squirting streams of water at each other from these attached guns, thoroughly enjoying getting soaked for 10 glorious minutes.

Getting back to reality, hoping it would be just a matter of hours before the trains and buses would be running again (reality?), we walked back to the boardwalk and beach. Mary and I went for another dip in the water. Tom schlepped along the boardwalk to shoot more photos with his camera, lugging all that goes with it, as well as his trusty tripod. I’m glad we opted for the ocean. The water was refreshing and it was low tide, where Mary could wade and easily climb onto the rocks on the jetty and just "chill." I swam and floated to my heart’s content, trying to block out the blackout. By the time we got out of the water and plopped down onto our hotel towel on the sand, it was 6:30 p.m. What to do now? That was a no brainer for me. It was time for a cold Corona that a Spanish-speaking gentleman was selling — only $3! Another Hispanic who was selling some homemade jewelry sold us some homemade bracelets — only $1 each! I then sat sipping my cold brewski, gazing out over the water as the sun began to set. Although it was not a setting for a Corona beer TV commercial, complete with a frontal view of clear blue-green water and no one around on a Mexican resort beach, I was perfectly content with the scene that was actually in front of me at that precise moment.

WE SAUNTERED UP to through the sand to the boardwalk, just in time to see a beautiful sunset at around 8 p.m. Later on around 9:30 p.m., a blood red moon was waning and rising from the water. Mary said, "It’s a sign of the Apocalypse!" Oh dear … and a blackout to boot …

It must’ve been around 10 p.m. when three Puerto Rican women sitting on the bench next to us began to argue and assail each other with a variety of verbal abuses — all in Spanish. The whole scene peaked our interest and everyone else’s on the boardwalk, but it really got to be a show when one of the women grabbed an icy bottle from the cooler they had and began beating her "friend" over the shoulders and head with it. Next, before we could believe our eyes, the woman being battered picked up an umbrella, ran after her attacker, and whacked her over the head! The poor woman collapsed next to a trash can. My husband then ran down the boardwalk to report this crazy scene to the policemen sitting in a car not too far away. By then, the "collapsee" had recovered and it got a bit quieter. Unfortunately, the policemen did not speak Spanish and so they could not communicate to the "ladies" that they didn’t want to get arrested because it would be a lo-o-o-o-n-g time before they’d get out of jail, with no power to process them. Too bad no one who witnessed this highly emotional lunacy could translate this good advice to our entertainers of the evening. And the night was not yet over…

At 11 p.m., we started a conversation with some of the vendors that were hanging out on the boardwalk, listening to the radio. We noticed Joe, from Gyro Corner, sitting there and chatting away. After hearing our about our situation and that it looked like we’d be sleeping on the beach, Joe offered to drive us all the way back to our hotel on 31st Street and 7th Avenue! He said, "It’ll take me 10 minutes to ride my bike home, get my car, and then another 5 minutes to drive back here and pick you up. I’ll get ya to yer hotel in 25 minutes, tops." It had to be too good to be true … and all he wanted was $25. We thought about it (for 2 minutes), and then said, "Sure!" We waited on the beach with his boss, Mike, who was from the Island of Crete. He was the only vendor on the boardwalk who had a generator, which he was running outside of Gyro Corner. He needed to keep his Italian ices cold, so he said he was going to spend the night there while the generator ran, until the power kicked in. He told us that Joe has been working for him for eight years and that he was "a good guy." So that allayed any fears we had of not even knowing the guy and entrusting him with our lives, just so that we could sleep in our hotel suite that we already paid for that night.

AT 12:15 A.M., Joe pulled up not far from the boardwalk in some kind of Toyota DX model … approximately of 1985 vintage. He explained that he had just gotten the car back from the shop, where it was getting a "tune up" the past six months. His brother had given it to him. Mary and I sat in the back seat, where there was a constant smell of gasoline — an exhilarating (but a bit nauseating) ride. Standing between Brooklyn and Staten Island, the Verrazano Bridge looked more than eerie, drenched in complete darkness, silhouetted against the night sky above and the black water below. As we made our getaway out of Brooklyn, Joe related bits and pieces of Brooklyn trivia to us as we passed certain landmarks. We drove through Bedford Street in the Williamsburg area, and as we passed the completely black Flat Iron building on 23rd Street, Joe explained that is where the saying "23 Skidoo!" originated. Back in the 1930s, the wind would whip alongside the building, to the corner of 23rd, and the skirts of the ladies would fly up. It got to be a popular spot, where the men would stand around and wait for the wind and the resulting "view," and the cops would tell them to "Skidoo!"

In Williamsburg, we could see shadows of people sitting on the stoops of their row houses. Some of them sat at this huge table as they drank and chatted together. Too bad they thought it was funny to direct us in the wrong direction when we had lost our way. After being erroneously told by one of NYC’s finest that the Williamsburg Bridge was open, we ended up driving around Brooklyn for about 15 minutes, trying to find our way to a bridge that was open to Manhattan. Finally, we ended up where we started from and saw the same female cop. She shrugged her shoulders and gave us a demure look when we told her that we had just driven to the Williamsburg Bridge and it was closed. Then she told us the Triboro Bridge was open. We were on our way!

FINALLY, AFTER maneuvering around Manhattan from 1st Avenue to 7th Avenue, Joe drove into Penn Plaza and we began to notice the masses of poor people hanging out in the heat, standing/sitting/lying down on the sidewalks. Most of them could not make it back home to their loved ones because there were no trains to catch going out of Penn Station. So what did Joe do? He dropped us off right in front of the doors of our hotel, we gave him $40 (which he took with reluctance), we said our "good-byes," and walking toward the hotel staff guarding the door, we could hear Joe yelling, "Anyone need a ride to Brooklyn?!" Chances are he was on his way with a full car again, while we were well on our way climbing up 44 flights of stairs to the 22nd floor to our hotel suite.

On the Coney Island boardwalk, Joe is the hero man, and he became our hero one night when the most exciting city in the world was thrown into darkness.


Marilyn A. Billone is a writer-editor for the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, and she and her family have been living in Centreville the past 15 years.