It was November 9th, 1965. It was a Tuesday just like any other. We had just moved into the housing projects on 17th street and were getting used to our new living arrangements. Going from a Village walkup to a 25 story building with elevators was quite a change. But on this particular Tuesday night, the elevators stopped working, along with anything else that ran on electricity. A little after 5PM, the lights went out. And not just in New York City; the power went out from Ontario Canada down through New England and stretched all the way down to New Jersey in what would come to be known as the Great Blackout of the Northeast. Due to a relay malfunction in a power station near Niagara Falls, over thirty million people were thrust into darkness.
Street and traffic lights went out, radio and television stations were silenced, subway and regional rail lines stopped dead in their tracks stranding scores of people in dark tunnels. Hospitals operated with generators, restaurants couldn’t serve food, Planes were grounded at JFK and LaGuardia, and this being long before cell phones, the lines to make a call at a telephone booth were a half mile long. And yes the elevators stopped working as well, and in a city like New York, that is a major problem.
That might have been a bit of an omen for us, as this was the first time we had to rely on elevators just to get to our apartment, and here within months of moving into our building, the first major blackout in modern times occurs.
Nothing like the Ortolano timing.
I, of course, being all of nine years old thought it was kind of fun. It wasn’t fun of course for Dad who was in one of those subway cars on the way home from the factory in Brooklyn when it hit. Mom, of course, was frantic worrying about him, and with good reason I suppose. He eventually made it home having to walk from Chambers Street to 17th street. And after arriving at the building, he was confronted with walking up 23 flights of dark stairs to get to the apartment. But you know what they say, once a Marine, always a Marine, and he climbed them with no complaint. And that wasn’t even the end of the adventure for the day; it was just beginning. Being Dad, after a quick cold dinner, he got his trusty large flashlight and went back out to help others navigate their way homes safely. I marveled at his stamina and concern for others; we were content to sit with Mom, candles lit around us as we looked out the window at a sight rarely seen: a dark Manhattan.
Of course, Dad wasn’t the only good Samaritan. The streets became crowded with many well-intentioned people with flashlights and lanterns guiding others safely through the streets and even directing traffic at intersections.
It was a beautiful thing to see.
Of course, we later learned there were those that took advantage of the situation; looting, robbing, and general thuggery, the usual trappings of a big city gone slightly off-kilter. But for the most part, New Yorkers did what New Yorkers do best, and helped each other out.
It was over 14 hours or so before parts of the city started to get power back. In fact, inexplicably there were areas in Brooklyn that never lost it in the first place – go figure.
With the transit system at a dead stop, workers who left early the next morning were faced with hoofing it to work again, and the bridges were filled with thousands who had to cross boroughs to get to their jobs. The Salvation Army set up stations giving out free coffee and donuts to these hearty and dedicated souls, and one hopes some idiot boss didn’t mark down anyone late for work that next morning.
There was another blackout in the city in 1977 (another fun time in the dark for entirely different reasons that probably won’t make it into any blog post), but that one was pretty much limited to the city itself, brought about legend says, by a very hungry rat. But the Great Black Out of 1965 was a (hopefully) once in a lifetime event, given how large an expanse of land was affected.
It brought out the worst and the best in people, as these things will do. As I watched my Dad go out, again and again, all night long to help others, when he knew he would be one of those people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge the next morning at 4AM, I was filled with pride.
If you have been reading, you know he was a special guy to us kids, but that night, he was a special guy to total strangers, a literal light in the literal darkness. That night he was one of many heroes to people who were frightened and alone and lost.
After The Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965, seemingly total strangers, people he didn’t recognize would stop him on the streets of the neighborhood and thank him.
It was just one more chapter in the Dad instruction book on how to live life.
Title this one: Be a Light.