The Night the City Went Black
It was a mild evening for the ninth of November as I started my return trip from East New York to Queens. I had just finished the forty-five minute train ride from Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of leaving home again to repeat the journey. But that night I had a mission, to save a kitten. I don't remember how or where I found the emaciated cat, but in 1965, as a 17-year-old high school junior, I was in no position to care for it. Besides, the young girl at the donut shop that I was delivering it to was cute, and just maybe the kitten was my ticket to get to know her better. When it came to relationships with girls, I needed all the help I could get. Those years of my life seemed as turbulent for me as they did for the country. Only two years earlier, November 22, 1963, a frantic teacher interrupted our class and told us to go home, President Kennedy had just been shot. At home, I turned on the television to a distraught Ray Heatherton. The shooting took place during his broadcast of The Merry Mailman, and Heatherton stayed on the air, filling in details, until the regular news programming could take over. For the next three days, the nation held its collective breath. The only programming on television was news coverage of the shooting, the president's death, the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the transfer of leadership to Lyndon Johnson, and a philosophical segment depicting the nighttime sky and narrated by Burgess Meredith. Regular programming only resumed after the conclusion of the president's funeral. Less than a year later, on July 18, 1964, a white off-duty police officer shot fifteen year-old James Powell and an estimated eight thousand Harlem residents rioted in the streets. The violence spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant and sections of East New York, and continued for six days. Walking from my home on Atlantic Avenue only a couple blocks south to Liberty Avenue, was like crossing from a neutral zone to a war-torn country. Whole city blocks were torched. Windows were broken everywhere, business were looted, and churches were burned to the ground. What was odd was that most of the devastation was limited to the predominately-black neighborhoods in which the rioters themselves lived. We felt somehow saved, yet confused, that the violence had not spilled out into our area as well. Now, more than a year later, the world and our neighborhood seemed calmer, and on this particular November afternoon, my biggest concern was delivering a tiny kitten to its new home. On the way to the train station, I passed St. Malachy where I attended church, grammar school, and youth dances. As I started high school, I also started dating Eleanor, and it was in the gym of that school that Eleanor asked me to join her and her girlfriend for a game of strip poker. I froze and couldn't answer. The sixties may have been era of the sexual revolution, but in that war, I was stationed behind the lines. Fortunately, Eleanor's friend said she had to decline because her boyfriend was not with her. I breathed a sigh of relief but to this day, I still wonder, what if… I climbed the stairs to the elevated train, or the El as we called it, at the Van Siclen Avenue station. There each morning I caught the train to school. It was at that Station that I broke up with Francis. She was a pleasant girl in her early twenties, who thought I was about the same age. I always looked older than I was, and hid the fact that I was more than six years her junior. When my friends learned I was seeing her, they ridiculed me, saying how furious she would be when she found out. Dating someone that much older was even more of a stigma at that time then it is today. I panicked and after seeing Francis one afternoon, I went to the train station with her. She entered the car and I stayed on the platform. As the car doors closed, I said that I was sorry, but I was only 17. The doors closed, the train pulled away, and I never saw Francis again. The cat and I got on the train and took off for Queens. Along the way, we passed the steep curve at Crescent Street where the train turned sharply north. The train wheels screeched loudly as we rounded the steep turn. That was my cue to look down toward the Crescent Street Bakery, which sold the world's most delicious crumb cakes. As the train turned sharply again to merge onto Jamaica Avenue, I looked down at the Cypress Hill Pool. It was at that pool that I met and started dating Martha and ended my relationship with Eleanor. Martha was sweet and special, and Lutheran. In the 60s, coming from a strong Catholic family, seeing her was tantamount to religious desertion. According to the Sisters of Saint Joseph at school, we were forbidden from even seeing a non-catholic wedding under pain of sin. When Martha entered college while I finished my senior year of high school, the relationship ended. The kitten and I exited the train at the last stop, 168th Street, and took the half-mile walk uphill to Hillside Avenue. The donut shop with the pretty waitress was on the corner and I delivered the kitten as promised but I was too timid to pursue the relationship further. It was twilight when I exited the shop. I felt dejected and might have wallowed in my self-pity had it not been for the light show coming from the parking lot across the street. The light from the fluorescent fixtures was dancing up and down inside the tubes. I stood and watched for a while, trying to figure out how they got them to act that way. Then I noticed that the glow from the street lamps was yellow instead than white. As I started toward the train station again, it became apparent that things were not as they should be. It was getting dark but none of the houses had lights on. Business owners stood in open doorways looking confused. At 168th street, I started for the stairs leading up to the station when I met a large crowd coming down. Some people looked confused, others panicked. Several told me the trains were out of service. As dark settled, it became apparent that there were no lights anywhere. I started walking in the direction of home, twelve miles away. I passed a movie house where people were streaming out of the doors and milling around with frightened looks on their faces. They were the lucky ones. Less fortunate people were caught in high-rise buildings or worse yet, in the elevators in those buildings. What light there was came from car headlights, but with no working traffic lights, travel soon became snarled. I stopped at one congested corner and joined with another man. Together we directed traffic to free up the blockage. Our efforts were successful and once the congestion was relieved, we parted company and I continued toward home. Several busses passed me, but with the trains out, they were already overloaded. Several miles later, I passed Jahn's Ice Cream Parlor, a favorite date stop, especially since it was next door to a movie theater. Its main attraction was the "Kitchen Sink" a Sunday that featured 18 scoops of ice cream with a variety of toppings and whipped cream. This night, like all of the other businesses, the lights were out and Jahn's was closed. Two miles from home, I caught a bus with some standing space and got on. I slept well that night and when I awoke the next morning things were pretty much back to normal. That's when I and the rest of the world learned about the Great Northeast Blackout. The tripping of a transmission line near Ontario, Canada caused several other heavily loaded lines to fail. The power surge overwhelmed transmission lines in western New York and tripped additional lines, resulting in the eventual breakdown of the entire Northeastern transmission network. Eventually, 30 million people in eight U.S. states, Ontario and Quebec were in the dark and without power. In a strange way, there was something comforting about that night in 1965. Being in the dark in Brooklyn, New York felt calm and quiet—a brief respite in the unrelenting movement of the city.