Thursday, August 17, 2006

361. It was very dark and my feet hurt, part 2

Finishing the story of what happened three years and three days ago:

In retrospect, the cop probably yelled out the first avenue that came to mind; every block was bursting equally with clueless New Yorkers. But with an officially-sanctioned destination, I suddenly felt much safer.

I also realized I could probably stay overnight with friends downtown or in Brooklyn. But a vestigial memory, maybe of the moment on 9/11 when I ran inside and locked the door behind me, or of a millennia ago when my ancestors sealed the entrance to their cave with a big rock so the mountain lion wouldn't get in, told me to keep walking until I reached my own dark, sweaty living room.

I trudged forth. I soon observed a new economy forming on the streets of Chinatown, as bottles of Poland Springs and melted Haagen-Dazs bars went to the highest or lowest bidder depending upon the mutual desperation of seller (food rotting in the freezer) and buyer (hungry, thirsty, and without access to an ATM). I assessed my needs: alternate footwear that would last 100 blocks, and nourishment to keep my feet moving. I scored a banana and package of M&M's with one of my three dollars, and a bottle of water with another. (This price would rise 500% by the time I got to midtown and stock began to deplete). On the next block I found a street vendor with a pile of bright pink flip-flops; he charged $2, but I begged and waved my high heels in the air, and I guess he either felt pity or just wanted to get rid of the crazy lady. My last dollar.

So I joined a herd of thousands moving uptown in a slow, sticky tide. It was uncomfortable, but not awful; our collective sigh of relief was almost palpable in the thick air, now that we knew the world wouldn't be ending any time soon. Twilight fell as I reached a shadowy Times Square, dark as a stage set on a Monday night. I sat in exhausted silence for almost an hour next to a stranger on a bench outside Lincoln Center; we said hello as we got up to leave, needing to acknowledge this strange, sudden intimacy. I was very calm, maybe because my brain was foggy with dehydration.

I began to panic only when I got to the Upper West Side and the last sliver of light disappeared from the sky. Sidewalks aren't designed for use in complete darkness; I had to wait for the headlights of passing cars in order to make it up and down curbs without falling on my face. Finally I reached my building and a collection of neighbors milling outside trying to help, none of whom volunteered to carry me up 12 flights of stairs.

All that stood between me and the food going bad in my refrigerator was a big, black vertical space dotted with emergency lights whose batteries hadn't been changed in a decade. I started climbing the stairs on my hands and knees until I remembered my cell phone, which emitted enough light to see about a foot ahead. I took a leisurely rest at each landing, cheering myself on by figuring out how much weight I must have lost by carrying the laptop for eight miles vs. if I'd been sensible and left it in a Dumpster on Mott St.

I reached my apartment door an hour later. I hugged the cats, drank a gallon of water, and realized I'd cleverly forgotten to shop that week and so nothing was in the the freezer except a package of lima beans. I woke up on the sofa ten hours later just as the lights were beginning to come back on.

As blackouts go, it was really kind of dull. I was four during the first one, my mother and I stranded in a Waldbaum's. Everyone grabbed candles off the shelves--"It's a yahrzeit party!" I said, a comment that would follow me to family gatherings for years and years--and then spent a fun evening sitting on folding chairs in the hallway, eating cream-cheese sandwiches and listening to guitar music. During the next one, in 1977, I wandered for hours in an empty fairground with my boyfriend as we dared each other to climb up the Ferris wheel, and hoped the looting would remain the other side of Queens. The culmination of this latest blackout--thawing a package of lima beans under the faucet and then wolfing them down with gusto because all I'd eaten since breakfast was a banana and some M&M's--was a bit anticlimactic. May all unpleasant events be as strange, boring, and completely lacking in catastrophe.

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