Friday, August 15, 2003
On the last car of the Q Train between DeKalb and Atlantic
4:10 p.m. The subway stops. Air conditioning goes off.
4:13 p.m. “Attention passengers, we have lost power.”
4:15 p.m. “Attention passengers, we have lost power. We have lost power.”
Female passenger (to much laughter): “And…?”
The train is pretty full. All seats are occupied and about 20 people are standing. A pregnant woman – 7 months or so – sitting in the middle of the train is being fussed over by several passengers. She is fanning herself, people offering water and asking about her health. Some guy at other end of the car starts singing “Maria” from the Sound of Music and he is persuaded to shut up.
4:30 p.m. The conductor comes back onto the PA (which is surprisingly static free) to say there has been a power outage and we are waiting for assistance. When it arrives, we will “detrain.” He doesn’t make clear if our train is the only thing without power, as most people in the car believe.
4:35 Some jerk starts smoking and people start yelling “No Smoking! No Smoking!” A few minutes later, he lights up again to the same protests. “Yo, yo, yo. I’ll smoke if I want to,” he says. Much yelling and he puts it out.
The kid sitting next to me – he’s maybe 10, sitting with his grandmother: “I’m never taking the train again.” He proceeds to argue with his grandmother who tells him that’s not practical.
4:45 p.m. Announcement tells us we’ll start evacuating soon.
4:50 p.m. A plainclothes cop comes through our car take out any pregnant women or babies. “What it is, is a blackout in the whole city,” he says, buy only loud enough for about a dozen of us to hear. He says we’ll exit toward Atlantic – meaning the front of the train – meaning we’re last.
One guy realizes the cop is taking out the pregnant women to exit first and the guy says: “I’m pregnant!” “Me too,” another guy says. “Me too,” says a woman. “It just happened. Just now.”
Our pregnant woman leaves with the cop. Later, the cop tells us there were four pregnant women on the train, including one woman who was a week past her due date.
Lot of talking among passengers. Joking around. Lots of rhetorical questions about why we can’t just exit out the rear door (which at least two passengers have tried and determined it’s locked.) People talking about getting refunds or suing the city. Jokes about the MTA and ConEdison. Among the ConEd bashing one man – who was reading the New York Times when he boarded like me at 34th Street – says something like “Who needs terrorists?” (when we have ConEd?) This is the only talk of terrorism until the cop brings it up near the end of the ordeal to tell us it’s definitely not terror-related.
4:55 p.m. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are detraining at the moment, so please be patient.”
4:57 p.m “Is there a doctor aboard?”
4:58 p.m. “Is there a doctor aboard. Or even a nurse?” (We later learn this was for the woman who was a week past her due date. But she was ultimately OK and didn’t deliver in the subway.)
4:59 p.m. New voice on the intercom: “Somebody call Johnnie Cochran.”
5 p.m. The lights go totally out. People start screaming. There is no light at all to my right. I look to the left – the back of the train – and can see a very faint red light down the tunnel. I can’t see a single face or even my own body. Pitch black. As people are screaming, I realize I’m among the people saying “shhhh” and then suddenly the power’s back on. I place my hand on my chest and my heart is racing. I’m really, really scared. The power was probably only out about 3 seconds, but it completely changes the mood, highlighting our vulnerability. A teenager sitting with her mom starts to cry and other passengers immediately try to cheer her up and make her laugh.
5 p.m. Only seconds after the lights come on. Same joker who made the Johnnie Cochran remark: “That’s when I put my hand on my knife.” Intercom goes off, then on again: “That’s when I put my hand on my knife.” People get really pissed off, yelling for him to shut up. Some think he may have turned off the lights to be funny – though we never find out why it happened. He then says “TA, your ass is in a bind.”
5:10 p.m. People in our car – the last car – stand up to exit.
5:15 p.m. Most of us have moved up one car, thinking we were about to exit. But people in the car ahead of us are now turning around and coming back to look for empty seats. We all sit down. There’s lots of room to spread out now.
5:30 p.m. Some guy says: “Thank god we at least have backup power. Can you imagine what it would be like without that?
People are joking around a lot more.
“Bottled water? I’ll give you 40 dollars.”
Guy 1: “This is not helping either – those ads.”
Guy 2: “Bud Light? Yeah”
Guy 1: (Wistfully) “So unprepared. No cooler or nothin’.”
5:35 p.m. MTA woman walks through our car and tells us that 60 percent of the train has been evacuated so far.
5:40 People start talking about the logistics of walking through the subway tunnels. “The only way a rat would attack you was if he was cornered,” a guy says very matter-of-factly.
5:45 Woman near me start talking about how she works in Manhattan and had walked over the Manhattan Bridge and then got on the subway only to take it only one stop to get to the LIRR. She was planning on catching the 4:16 train. She said that earlier she was talking to other passengers in Spanish and said that today could turn into another 9/11 if people didn’t keep their cool.
5:45 We start exiting again. We get only two more cars ahead and reach a new bottleneck. Everyone sits again.
5:50 p.m. The same plainclothes cop returns again and sits down and starts talking. I think we might be the fun car, where people aren’t freaking out. He explains that there’s a lot of water in the subway tunnel, and points to his very wet boots. He said it got up to his knees. Rancid water with piss and feces. We are unclear about whether he’s joking with us.
5:55 p.m. Lots of jokes about cannibalism and the movie “Alive.”
“I’m pretty sure we could live on a person for a week,” one guys says.
We move one more car ahead.
6 p.m. The cop says he doesn’t know much about what’s going on aboveground. However, he mentions it’s definitely not terrorism related otherwise they would be on an entirely different alert schedule.
6:03 p.m. New MTA guy comes to our car and tells us all to move up to the front car to exit.
I was scrawling the above notation in my notebook when all of a sudden there was a subway door open to my right and an MTA guy standing on the tracks telling me I could exit there or at the front. I thought I still had a few more cars up to go, so I was surprised I was really getting to exit. I crammed my notebook back in my purse and tried to size up the situation. “Is there an advantage to going here rather than there,” I asked. “No, either one,” he said very nicely and patiently. So he had me sit on the floor and slide out of the car.
It was totally fine getting down into the tunnel, but then I realized I was in this 18-inch space between the side of the train and the wall. We only had 200 yards to go to get to the Atlantic station. We could see flashlights and lots of cops and MTA people up ahead of us. We were single file, walking slowly. The guy in front of me warned me right away that if he saw a rat, he planned on jumping about 10 feet backward. But he was completely calm, pointing out to me every tricky spot on the way out. I wasn’t worried about the rats, but I got a hint of claustrophobia as I realized there was no way out of this dark narrow little passageway if the people in front of me decided to stop. (And the only other time I’ve had claustrophobia was in a narrow, poorly lit Hittite cave seven stories underground in central Turkey.)
As I got toward the front of the train, I could see people were also heading out single file on the other side of the tunnel as well. Only when I got in front of the train did I see the other exit – people were climbing down a ladder at a 45-degree angle. The ladder ended in the skanky water between the tracks and people had to get at least one foot in the water to get over to the riser on the side.
Just as a cop was telling people not to walk on the rails because it was slippery – there was a splash. A guy carrying a bag with a laptop went in. Luckily it was only his feet and he regained his balance. He made some joke about it and everyone was cool. Near the Atlantic platform, there were about three or four planks of wood placed as stepping-stones. I stepped across and two guys – passengers – reached their hands out to balance me and help me across. It was only one step and completely stable. I had open-toe but sturdy sandals. No water marks at all. I got to the edge of the platform – it must have come chest-high on me. I cop had his hand extended for me. I was in a dress and trying to figure out what to do when I saw a ladder along the wall. I got one foot up high and the cop grabbed my hand and helped me up. I may have flashed him, but it was pretty dark. And I’m sure I wasn’t the most interesting flash he got this afternoon.
6:10 p.m. I’m walking up the first flight of stairs from the Atlantic platform. Exactly two hours after the power went out.
Several staircases later, we’re near the top.
“Sunlight! Did you ever think you’d see it again,” says the guy next to me. We’re laughing and cheering.
The streets are packed. Thousands of people walking up Flatbush Avenue away from Manhattan. There are plenty of cops and MTA folks about. They’re taking care of business, but very nice, methodical and at ease. The cops are smiling.
I’m getting a signal on my Sprint phone but can’t get through to my husband at work or my parents in California. When I reach my mom, I immediately say “I’m OK.” And then she starts getting scared – “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Nothing terrorist related, I say, just a citywide blackout and I’ve spent the past two hours on the subway. I ask her to e-mail my husband (which is the only way I could contact him the morning of Sept. 11.)
6:30p.m. I get home. I had the air on in the morning before I left for Manhattan, so the apartment is cooler than outside. I leave the windows closed and start checking for batteries and which of my radios have batteries.
6:35 I realize I’m an idiot. Both phones require electricity to operate. My clock radio is missing its 9-volt battery and I have no spare. My boombox doesn’t take batteries. One flashlight works, the big one doesn’t even when I pop in four new D batteries. About the only thing of really great use in my “emergency kit” (assembled six months ago for terrorism reasons) is a stack of cash with loads of ones and fives.) I finally remember that my Walkman in my jogging fanny pack gets radio reception.
6:40 p.m. The batteries work and I learn for the first time that the entire Northeast is screwed. The radio says sunset is at 7:56 so now is a good time to get batteries, food and candles.
6:50 I change into shorts and tennis shoes and head out with my stack of ones.
7:05 p.m. A guy walking down the street talking to no one says: “Just wait ‘til the sun goes down.” The next thing I see is in the window of the closed Barnes and Noble – a sign for an upcoming book reading: “The Beginning of Calamities.”
7:25 p.m. I walk up and down 7th Avenue trying to find batteries, a radio and a phone. I finally find a phone in a little bodega across from the shuttered hardware store. The phone is an incredibly sketchy Chinese-made model with a price tag of $9.99. The guy behind the counter is a little embarrassed to sell it to me, and tells me to bring it back tomorrow if it doesn’t work. He only charges me $9. (It worked fine.)
I walked several blocks up Seventh. Rite-Aid was closed, and customers were pissed because they had batteries but refused to let people in. Radio Shack was closed. Tarzian hardware was closed. Key Food was closed. Even Hagen-Dazs closed. But it was the mom-and-pop stores and the immigrant places that were open, being extremely accommodating, friendly and no price gouging that I saw. Almost all the pizza places were open. Lots of Thai and Chinese places were doing brisk business. Loads of people walking down the street with Mr. Softee ice creams and gelatos.
I got home to put a bag of ice in the fridge and call my mom on my fancy new phone. The sun was starting to set, so I headed out again to Two Boots pizza to pick up dinner. They had hauled a giant barbecue out front and were selling ribs, chicken, burgers and dogs. Beautiful food – and I think even lower than their usual prices. It took close to 30 minutes, but I got a half slab of ribs and potato salad to go – for $9 bucks. I was home and already smacking on the ribs -- with a Brooklyn Lager – before I realized they didn’t even have a tip jar out for the guys sweating over the BBQ making my truly outstanding dinner.
Just as I sat down to eat, the phone rang. It was my husband calling from his office at Times Square. We had each left voice mail for each other earlier, but hadn’t talked yet. His office never lost power. Their generators kicked in immediately. However, since he’s in a newsroom, we figured it’s highly unlikely he’ll get home tonight.
So I’m home alone with my cat. I’ve finished the two beers in the fridge, but I think we have several bottles of wine. More importantly, there’s a half-gallon of Breyer’s Neapolitan in the freezer that may need rescuing. Most likely, I’ll change into pajamas and so a little candlelight reading of a book I got for Christmas that I’ve been meaning to read for sometime. It’s called “Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City.”
(I’ve typed this up on my laptop with battery power and will post it whenever the lights come back on. It’s now 11:30 p.m. and there are still no lights on here in Park Slope.)
. . .