Blackout!

blackout
The night before all of New York City went dark, I accepted a blind date from a guy who owned a motorcycle. I was excited, but careful not to tell my overprotective father. He found out, and as I was applying black eyeliner and red lipstick, the “full metal jacket” of color and shadow, his fierce moonface suddenly appeared next to mine in the mirror.

“I see you’re dolled up with enough paint to join the circus.”

Then Mother stuck her head in: “Is it wise to go on a motorcycle blind date on a work night?”

I was 18, working my first full-time job in Manhattan and enjoying what was quickly becoming my born-to-be-wild status, but my business was always the tribe’s business. A decade had passed since I had polio and recovered, but to them I was still breakable.

“Cover up better or you don’t go out,” my father said.

“How ’bout I wear mittens and a baby bonnet?” I shot back.

If the Great Blackout of ’65 hadn’t occurred the very next day, I might never have recalled this particular date. But one incident that night left its mark: When my date stopped for a light, and I rested my leg against the exhaust pipe, I burned my ankle so badly it practically sizzled.

“You OK back there?”

“Great!”

I would never admit I didn’t know about motorcycle exhausts, plus I was in denial about having balance problems. At the time, I felt I could do anything, go anywhere, keep up with anyone. To me, denial was far more preferable than despair.

The next morning my back ached in a way it never had, my ankle was swollen and puffy, and the burn had turned dark red and was beginning to ooze. Mother flipped when she saw it.

“Idiot! I knew it — ga-head, miss work, get yourself fired!”

“Is that your motherly concern voice?”

She insisted I see the family doctor right away, but I hated doctors, vowed never to go near a hospital unless they took me unconscious, by ambulance.

Ignoring the pain, I somehow got dressed, took a couple of aspirin and made it to the subway. But as I boarded the train into Manhattan an uneasy feeling came over me. My entire family, thanks to my fortune-telling grandmother, for whom I was named, thrived on superstition and premonition, and I wondered if the burn injury wasn’t a sign to stay home from work that day.

I would have crossed to the opposite platform and gone home, but I didn’t want to give Mother the satisfaction. I’d show her I could show up!

I was all about competition, fortitude and toughing it out. I never gave in, never gave up, and never admitted fear or pain, for which my threshold was high. I taught myself to dance, utilizing every muscle group I had, despite destroyed quads in my left leg, and vowed to get better at it. If there was something I absolutely could not do, like run or skate, I still hung out with the runners and skaters. And, like many polio survivors, I truly believed that with each passing year I’d only become stronger. The condition known as post-polio syndrome, losing the precious strength I so arduously built up with practice, over the years, was still an unknown.

At work the day dragged, and my ankle throbbed worse with each hour that passed. It slowed me down, too, as it caused me to favor my bad leg. Finally, Joan, the senior secretary, noticed.

“Are you limping? What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, I went on a wild motorcycle ride last night.”

Her eyes widened. “I see.”

Apparently, she had not noticed, although I worked there seven months, that I walked off-kilter. This wasn’t unusual; I sometimes got the question from people I’d known for months, and it delighted me that with barely a limp I passed for “normal.”

I didn’t realize what a toll, mentally and emotionally, that charade took.

Decades later, when I had to use a power chair for distance, it was a huge relief to admit I was exhausted.

*****

It was Friday, Nov. 9, 1965, the time of year when it gets darker earlier and earlier until right before Thanksgiving, when night falls at 4:30. The hour arrived and a gloom settled over me that I couldn’t shake. I still had an hour before I could clock out.

To kill time I unclasped the locket my boyfriend, Joe, had given me for my birthday, and attempted to fit another guy’s picture into the small heart-shaped space inside. I was far from ready to get serious, but if it were up to my parents I would have been married already, or at least engaged. They hovered, especially my father, who made no secret of wanting me to meet someone who would take care of me for the rest of my life. When I argued that I wished to be  independent, a look of terror came over their faces. I believed I was capable of taking care of myself, but apparently that was not an option.

I had my coat on, waiting for the moment I could leave. Joan had spoken to me about “running off” at 5:25, when I should have waited until 5:30. I counted the minutes; that’s how I know that at 5:27 the lights went out.

I was plunged into blindness. All typewriters, Xerox machines, anything that made office sounds stopped dead, as if a giant plug had been pulled.

“What’s going on?”

“Don’t know,” Joan said. “This has never happened.”

Later, I was grateful for her watchfulness; had she let me get away with leaving five or 10 minutes early, I would have surely been caught underground in a stalled train.

“I wonder if it’s just our floor,” she said. I heard her chair squeak as she pushed away from her desk.

“How long, do you think, before they fix it?”

My voice sounded a little shaky to me, but I would not admit, even to myself, that I was scared.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” she said.

From his office nearby, Mr. McMurray, our boss, shouted, “Joan!” He, too, sounded anxious. Another voice called out for a flashlight. Nobody had one but everybody smoked, so there were plenty of matches to strike and lighters to click. And then we all waited. And waited. No lights came back on; no one came into our office in the dark to tell us what happened. All the phone lines were dead. It appeared as if Macy’s, the world’s largest department store, had lost all power and they weren’t fixing it soon.

When you can’t see, you lose track of time, so I guess it was a half hour later when someone announced that we should all form a line and try to find the stairs. Just the mention of stairs made my heart race; stairs were not my forte. No one knew where they were, either, but at last, amidst lots of toe-stubbing, bumping into chairs, and joking around, we found the exit. Only I wasn’t laughing; I was getting more and more anxious. It hit me that we were 13 floors up, and I was going to have to walk down every one of those flights if I wanted to leave the store.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I whispered.

“Of course you can,” Joan said, grabbing my arm. “Besides, you can’t stay up here by yourself; it could be hours before they fix it. Get behind me and stick close.”

And just like that, my sham was over. After we walked down three flights, I confessed my big secret:

“I have to go up stairs one at a time, and I’m not much faster going down.” I resisted the bizarre urge to add that it was because of a skiing accident. “So you don’t have to wait for me, just run on ahead when you want.”

“Nonsense. Why would I run?”

Joan was like that, not a particularly friendly girl, but sensible, reliable. Even though I figured she was just being polite, I never liked her more than at that moment.

“Well, I might have to rest.”

“Fine. We’ll rest.”

The very word, “rest,” was hateful, and, I felt, the worst form of weakness. Resting was for old ladies and the infirm. At 18, there was no way I wanted to admit I sometimes needed to rest. I said nothing and kept on.

I clung tight to the banisters so I wouldn’t fall. Every so often, without apology, someone from a higher floor panicked and bolted past, nearly knocking us over. Other than that, it was a pretty orderly descent.

*****

I surprised myself by keeping up. Every polio survivor develops their own strategies for getting around, and no one can define what those need to be except us. For me, the banister had to be on the left-hand side in order for me to go faster, and I had taught myself to go down stairs after locking my left knee, which tended to buckle, and before stepping down with my stronger right leg. This lock-step rhythm worked great most of the time, but the burn injury on my good leg
distracted me. Each time I touched the banister on the next landing was a victory.

“You OK so far?” Joan positioned herself in front of me, floor after floor.

“Yes, but I have to stop pretty soon to — rest. So if you have to run ahead …”

“I have no intention of running.”

An elderly woman with white hair brushed past me. She was breathing hard, but not struggling to go down, and she kept moving. I wondered how I’d be at her age. It was not something I wanted to think about. But as surely as if I were a clairvoyant, I saw the future: it would be harder for me, physically, than for others. I knew that day I was at my optimum best.

By floor three, my good leg ached from doing all the work, and my bad leg threatened to buckle at any moment. I was terrified of stopping and being trampled; it had happened to me once, years before on the subway, going to school.

“I need to stop and rest, like, almost immediately.”

“We’re just about at the main floor,” she said. “You’ll make it. You’re doing fine!”

And strangely enough, that was the last of Joan. We simply lost each other in the crowd; one minute she was egging me on, and the next, gone.

She was right, though. I did make it out. Someone had pushed open the exit door and yelled, “Main floor!” I was almost safe.

Before I made my way across the main floor, I stopped at the first counter I came to, leaned across it and embraced it, as if it were a person. When my hands touched soft things, I figured I had found Scarves and Gloves, and had the thought to take something, a little token of my adventure. I resisted, in case somebody spotted me. I simply rested until my left knee stopped being uncontrollably wobbly.

When I finally made it outside, to 34th Street, I was shocked to see my city blacked out. By then, rather than fearful, I was exhilarated; no matter what was going on, I had made it down 13 flights of stairs without toppling!

There were no traffic lights, store lights, or street lights, only headlights from hundreds of cars, and a massive traffic jam. I felt as if I’d stepped off a plane in a foreign city, because nothing looked familiar. But I wasn’t caught in the subway tunnel, which was good. I began to walk uptown, finally breathing normally.

Somehow, a couple blocks later, I met up with a girl from accounting and her friend, and by some miracle the three of us managed to get a ride uptown. I remember this good Samaritan’s car when he stopped for us — a Town Car or a Cadillac — because it was big, but I never knew his name. He drove each one of us to our door.

*****

“She’s here, Rose, she’s home!”

I heard the relief in my father’s shout when I passed our windows. And it turned out my boyfriend did drive downtown in his Volkswagen Beetle, but couldn’t find me. My brother found this hilarious.

“He went all the way to Macy’s and he missed you!”

My father snorted. “Told you he was a schmuck.”

The Great Northeast Blackout of ’65, which began at the height of rush hour on Friday, Nov. 9th, trapped 800,000 people in New York City’s subways, stranded thousands in office buildings, elevators and trains, and affected not only New York State, but portions of seven neighboring states, including parts of Canada. The National Guard was called out, as well as scores of off-duty police, to prevent looting. Some commuters spent the long night in those dark subway cars, while others were escorted out, through rat-infested tunnels, by firemen, after which they had to climb their way up to the street.

We eventually learned that somehow a 230-kilovolt line near Ontario was tripped, causing a “cascade” through the Northeastern network, and “a surge of power that overwhelmed transmission lines.” By noon the next day, all power was restored to New York City, and it was as if the blackout had never happened.

I was grateful I got home OK and didn’t fall down the stairs, but not so happy to have my cover blown in the office. Now, I could no longer pass as nondisabled; I’d have to own up to my limitations — at least to Joan and my boss. Still, I was a girl who tried, who was not afraid to be afraid. I walked down 13 flights of stairs on the assumption that I could, and I made it; plus, I got myself home without anyone “saving” me.

I felt a little stronger than the day before, and ready for more challenges. I could travel. I could meet life head-on. But I wasn’t fooled. I knew that one day it would be otherwise.

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  1. Dave Krieger says:

    Great Writing (as usual)!

  2. cuz Susan says:

    I loved it!
    Took me back to the event in living color despite the “Blackout”.
    Love remembering Uncle Victor and Aunt Rosie.
    You did an amazing job!

  3. Denise Benalt says:

    Great piece of writing Cuz! You sure remember a hell of a lot more about that night than I do. Always enjoy the Rose & Vic stories. Takes be back to the Bronx. Keep them coming!
    Denise

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