Today’s obituary in the New York Times for Stan Brooks, a legendary “Voice of New York,” gives prominent mention to the evening of November 9, 1965, when someone pulled the wrong switch and plunged most of the New York metropolitan area and a good portion of the American Northeast into immediate darkness. It was the Night of the Blackout, or would be until the night of July 13, 1977, when we had the Son of New York Blackout, which would be the end of all blackouts until August 14, 2003, when we had the Grandson of New York Blackout.
I’ve had the dubious pleasure of being in town for all three, and each one comes with a story.
So pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about Blackout Number One, and how, if not for some unknown clown who these days would be called a bully, I would have been underground on the subway in Brooklyn, somewhere around DeKalb Avenue, when the lights went out, and how I was such a good citizen that my mom and dad had no idea where their 15-year-old kid was for roughly six hours.
I used to ride the subway to and from school, a trip on what at the time was the QB train, or the QJ train, or something like that. My “home” station was Avenue M and East 16th Street, a six-block walk from where I lived, and my “school” station was Lawrence Street, about four blocks from Brooklyn Friends School, and I could ride a single local train from one station to the other.
That was then. Now I can’t even find Lawrence Street on a subway map. I think it’s been renamed the Metrotech/Jay Street station, or something like that, and going from home to school, if I still lived there and if I still went to school and if I were 15 years old, would require a transfer between the Q and R trains, or something like that. It’s much too complicated. Things sure have changed since I lived in Brooklyn. Back then, we played basketball in the schoolyard. Now they have Barclay’s Center.
But I digress.
Let’s go back to the afternoon of November 9, 1965, when, according to the next day’s New York Times:
The largest power failure in history blacked out nearly all of New York City, parts of nine Northeastern states and two provinces of southeastern Canada last night. Some 80,000 square miles, in which perhaps 25 million people live and work, were affected.
Striking at the evening rush hour, the power failure trapped 800,000 riders on New York City’s subways. Railroads halted. Traffic was jammed. Airplanes found themselves circling, unable to land. But the Defense Department reported that the Strategic Air Command and other defense installations functioned without a halt.
The reason it was only 800,000 riders trapped on the subway and not 800,002 is that some clown at Brooklyn Friends School decided to have a little fun at my expense. I was at my locker in the school’s basement, grabbing my jacket, ready to go home, when I suddenly discovered that my briefcase was missing.
I checked all the usual places . . . homeroom, gym, lunchroom, library, the last classroom I’d been in . . . and found nothing. I checked all those places again. And again. And again. I looked for that thing for more than an hour until, by chance, having decided to look everywhere that it shouldn’t be, I found my briefcase sitting atop a toilet seat in the boys’ basement bathroom.
I was a 10th grader at the time, and I suppose these days I’d be expected to go whining to someone in charge about how I’d been bullied and they’d hold a big meeting in the auditorium the next day and tell all the kids to be nice and try to find the jerk who did such a dastardly thing. But this was 1965, and it pretty much was par for the course.
And, really, no big deal. I’d just get home an hour late.
So I finally put on my jacket, grabbed my briefcase and found my buddy Bob, who had been waiting patiently and with whom I was going to ride the train home. We headed out for the four-block walk to the Lawrence Street Station, when suddenly everything seemed different. It’s hard to describe exactly how a blackout goes down when you’re out on the street and it’s not really dark yet. The streetlights go out, but there’s still lots of daylight, so you don’t really notice a huge difference. We were going to stop in at The Shack on Smith Street for a soda, and that’s when we realized that there were no lights on inside. That was strange. So we continued walking to Lawrence Street, and that’s where we finally realized something was very, very wrong.
At this hour of the day, people were supposed to be hurrying down the stairs to the subway. They don’t call it Rush Hour for nothing. But nobody was trotting down the steps. They were all running up, out of the subway, looking either bewildered or – in some cases – panicked.
Remember, this was New York in 1965, and the lights have suddenly gone out all over the city. This can mean only one thing: The Russians are coming. Or the Chinese. This is how it starts. Giant flash to follow.
Not only that, but I’m going to be a lot more than an hour late to get home, since now I have no way to get there.
So Bob and I weighed our options, and Bob said that Carol, his on-and-off girlfriend, lived over on Brooklyn Heights, a fairly short walk, and we might as well go over to her place since we really had nowhere else to go, and it would probably be an OK place to be when the world came to an end. And so we headed on over to Carol’s place. In the dark.
Carol’s mom let us in and gave us some food and drinks by candlelight, and we turned on the transistor radio – probably listening to Stan Brooks on WINS, since we couldn’t play the Beatles or Stones on a record player, since there was no electricity – and that was when we discovered how big this blackout was.
And we continued to wait for the big flash of light that would end it all.
Among other things, it was almost impossible to make a phone call. All the lines were jammed, and there were constant warnings from Mayor Wagner himself NOT to use the phone unless it was an emergency, because we want all those emergency phone calls to go through.
Well . . . I was a good, law-abiding citizen, and I wanted those ambulances to reach all the people in trouble, so the last thing I was going to do while waiting for The Bomb was to make a nonessential phone call to my mom and dad telling them that I was safe and sound in the middle of this crisis. Not if it was going to stop an emergency call from getting through.
So I didn’t call home.
For six hours.
It wasn’t until 11 p.m. or so that Carol’s mom decided that Bob and I really needed to get out of her apartment, what with Bob eyeing Carol and me eyeing Bob eyeing Carol. So I picked up the phone for the first time in several hours – and this time I got through.
I don’t remember exactly what my mom said, but I couldn’t print it if I did. Something about what the hell was I thinking, not calling, and do you know how worried we’ve been and we thought you were stuck on the subway, in the dark, and you could have been killed or, even worse, wandering on the dangerous streets of Brooklyn and we thought we’d never see you again if, you know, the flash of light and all that and hey, mom, I’m just sitting here at Carol’s place with Carol’s mom and Bob and now would be a great time for someone to stop yelling about how irresponsible I’ve been and hop into the car and drive downtown and get me.
Which my dad did. He drove to downtown Brooklyn and brought me home. He may have driven Bob home on the way, but I don’t really remember. I mean, it was almost 50 years ago.
While riding shotgun, I saw that the lights were on in some places and still off in most. One side of Coney Island Avenue was lit; the other wasn’t. And where the lights were out, which was in most places, good Samaritans were standing in the middle of the streets, playing traffic cop, trying their best to get cars through intersections in one piece.
Fact is, it was fun, being as how it had become apparent that the Russians weren’t actually coming. Not tonight, at least.
And the officials of New York City, all of whom were about to cede the reins of power to a new mayor named John Lindsay, vowed to get to the bottom of all of this and make sure that it never happened again. Which it didn’t, for a whole 12 years.
In the meantime, there’s an unsung hero to all this . . .
So here’s to you, jackass who stashed my briefcase on top of a toilet in the boys’ bathroom down in the basement of Brooklyn Friends School on the afternoon of November 9, 1965. If not for you, I would have spent the night somewhere underground on a dark subway train, somewhere deep in the bowels of Brooklyn.
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