Scenes from the blackout.

Scenes from the blackout.

Scenes from the blackout.

What you're watching.
Aug. 15 2003 8:06 PM

Dark City

My night in blacked-out New York.

I am not going to appear on The Big Story With John Gibson (Fox) after all, which is frustrating since I was extremely well-prepared to enter into a hot and hollow dispute with two radio talk-show hosts about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kobe Bryant.

I was even prepared to invoke Theodore Roosevelt on last night's show, whose producers had booked me yesterday morning. I planned to argue that it was his Progressives who made provisions for the California recall by introducing initiatives to keep democratic checks on entrenched political parties. Roosevelt, once a scrawny kid, went west to work on a ranch and build his muscles, much as Schwarzenegger had traveled from Vienna to Venice Beach to build his.

This last analogy I had an iffy hold on. It came to me in the limo that Fox News had sent for me, a black Lincoln stocked with Poland Spring water and copies of the New YorkPost and the Star. I'd brought a friend, a man with firm opinions about the Progressives. My friend had ridden with me for the fun of it; now he was packing my head with complicated and powerful notions for me to espouse on national television.

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We arrived at the Fox building in no time, and I bade farewell to my friend and to the driver, Dwayne, who assured me he'd wait on the other side of the building. The lobby was packed, but I figured that, as a guest on a live show, I could be assured of jumping the line. Not so. "The power's down," the receptionist told me, as I went to use the building's phone. "Wait like everybody else."

This seemed democratic, if not progressive. A similarly delayed woman rambled in a way I half-ignored, lost as I was devising aphorisms about Roosevelt at the ranch. I wondered whether I should try an Ahnold accent; too risky? Oh hell, I'd do it. Then I suddenly caught some of what the woman was saying: There was a wicked blackout, which had left power out in … well, first in the Fox lobby, they said New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, and later Detroit and Cleveland were added. We were told erroneously that someone had lit a ConEd building on fire, and a woman's knees buckled. Her brother worked in that building.

Though the elevator wasn't running, and neither—it seemed—were the phones, I only half-surrendered my plan to appear live on Fox. I imagined a newsroom in which the show always goes on, and I wasn't going to let down the 24-seven, barking, tough men just because I was afraid to walk up stairs.

At last two women emerged with Fox News badges. I introduced myself, played it cool. "I'm sure that Arnold isn't a huge story tonight—you all have bigger things on your mind—but I wonder whether I should tell Gibson or his produce—"

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"Come with me," one of them snapped, taking my wrist and tugging me out to the plaza in front of the building. I felt like a child or a celebrity. We mounted some steps, as the mom told guards that I was a guest and had to get through.

Finally I laid eyes on Gibson. He's exactly as you've seen him, if you have: Scant pigment, square shoulders, a fine man. He was calling off wire reports—"Grid," he said, then more about a grid—with the camera on him; somehow he managed to meet my eye and smile hello, as someone whispered something to him. I was handed off to a man named Chris, who took me back inside Fox, but the back way; outside, the ticker, still working, was reporting on a German woman whose boyfriend had bitten off her nose. I was led into the newsroom and given to Gibson's producer, who seated me next to her and gave me a phone.

With the office on a generator, lights were blazing, phones were ringing, computers were flashing with breaking news. And the televisions—they were all tuned to Fox, which was showing Gibson framed in a box next to aerial shots of Midtown, close to where I'd just been. That mob: It looked like Woodstock or the Isle of Wight. I was torn. I wanted to go back into that fray, but I also wanted to be here with these lights and televisions and the palpable need for news.

Gibson's producer let me in on what she and her colleagues were doing: building sidebar stories about the blackout. They wanted, for instance, a talking head to compare this power outage to the ones in 1965 and 1977. I had my address book, and I gave them a name; his line was busy. Sometime later, an intern approached and asked me for reports on hospitals. I started to phone Beth Israel, but then called the intern back and admitted I didn't work at Fox.

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My friend Ariel, who works nearby, answered her phone. Knowing the subways were down and cabs were scarce, we planned to meet for a glass of wine and walk the 40 blocks downtown together. (That's only two miles.) Ariel brought a colleague of hers, and we ran into still another.

After wandering for half an hour, the four of us, feeling game, crashed a party for Midwest Living magazine being held in the roof garden of a restaurant near the public library. The waiters found a table for us and offered us a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a heap of hummus. That's all they had. We ate it. Sometime later, we ordered a second bottle.

I started to explain how Roosevelt and Schwarzenegger were so similar it would make their heads spin. I lost my thought. Ariel wandered off and filched a nametag from the guys at Midwest Living—the name on the tag read "Zippy Kahan." She also learned that ML has 900,000 readers. No wonder the party was so good-looking, decorated with tight orange and red flower arrangements from Mille Fiori, a revered Manhattan florist. Zippy Kahan, you don't know what you missed.

Eventually, we ventured out into the night, beginning the trudge downtown, through the nightclub ambience. Bemused people hung out in packs in the half-light, improvising about whether to sit, hail a car, or sleep on the street. Two of my friends removed their punishing summer sandals, braving the flotsam on the sidewalk rather than risk more blisters. We stopped at a candlelit deli and bought toothbrushes.

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There we met Jonah. He approached us among the candles, with, if I read them right in the low light, bedroom eyes.

"Look, you can see the stars," Jonah announced, as we stood in the doorway.

We all looked up.

Jonah paused skillfully. "You know what's amazing about New York on a night like this? Everyone comes together."

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I thought about that. Later as I flew over the Brooklyn Bridge in a taxi with one of my friends, I did feel close to her. We were going to make it home to Brooklyn. We laughed a lot and even held hands. At that time, I hoped the Fox people had found a good New York historian to give them bygone grid stories. And I—though I still wore my camera-ready smooth hair and solid-blue shirt—felt a chill akin to euphoria at the thought that I had not had to fight about the recall on TV that night.

"Usually, in the city, everyone's like, 'Ef you,' " Jonah continued, outside the deli. "It's terrible. 'Ef you!' 'No, ef you!' 'No, man, ef you!' But not tonight. It's all peaceful."

"Yeah," I said. "It's great."

"Hey, you girls want to come home with me?"

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"We should go," Ariel said. "But it was nice to talk to you." She extended her hand, and he took it.

"Also," Ariel said, grinning, "ef you."

Jonah took her hand and pressed it to his sternum.

"No, I'm serious," he said. "Ef you."