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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lost in the City Without Lights

I’m an Arizona native, a son of Flagstaff and a lifelong resident of the Nation’s Valentine, but people who know me know of my soft spot for New York.

We’re not talking about sports teams here. As a kid I rooted for teams from Los Angeles and San Diego, not New York, and the anti-East Coast sentiment* stayed with me after Arizona got baseball and football teams of its own (although it did take an extended courtship for the Cardinals to win me over.)

My attachment to NY began in 1982 just moments after my taxi rounded the southern shore of Brooklyn and headed up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the Manhattan skyline came into view. I was being delivered from John F. Kennedy International Airport to my ship, which was in drydock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for an extended stay courtesy Uncle Sam and his U.S. Navy.

New York wasn’t my first choice of duty stations. Or second or third. I was hoping for San Francisco or San Diego because it was close to home (despite the fact that I joined the Navy to leave Flagstaff.) New York was too far. It was too dirty. New York was too dangerous.

The memory was still fresh of the great power blackout that struck New York City in 1977, and the national newscasts that showed the looters, the vandals, the people scurrying out of subways stops looking for relief after being trapped for hours.

What stayed with me were the news reports and images of people who seemed so utterly helpless and lost in their own community when the lights went out.

My taxi continued up the B-QE along the East River and past the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. The haze that saturated the air muddied the view of the famous Manhattan skyscrapers, like they were layered in yellow-gray gauze. This was the famous New York City I’d heard about: polluted, muggy and forbidding.

But the Empire State Building has a way of standing like it’s about to regain its record as the world’s tallest building and that reminded me why it was the one thing in New York I wanted to see in person.

This was June 1982, and New York was enduring a record-setting heat wave that began in April and didn’t let up, if my memory serves, until sometime well after mid-July. Horses were perishing in Central Park from the heat, not to mention the impact it had on the elderly and other people not used to consecutive days of triple digits.

(Could you imagine what summer days without power would be like in the Valley? It's 111 degrees as I write this, and we appear to have missed the 117 some forecasters were predicting for this afternoon. A Twitter friend is teasing me because an expected monsoon storm apparently veered around Phoenix and is heading to her town instead!)

In July 1982, an overnight rainstorm cooled down the city and washed the air. An unbearable season of heat that was national news became just another sticky summer in the city. And the thick drape disappeared and my ship in Brooklyn had a front-row seat with an unfiltered view of a nightly show of lights from every building in the great city.

I couldn’t conceive then how New York could ever go dark.

July 13 – this past Tuesday – is the 33rd anniversary of that great blackout. Temperatures in New York again reached triple digits two weeks ago, which I wouldn’t expect anyone in Phoenix to notice without snickering.

It did, however, remind me to recharge my home lantern, restock some of my non-perishable food, and make me hope a little personal history doesn’t repeat itself.

I wonder: If my city went dark, would I be lost?

I give Times Square its familiar glow.


* Like Yogi Berra, I too put aside my rancor for the Yankees in order to pay my respects to Yankee Stadium during a pilgrimage in 2008, the year of its swan song. I'm grateful, too, for I was able to hear the prerecorded voice of stadium announcer Bob Sheppard call Derek Jeter's name in a way that made me almost applaud. Almost. In Sheppard's voice I could hear distant sounds of what baseball sounded like in the time of Babe Ruth, I'm sure of it. I guess I can thank George Steinbrenner for making that possible. May he and Sheppard rest in peace.

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