37 years ago today I was living in a place called Francine Towers on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn. I was working at the Audio-Visual Department at Pratt Institute just blocks away, and living with my first live-in girlfriend Anna.
Anna was the soda and popcorn girl at the old Sutton Theatre on East 57th Street, and I would pick her up every night.
I saw the last half hour of a lot of movies waiting for Anna to count out and close the concession stand, most notably Between The Lines with Jeff Goldblum and The Big Fix with Richard Dreyfuss, both best forgotten little movies, but when you see the last half hour 20 or 25 times they are hard to forget.
That day, or evening rather, I was on my way to pick up Anna, and I usually called first to tell her I was coming. I went to the pay phone on the corner of DeKalb and Washington Avenues and dialed the number to the theater. Our phone was in the turned off mode that week.
The Manager answered the phone, and when I asked for Anna he said:
“Can’t talk now. The lights are going out.” He sounded anxious and distracted, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth the phone went dead. I looked up Washington Avenue towards the Manhattan skyline in the distance and saw the most remarkable thing I ever saw in my life.
The Empire State building was clearly visible form my vantage point, it was almost like it was at the very end of Washington Ave. I watched as the lights on it went out from top to bottom, floor by floor. At some point they just all went out, and Manhattan was plunged into darkness.
I hung up the phone in disbelief, and was about to say “well goddamn,” when the streetlights on Washington Avenue started going out block by block in rapid secession from the East River until the corner I stood on was abruptly plunged into darkness. Then the screaming and yelling began.
Cars suddenly skidded to a stop, and slowly started to proceed. The honking began. I walked up the block to my apartment building, and though it was after 9:30pm it was summertime and the last vestiges of twilight gave some illumination. I didn’t want to go upstairs and sit in the dark so I kept walking.
There was a sudden caravan of police cars from the nearby 88th Precinct roaring up Washington Avenue, lights flashing and sirens at full shriek. They were headed west to Myrtle Avenue, the neighborhood main drag.
There were people running, too; mostly towards Myrtle Avenue but there was a trickle of people going the other way.
I reached the corner, my friend Eddie Martelly lived in a brownstone right at the corner of Washington and Willoughby and he had a stoop, Francine Towers had no stoop and I didn’t want to sit in the lobby.
As I approached I could see lit candles and people sitting on the stoop already, the lights hadn’t been out for 5 minutes and people already had candles out. I heard somebody call “hey Exie! Over here,” from the stoop. It was my friend Tony Dunner, the Black Mick Jagger.
“Whatcha doing?” He asked.
“Nothing. I was going to go pick up Anna, but I guess the subway’s out.”
“Hey, X, come and sit with us and smoke some weed.” It was Eddie, and he passed me a big joint as I sat on the stoop with Eddie, Tony, and some people I didn’t know from Eddies building. A few of them, including Eddie, held baseball bats.
“Whats with the bats?” I asked.
“Don’t you hear what’s happening on Myrtle?” I did indeed hear the screaming and yelling and sirens and breaking glass a block away.
“You think that will make its way down here?”
“That’s what we got the bats for, Exie.”
“Hey, I’ve got some beer in the fridge. You guys got any beer?” Somebody handed me a bottle of beer and I took the cap off and drank.
“We’ll go get yours when this runs out,” said Eddie.
Eddie was Haitian, from Port Au Prince. He and Tony were two of my poker cronies. Tony was more than that, we were pretty close friends, but Eddie was more Tony’s friend than mine. He often hosted poker games where he lost all his money and would start charging for joints and beer and sandwiches so he could get back in the game. I wondered if we could get a game going by candlelight.
Now it was getting really bad, fire engines started racing up and down the street, and we could hear people running up and down the block. People were walking with flashlights and candles, and cars were playing chicken with each other at the street corner. We heard a car crash up the block, followed by somebody cursing.
Somebody approached the stoop, it was our friend J.P.
“You’re all under arrest,” he said, followed by his unmistakable bark of a laugh. I hated that laugh, and I wasn’t too happy about how John talked too much during a poker game and always won. But he was a big weed dealer and probably had more weed on him.
“You guys wanna smoke?”
“Light up brother, light up,” invited Eddie.
After Eddie’s beer ran out me and Tony borrowed a flashlight and walked down the block to my place to get the six-pack of Bud I had. We drank and smoked and told jokes and stories and I wondered what had happened to Anna.
“Don’t worry about her,” Tony said. “She’s probably going to sleep in the movie theater.”
I finally had enough and made my way home with a candle Eddie gave me. I was awoken sometime during the night by the sound of a key in the door. It was Anna.
“How did you get home?”
“I finally got a cab after walking almost all the way downtown.”
“What’s it like in the city?”
“A lot of people hanging out and drinking in the streets. Lots of cops, car accidents.”
“They’re looting on Myrtle Ave.”
“Yeah, we saw all the cops and people running around on the way.”
She took off her clothes and joined me in bed. She was asleep in seconds.
The next day I went to work, since it was only just around the corner. The lights were still out and there was an eerie silence on the normally bustling campus. The door to the Main Building was open, and the lights there were on. Pratt had its own generator and had power. I used my key and let myself into the Audio-Visual office since there was nobody there.
I picked up the phone, and to my surprise I got a dial tone. I phoned my boss, Manny.
“What’s up, X?”
“Aren’t you guys coming to work?” I asked.
“You’re at the office?”
“Yeah, the lights are on.”
“Go home, X. There’s still a blackout, in case you don’t know. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone, turned out the lights, and headed back to Washington Ave. Maybe we could get a poker game going.
In my neighborhood (South Slope at the time). it was like a party…everybody came out on the block..but, wait. that was kind of normal…but, everyone started sharing ice cream that was in the freezer..we thought the lights would come on quickly..when they didn’t, we had some midnight barbecues..we were very far removed from the violence, and could hardly believe the news we heard over the battery powered radios….