The lights dimmed brown, then died. On summer break between sophomore and junior year, I was with my high school girlfriend Joyce at our friend Wendy’s house in Bensonhurst. We flipped the light switch off then back on, but nothing happened. Wendy’s father flipped the circuit breakers, but that didn’t help either. We walked outside to see if the neighbors had power, but they were thinking the same thing. Everyone was emerging from their homes, onto their stoops and into the streets to ask, “Did your power go out too?”
We didn’t realize then that, earlier that afternoon, on August 14, 2003, a power line in Ohio came into contact with a tree, triggering a series of events that, compounded by negligence and human error, left an estimated 55 million people in a rough triangle from Ontario to Ohio to Massachusetts without electricity. We were in one of the largest blackouts in history.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon, so, at that moment, the blackout seemed inconsequential; we could play cards until the power came back on. But as sunlight began to wane, fears emerged. The last time that New York experienced a prolonged blackout—during the summer of 1977—the city nearly ripped itself apart in looting, rioting and arson. Would this blackout be any different?
Unable to take the subway back home to Jackson Heights, I stayed in Bensonhurst, and after the sun had set and the city had descended into darkness, Joyce and I set out to survey the neighborhood.
Far from the violence of ‘77, the streets were jovial. Bodega owners were giving away their perishables and ice cream trucks, on many blocks the only beacons of light as far as you could see, became makeshift social centers. An enterprising pizzeria, lit by the headlights of a car parked on the sidewalk, even managed to keep serving customers.
Disneyland-like atmosphere aside, sleeping that night was rough. It was a sickeningly humid ninety degrees—and, of course, there was no electricity to power an air conditioner or fan. I spent the night on a small couch in Joyce’s living room, drenched in sweat with my skin alternately sticking to and becoming unstuck from the leather upholstery. By morning, I desperately needed a respite from the heat.
Without a ride and with the subway still down, Wendy, Joyce and I defaulted to the best choice we had: Coney Island. For an hour, we walked through the baking streets of Bensonhurst, through Gravesend and finally down to the boardwalk. Hundreds, thousands of other New Yorkers had the same idea, arriving in waves from the adjacent neighborhoods, from their oven-like apartments to the shores of lower New York Bay. Never before and never since have I considered Coney Island’s beach, rich with broken glass and cigarette butts, a refuge worthy of tears. We stalked our way through the sweaty hordes already pitched on the beach, hunting for a plot of free sand and eventually finding one halfway to the sea.
Only after laying out our towels did we notice that no one was swimming. As Wendy and I made our way to the water’s edge, a parks department officer ran up to us and said the water was off limits.It was insane. It was sweltering. Parts of the city were still without electricity, and everyone had obviously come here to take a dip. But now even that wasn’t possible. Suddenly, I felt like I understood: If the city had almost torn itself apart in ‘77, it was likely due to an overzealous parks department employee.
Wendy and I returned to our towels and explained the situation to Joyce, but we sat down only long enough for the officer to walk off. As soon as he was farther down the beach, we made a dash for it. Stomping into the surf then diving into the Atlantic was better than just swimming — it was freedom.
We stayed in the water, finally cooling off, splashing around and appreciating our own daring, until the parks department officer turned back toward us. The moment he saw us, he began running. He got to the edge of the water and yelled for us to get out. He kept at it, so we finally caved, slogging back to the beach. When we reached him, we asked him what his problem was. Why—at the beach, during the summer, when the electricity was out and so many people needed a break—why he was being a dick and keeping everyone from swimming?
He was exasperated. He explained that just up the coast was Coney Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Because of the blackout, the plant had been forced to pump untreated sewage into Jamaica Bay, which the current could channel west — directly to where we were swimming.
“You’re basically swimming in sewage,” he said before stomping off.
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Alex Kim is a cartoonist currently living and working in Vermont. See more of his work at www.alexkimcomics.com.