Friday, January 9, 2009

Summer of Sam

A Wall Street programming intern, I was walking on the streets of midtown Manhattan after work on a hot summer evening in 1977 when the lights went out. As in: out out. The Big Out. Street lights, traffic lights, office buildings, storefronts; everything but car headlights and emergency lights went dark.

The remaining sounds of cars and voices echoed eerily. You don't notice the pervasive 60-cycle hum of the urban, electrified world until it suddenly stops.

A few brave, most likely inebriated citizens took it upon themselves to stand in intersections to play traffic cop. That didn't work so well. Yet the Manhattan scene in my vicinity wasn't all that chaotic; it was only in the aftermath that I read reports of the smash-and-grab storefront looting in various sections of the city.

Being a suburban college kid from Upstate New York, where blackouts are considered almost cute, it didn't occur to me at first that my situation on the Midtown streets was possibly perilous. Then it did. I hustled back toward my room at the Vanderbilt Y, and ran into a friend who was gathering up a posse. "They're filming Superman at the Daily News building," he said in earnest. "They've got huge floodlights!" This seemed important at the time. We had to investigate.

We first saw the glow of the movie lights from a few blocks away. The Daily News building had been renamed The Daily Planet using an overlay facade. There was no sign of Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, or Margot Kidder, but dozens of cops in uniform swarmed the set. I thought they were there to prevent vandalism, until I noticed their uniforms: each officer's shoulder patch said "City of Metropolis". (The thick facial make-up should probably also have been a tip-off.)

Still the same kid from Upstate N.Y., still oblivious to the paralyzing effects of a wee little power outage, I actually tried to go to work the next morning. Figured out that the subways wouldn't be running, so I took the bus; but I forgot that the elevators (not to mention the computers - duh!) wouldn't be. Fortunately, I phoned upstairs before climbing the 27 stories. The phone rang and rang...

Excellent! I did what any Wall Street flunky with a suddenly free day and little cash should do, even today: I took the Staten Island Ferry and back, a.k.a. the poor man's guided tour of New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty is magnificent, but it's nothing compared with the sense of freedom that's experienced by a summer intern who's escaped the office on a sunny day!

Two decades later, Spike Lee portrayed 1977 New York City in his movie, "Summer of Sam"; the "Son of Sam" serial murders had gripped the city. ESPN recently aired its terrific serial docudrama, "The Bronx is Burning", about the player-manager-owner melodrama on Reggie Jackson's 1977 Yankees. CBGB's, the iconic underground rock club that closed last year, was in full swing, and Judy Collins, Harry Chapin, and Bonnie Raitt played to mellow summer crowds in Central Park. Disco ducks wore leisure suits.

Completed only four years prior, the World Trade Center was still acquiring new tenants. The city itself was all but bankrupt, needing a federal bailout from the Carter Administration. Its fiscal woes led the voters to usher out the diminutive Mayor Abraham Beame and send in the brash Edward "How'm I doing?" Koch, with Mario Cuomo and Bella Abzug also in the running. The record-setting heatwave scorched the city, and the massive blackout roiled the populace. Apparently, I experienced a pivotal time in the storied history of New York. Who knew?

Did I mention that my Dad's name is Sam?

1 comment:

  1. Nice recall. I remember being out on my block in Queens than night with all the neighbors. I also remember around that time two girls on my block were questioned about a guy they saw in the local McDonalds who was staring at them and flashed a gun. Scary times...



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