Blackout: Conclusion

A version of this post was originally posted on September 19, 2016 as part of the “T Minus 40” project.

When I finally made it to Hudson and 11th, I stood in front of the White Horse Tavern and looked up to see the edge of my friend Kevin’s roof deck. I was certain they would be up on the roof. It was the best place to beat the heat. Kevin and his girlfriend, Alexis had tricked out the roof deck earlier that summer with lights, chairs, a table and a cooler. Everything necessary for maximum summertime enjoyment.

Kevin didn’t have a doorbell. He would often leave the downstairs door unlocked and rely on his intimidating brindle pit bull, Athena, to alert him to the presence of visitors with her substantial bark. There was only one other apartment in the building, on the floor below. I approached the building’s main door, it was locked. I knocked loudly. I didn’t hear Athena. I knew it, they’re on the roof! 

I pulled out my useless cell phone and dialed Yves to no avail. All circuits were still busy.  I crossed the street so I could get a better view of the roof. I saw movement. I shouted at the top of my lungs, Kevin! I got nothing, so I tried again Kevin! Kevin Brennan! Yves! 

People on the street thought I was nuts. Someone sitting at an outdoor table in front of the tavern yelled at me, shut the hell up! 

I don’t know if I was actually annoying him or if he was just playing the part of “pissy New Yorker”.

Just give me a minute, I spat back. I know they’re up there. KEVIN…YVES!! I tried again as loud as I could (which was really loud).

About 2 seconds later I saw their faces appear over the ledge. They were all smiles and shouted down to tell me they would let me in. I turned to the beer drinking “shut up” guy and said, I told you they were up there! That wasn’t so hard now, was it?

He looked shocked that my old-school ‘hood-girl doorbell had actually worked. We both sort of chuckled. The moment had trumped the feud.

I re-approached Kevin’s door just as Yves was flinging it open. We embraced. He said, I was just about to leave to come to you.

I beat you to it, I said. I didn’t want to hang out with the neighbors so I figured I’d come find you guys.

He said he’d been trying to call me, but the cell phones were dead. 

No shit, I thought.

Did you walk here? he was curious.

I sure did. I’ll tell you all about it once we get upstairs.

We headed up through Kevin’s place to the roof. There was a cooler of beer and a bottle or two of whiskey. Alexis was there and Alfredo, the percussionist from Kevin’s band. They’d been working on overdubbing some percussion tracks when the power failed. Alfredo’s wife Ava had come over when the lights went out as well, she only lived a few blocks away.

We had a party brewing.

I regaled them with tales of my journey southward and was rewarded with Jameson and Yuengling. By nightfall, we were all pretty well lubricated. Someone brought out Kevin’s acoustic guitar and Alfredo had exciting percussion toys for us to play with, soon we had a full fledged jam session going. Kevin and I were the main vocalists. We played some of his original songs and we covered The Band, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Billy Preston, you name it. We rocked it. Our drunken version of “Gimme Shelter” alone was worth the four mile walk.

Kevin’s block housed several small buildings that were adjacent to each other and plenty of other folks had had the idea to head up to their roof for relief from the sweltering heat. It didn’t take long for the party to grow. People popped over from other roofs to join the jam. More guitars arrived. Our little band was growing.

We had our own private club up there, the price of admission was a good attitude, an appreciation of music and a bottle of booze. What started as a “disaster” turned into an amazing night filled with friends (new and old), music and a sense of camaraderie that only comes from sharing a unique experience.

We expected the lights to come back on at any moment (although I think we would have been disappointed if they had). We passed the evening with that expectation right below the surface of our revelry. We rocked that roof party until about 3am, our collective subconscious all the while knowing that any minute now this will end.

Yves and I decided we should make our way back to the upper west side.

Fueled by alcohol and my positive experience on the trip south we walked out prepared to make the trek back north on foot. Once we left the shelter of Kevin’s roof though, that idea seemed daunting and scary. The streets were desolate. Things that seemed so cool earlier like the lack of traffic signals and street lights, were incredibly eerie in the morning’s wee hours. The moon had been full two days prior and so the celestial orb was still casting plenty of it’s reflected light onto the earth below. It lit our way, but also served to exacerbate the eeriness of the empty city streets that were now illuminated by only the occasional set of headlights and the moon’s spectral glow. I was, all at once, exhilarated and terrified.

A cab approached and we flagged him down. The cabbie wanted eighty dollars for a ride that usually cost twenty. I told him to forget it. I wasn’t that scared! I told myself that I’d walked here and I could suck it up and walk back. We headed north on foot for about 5 or 6 more blocks but I was really spooked, so Yves flagged down another taxi. This guy was more reasonable, fifty dollars. We agreed that was fair and got in.

The city was like a ghost town as our yellow chariot cautiously navigated the route to our building uptown. The few cars we passed on the trip had drivers who agreed on their own give and take method of crossing intersections. They had no choice but to be communicative in whatever way possible.

I had never seen the sidewalks so empty, even at that hour. It was like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. We arrived at our building shortly before 4am and walked up the seven flights to our apartment on the top floor. Someone had lovingly maintained a row of supermarket Santeria candles that lit the path to the upper floors all night. The sun would be up soon enough though, rendering their efforts irrelevant.

We stepped into the apartment and found it only slightly cooler than when I had left it at 4:30pm the previous afternoon. I was exhausted and still sporting a pretty decent buzz, but I went around the apartment and lit every candle in my massive collection anyway. I didn’t want the experience to end. I was prepared to stay up until at least sunrise talking over the evening’s adventure, but after about ten minutes on the couch with Yves I was fast asleep. He blew out all of the candles and put me to bed.

When I awoke the next day the lights were back on. I was disappointed that the adventure had ended, but glad to see that most of my refrigerated goods had survived the blackout. I guess I just really hoped for another day of “roughing it” without the technology that had been dogging me the previous afternoon. Another day of creating radio ghosts with our voices and percussion and guitars that we had no means to capture. That was all left behind on Kevin’s roof though and maybe it was better that it stayed there.

I never finished recording “Crazy”, I never even checked to see if it had been auto-saved to disk before the power failure. From then on out I did my auditioning in person.

Blackout: Part 2

You can read “Blackout: Part 1” by clicking here

Once back inside my building I exchanged a few sentences with my Albanian doorman Marjan, whose brother was the super. These guys knew all the gossip. They were the word on the street. Marjan (who the building’s older residents called “Mike” for some reason) gave me the info he had on the blackout. The whole northeast is out, he said. He went on to tell me that there had been a problem at a power station in Ohio that caused the whole thing and that the authorities didn’t think it was done on purpose or by terrorists.

I thanked Marjan for clueing me in and ascended the seven flights of stairs to my apartment on the top floor and tried to call Yves. He was downtown working on a record he was producing for his friend and bandmate, Kevin. Kevin lived above the White Horse Tavern on Hudson and 11th Street and had a pretty sweet recording set up in his apartment. As far as I knew they were working on vocals and percussion overdubs that day.

My cell phone was useless. No call would connect. Our home phone was a digital cordless handset that relied on power from it’s base to function. There was no dial tone. I went to the hall closet and dug out my old corded, analog, plug-it-right-into-the-wall phone and gave it a shot. Yes! Dial tone! Too bad no one else had an old phone like that anymore. I’d only kept mine because of its late 80s kitschiness. The casing was made entirely of clear plastic, so you could see all of the gears and inner workings of the phone which had been assembled with vibrantly colored parts. It even lit up when it rang! Without a similar piece of antiquated technology on the other end of the line though, there was no connection to be made. The phone just rang and rang.

I stood around for a couple of minutes reviewing my options. It was unbelievably hot inside the apartment, so I certainly didn’t want to stay there. I thought about going back downstairs to hang out with my neighbors and Marjan, but they would just be standing around listening to talk radio and lamenting the loss of their refrigerated goods. Boring. I decided to opt for adventure and head down to the village to meet up with Yves. I grabbed a bottle of water, and packed my messenger bag with my useless cell phone, my wallet, a notebook and a pen. (In case I got any lyric ideas on my journey). I grabbed my pack of Camel lights and my trusty Zippo, threw on some $5 GAP flip flops and took to the streets.

It was a mere four and a half miles from 711 West End Ave to the White Horse Tavern, that was nothing. I’d be there in less than two hours. I was used to taking long city sojourns. Towards the end of my tenure at the studio I used to walk home from Times Square to the upper west side. It was great exercise and not only allowed me to listen to more music, but also to bank enough Weight Watchers points to drink wine when I got home. A win win, for sure.

I headed south on West End, I figured I would take it as far as I could and then cut over to Hudson St. at 14th. I opted to leave my earbuds out so I could hear what people were saying on the street. I wanted to gather as much information as I could about the blackout and people’s reactions and solutions. There might be information I needed for my journey too.

People were gathered in front of their buildings on West End all the way down to the 60s. Kids were playing on the sidewalks. Adults were trying to remain calm, but were definitely on guard. There was a palpable tension. We were living in the post 9/11 New York City, so that was always under the surface.

On my journey I learned that the technical failure at the energy company in Ohio was due to a faulty alarm system. An alarm failed to tell the workers to transfer power from an overloaded system and, zap! The whole Northeast was fried. I remember thinking that it was kind of weak that something so simple could throw so many people into darkness.

More and more people were heading south with me as I crossed out of my Upper West Side neighborhood and into the West 50s.

I met a woman who was walking because she lived downtown and was unwilling to fork over the outrageous fees she had been quoted by several midtown taxi drivers. We talked for a few blocks before she turned to head east.

I walked for about 10 blocks with a man who appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s and worked in midtown but lived in New Jersey. His commute was usually an easy one, he told me, but today he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get across the river. He had heard there was a shuttle set up at the Lincoln Tunnel to get folks back to Jersey, so he was headed that way. He told me he had a friend on the east side that he could stay with in a pinch, but would prefer to get home to his wife. We talked about our jobs and our families until we parted ways right before I passed the Javits Center. He told me to “take care” and I wished him luck getting home.

On my way east and in the last few blocks before 11th St. I walked by bars selling discounted beer and restaurants that had already come up with special deals to minimize their losses in the face of the massive cooler outage. By tomorrow they would be out thousands in spoiled food if they didn’t find a way to mitigate the situation. People were out in droves so there were plenty of takers on these deals. It was after work hours by that time anyway, although I’m not sure anyone would have stayed at their desk if given the option. It was like the greatest happy hour deal in the history of happy hours.

Everyone I encountered downtown was calm and orderly, even somewhat celebratory. There was an air of conviviality on the street, like we all sort of knew we were a part of history in this moment and we would deal with the melted ice cream tomorrow. We New Yorkers, as a group, had gotten good at dealing with disaster and it was a relief to know this one was simply electrical. There was still no foul play suspected.

Blackout: Part 1

A portion of “Blackout” was originally posted as part of T Minus 40, back in September. This is part one of the completed story…

For about 5 minutes, I thought I caused the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

I was sitting at my desk in our West End Avenue apartment working on recording a demo to send to the producers of an upcoming production of “Always, Patsy Cline”. It was August and it was hot as hell in our top floor apartment. I didn’t want to be sweating inside working, but I was trying out a new thing called self discipline and I really wanted to be good at it.

Earlier that year I had walked away from my position managing my stepfather’s recording studio in Times Square. After 6 years of dealing with major record labels, tending to the needs of artists, A&R and engineers and stroking all of the considerable egos at play I was really beginning to sour on the music business. I had all but abandoned my own original project which got me close to obtaining the kind of success and adoration I craved, but also held a mirror up to the sensitivity that would ultimately hold me back as a performer. I left partially because of the changing industry which was a victim of new technology, but also because I was 27 (no spring chicken in the entertainment biz) and I feared that my life’s work would become merely about building up others while I watched jealously from the sidelines in either management or A&R. I was not interested in being the woman behind the scenes, so I went back to my first love, acting. I had no family connections in that world and thought that if I struck out on my own it was inevitable that I would find my way. I could be the master of my own destiny instead of having to work how, when and with whom I was told. I had unknowingly abandoned one impossible situation for another.

I had never attempted to engineer my own recording session before. I grew up in the control room watching, but most of the buttons, knobs and faders were a mystery to me. They didn’t interest me. I wanted to be on the other side of the glass, in my mind that was where the real magic happened. I had always left recording to actual recording engineers, but because I had decided to create my own success, I longed for the self sufficiency that this technical knowledge would bring. Frustrated as I was, I was also determined. Yves, who has always been interested in both the technical and the artistic aspect of the recording game (I don’t think he believes there is a distinction) had given me a quick tutorial before he left the apartment that day, so the task seemed doable. I was going to submit an a capella version of “Crazy”, a song that had been in my repertoire since I first heard it in my grandparents Buick when I was 9 years old. As long as the tech part didn’t get the better of me I would be mailing the demo by morning.

At about 4pm I paused to use the bathroom in between takes. The job was taking longer than I would’ve liked. I had no choice but to get one complete take that I was happy with, since my morning ProTools lesson hadn’t included overdubbing and I wasn’t about to try to figure it out on my own. I was sitting on the toilet listening to play back from down the hall when the music suddenly stopped. The lights were off in the apartment already in an attempt to keep the place as cool as possible. We didn’t have the separation of sound necessary to run the AC and record vocals at the same time.

Uh oh, I screwed up the best take with my crap tech skills, was my first thought. Since my only clue to the power failure was the abrupt cut off of the music.

When I went back out to the living room and saw the the computer screen was dark I chastised myself, What did you do you, dumbass? 

Then I answered myself. Um, we did everything right, you were right there the whole time, don’t blame me.

I pressed the power button on the Mac. Nothing. No reassuring Mac start up bing.

I flipped the desk lamp on. Nothing happened. Huh? 

I turned to look around the room and noticed the clock on the cable box was out. Weird. Maybe I blew a circuit. Maybe I’ve got too many things plugged into the same outlet? I’m not really sure how all of this works.

I went to the circuit box in our hall closet. None of the circuits had been tripped. Huh, maybe it’s the building’s fault? 

I went to the front door of our apartment, opened it and peered out. There were no lights on in the hallway, but I couldn’t remember if they were supposed to be on yet or not, I’d never really paid attention to those things. I walked down the hall to the back elevator. There was no sound. No hum. Nothing. I concluded that the entire building was without power. Maybe too many people were running their AC. It was boiling hot that day.

I had no choice but to abandon my project, which came as somewhat of a relief. At least now I had an excuse to stop torturing myself with my novice digital recording skills. I’ve always had a hard time following through on things that don’t come naturally to me. Wearing the producer’s, engineer’s and artist’s hats was putting undo strain on my nerves. It was distracting me from the real task of performance. It felt terrible. I longed for the days when I had access to the studio and its eager young engineers during downtime and off hours. It was a privilege I was now kicking myself for taking for granted. I decided to head to Equinox, the gym I had joined when I decided to become a full time actor, for some air conditioning and a workout. I was sure they would have the power in my building up and running again by the time I sweated out some of my irritation.

I grabbed my purple Jansport and packed it with gym clothes. I headed down the seven flights to the lobby of our institutional 1950 apartment house which spanned the entire block between 94th and 95th streets. Several of my neighbors were gathered, but I was plugged into my first generation rio MP3 player, so I didn’t slow down to eavesdrop. The problem was likely minor and would be rectified by the time I completed the circuit at the gym.

Out on the street I noticed more people than usual milling about. Most of them were standing next to or sitting in their cars with the windows open. It was a little odd, since alternate side parking regulations had ended hours before. I didn’t think much of it though and headed up 94th to Broadway. When I arrived at the door to Equinox on Broadway at 92nd I noticed that their lights were out too. There was a handwritten sign on the door apologizing, but they were without power and so were closing for the afternoon until service was restored.

This is bigger than I thought. I took out my earbuds and headed back down the hill to West End.

On my walk back home I caught a bit of what was emanating from the car radios that were tuned in on the block. I caught a few phrases from the newscasters on 1010 WINS. Widespread outages. Entire Northeast. Michigan. Ohio. Do not suspect terrorism. 

Well, that’s good, I thought.

 

 

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She told me to come back to you, but I already instinctively knew.

You are where I find my way. You are where it all began.

Where I found the good, the bad.

You are here and yet you’re not.

You give up the spotlight and hand me center stage.

Or center me when there is no stage.

You help me find my way. You decide what’s right to say. And prioritize what’s sent.

You find the words that explain what I meant.

You turn them back around and show me.

So I come back to you and I do all the talking (as usual) and you stare back and I throw my words at you and you accept. I lay it out for you to take and you relent and I attack and I feel better until I realize that you’ve said nothing.

I, again, am the only actor in the play. You have slipped away, your part portrayed, your goal fulfilled, your silence’s job complete. You’ve gotten me back on my feet.

And do I ever thank you?