Yes, a lot can happen in 30 years. Who then could have imagined that the most striking absence in this picture would be anything other than the skyline's galaxy of electric lights?
Photo: New York Times
And yes, I remember precisely where I was when the lights went out--at home with my family in Stuyvesant Town, on vacation before my senior year at NYU. My dad had just blown a circuit using a power tool, and was replacing the fuse; as he withdrew his hand from the fuse box, in a moment of apocalyptic horror, he looked out our seventh-floor kitchen window to see Manhattan go dark, convinced that he had somehow done something unimaginably wrong. For years, I ribbed him that it had all, indeed, been his fault.
Horror stories to recount? Hardly. The worst of it, for us, was schlepping down seven flights of stairs to fetch buckets of water from an open hydrant; we quickly lost our pressurized water supply, and for the duration my hands smelt vaguely of the raw chicken I had been cutting up when the lights went out. We lit candles, called friends, listened to the news on a transistor radio...but I don't recall any of us feeling a particularly sharp sense of dread over the looting and fires sweeping parts of the city. Although we lived steps from Alphabet City on the Lower East Side, we never set foot on the other side of 14th Street, and Brooklyn or Harlem might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
In fact, it felt like a bit of rough fun, much like most of that "Summer of Sam" now being mythologized as a ghastly nadir in the city's life. I was young and commuting on foot to college in Manhattan, "the city," after a sheltered girlhood in suburban Queens. Although my parents spoke with weary nostalgia about a "nicer" city back in the day, a New Yorker cartoon city where ladies always wore gloves and men always wore hats, I had never known anything but the gritty streets and foul-smelling, graffiti-covered subways around me. However far into the mud it had sunk, New York City was mine to discover, even if it meant sitting under the yellow glare of a bare bulb on the old LL train, its wicker seats sprung, a fan whirring weakly overhead. Once I changed trains to uptown, there was Broadway, and the Cloisters, and Altmans, and Gilbert and Sullivan at the old Jan Hus Theater. Most of all, there was Lincoln Center and the ballet.
I lived, slept, ate and drank ballet back in that city set to explode in flames the night of July 13. I took class at the old American Ballet Theatre school on West 66th Street, got on line at the Met (in conspicuous bun and leotard) with my friends for standing room at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, and thought nothing of standing for four straight weekend performances when our demigod, Nureyev, was in town. (We all loved Barishnikov, of course, but I was a Rudi girl.) I was excruciatingly lonely--the decade of disco and "Boogie Nights" was a terrible time to be young, single, and chaste, and most of the guys in my milieu were gay anyway. (Soon, most would also be dead, Rudi included.) But there was no loneliness so profound that "Swan Lake," "Romeo and Juliet," or, especially, "Giselle" couldn't banish. I have always loathed that song from A Chorus Line, "Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet," because it made my salvation into something so escapist and sappy. Besides, the interplay of studio, stage and street--the perfection of bodies lined up at a barre, horns honking below, summer heat warming up legs, icy air-conditioned red-velvet Met and suffocating IRT--seemed like a seamless tapestry, the most thrilling place on earth.
And so, although I lived in the heart of the city, I watch the clip reels and chin-stroking recaps of the terrible Summer of 77 with a wry smile. The Son of Sam was a mere diversion (we made great sport in journalism class the following year of the lurid Daily News headlines, particulary "SAM SLEEPS," a jailhouse exclusive shot of, yes, Berkowitz snoozing). If New York was on the ropes, my friends and I failed to notice. I turned 20 at summer's end, and the whole world seemed to be waiting for me. If you had told me that world included Brooklyn, of course, I would have thought you quite mad; Brooklyn was a foreign land on fire. Happy Friday the Thirteenth, and here's to changing luck!
Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz
Between flesh and what's fantasy and the poets down here
Don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded,
not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland
Copyright © Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP)