“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” That thought came to mind just today as I came to terms with another anniversary. Forty years ago today, New York City was in the midst of a far-reaching blackout, and while I don’t recall the toll it took just across the Hudson on the Jersey side, I well recall the affect it had on me.
I was 20 and my mother was in her last days, dying of cancer and hospitalized. I had made arraignments to relocate her to a Catholic hospice in New York. I thought the new surroundings would bring her comfort but instead, she cursed me for not choosing to bring her home. Those were our last words together. Still, after she died, she found it in her heart and soul to forgive me. (Please see my earlier blog.)
I was besides myself with anger and guilt. Through the ordeal of her illness, watching someone you love so dearly wasting away and knowing there was nothing one could do to change the outcome, I grew numb. There were no more tears for me to shed.
My best friend Don helped me bear the burden. He was the brother I never had and through the years, we could read each others thoughts and were always there for one another. If I remained sane during those dark days, I must credit him primarily for keeping me on course.
Don well knew my pain and inner turmoil after returning from the hospital that day. He didn’t offer to buy me a beer or say hollow words along the line of “I understand what you’re going through.” There was no way he could at the time.
Instead, he offered me the simple gift of distraction. Over the radio, we had learned of the Manhattan blackout. The sun was setting and the summer night promised to be all the more muggy and oppressive.
“Hey, come on. Let’s go for a ride,” he said, pulling me into his metallic-blue 1974 Mercury Capri, the same vehicle that I spent many pleasant times as his unflagging co-pilot on countless adventures and impromptu road trips.
“Where are we going? Look, I’ve got way too much on my mind right now and maybe we better …”
“Just shut up and get in the car. I’ve never seen a blackout up close. Have you?”
We sped off toward the George Washington Bridge as the sun was setting and the eerie image I first recall was the lack in the distance of a luminescent glow over the city. We parked on some narrow side street near the bridge in Fort Lee, searching for a stairway entrance leading to the pedestrian walkway across the span. There were other curious souls about with the same intent and how we managed it, I still do not know, but we missed our intended target and somehow wound up on a traffic ramp leading to the bridge. Where two ramps ran parallel with a precipitous 40 foot drop between them, we jumped the crossing with glee and no thought of our safety until we came to the pedestrian stairwell.
It brought us to the upper level on the south side of the bridge, and like the awe I felt the first time as a boy entering Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, clearing the landing and seeing the field’s splendor and the boisterous humanity that filled it, my breath was taken away to witness what was before us. To my right lay Manhattan and its skyline, only in shadows and a forming mist. The Henry Hudson Parkway stretched below, hugging the shoreline with spidery lines of car headlights inching out and making slow progress. I recall a muted silence of sorts except for the vehicles that rumbled past us on the bridge. In the river, a tugboat or two blared a horn sounding so very forlorn, as if calling attention to itself in an invisible reminder of normality.
I remember that we made our way just about halfway across the span, one foot in and one foot out just about where two states bordered. We had heard earlier reports on concerns of looting and spreading panic. Looking down the span, we saw no light at the end of an open-air tunnel and thought it best not to venture forth into Washington Heights. Understand, it was 1977, long before gentrification, when Son of Sam was just on the prowl and a journey through Times Square after the sun set was a walk on the wild and dangerous side.
We must have stood there for an hour, taking in the view, saying hardly a word. On the span, a steady breeze off the water was welcomed and refreshing.
Thought it all, it helped to release my mind from my own anxiety and dread of uncertainty in the days to come. Dark as the cityscape was, I understood that the lights would return in time and if not, there was always the dawn to bring things back into perspective. With one last look over our shoulders, we made our way back to the car.
“Thanks for this,” I said, trying hard not to choke up.
“Hey, that’s what friends are for,” he said. My mother died early the next morning. Don would remain at my side, too, through the funeral and the wake.