13 July 1977
"Y'all think yuh kin screw this on?"
My stepfather was holding a coverplate for an electrical outlet in one hand, and a screw and screwdriver in the other.
"Lookit me when Ah tawk to yuh. Y'all thank yuh kin screw this on?"
"Yuh'll probably have trouble widdit," he said.
I took the coverplate, screw, and screwdriver and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. It was July 13, 1977, and I was 13 years old. We were living an a gigantic old rambling Victorian house in the city of Yonkers, a suburb in Westchester County, directly north of New York City. My stepfather and I had just spent the last hour running a heavy duty grounded power cable from the circuit breaker box in the basement to my bedroom on the second floor. This was an arduous task, involving snaking a shielded power cable through three stories of walls and ceilings and crawl spaces, with many cries of "Hol' it, gawdammit", and "Pull it now, gawdammit". I was more of a hindrance than a help to him during this project, and to say my stepfather was infuriated would do a disservice to the wonders and delights of Texas English; in his own words he was as pissed as a bull in a pepper patch.
At about the time we started to install the cable, at 8:37 PM, the Chief Systems Operator for Consolidated Edison (the electrical utility for New York City and Westchester) was sitting in his control center, wondering what the hell he was going to do. A freak bolt of lightning had just struck two high-tension electrical feeder towers near the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, 45 miles north of Manhattan. The jolt had knocked both towers out of service, and the disruption in power caused Indian Point to trip off, to automatically cease generating electricity. Eighteen minutes later, two more lines were hit by lightning, and tripped. By five minutes to 9 o'clock, New York City had lost 65% of its ability to import power from the nation's power grid.
This whole problem between my stepfather and me was my mother's fault. She absolutely had to sleep with an air-conditioner running full blast in the summer, and the industrial strength air-conditioners she needed required industrial strength power cables. My stepfather had already run a heavy duty electrical cable into their bedroom several years before, and their air-conditioner worked fine. But my stepfather's parents were due to visit in August; my mother was giving them her bedroom and she was going to sleep in my room for the duration of their stay (causing me to camp out in my brother's room). And if my mother had to sleep in another room in the house, well then goddammit there had better be an air-conditioner in that room! For all his Texas swagger, my stepfather was just as afraid of my mother as the rest of us were, so he dutifully ran a BX cable into my room and gave her an air-conditioner.
At 9:06, Con Ed's Chief Systems Operator got a call from the Energy Control Center in Manhattan. He was told that there was only one main feeder line, Feeder 80, bringing power from Canada into New York City, and that line was heavily overloaded. The CSO issued orders to increase local electrical production by starting the city's big steam driven generators. The generators were slow to come on line, however; their jet driven auxiliary turbines could not be activated, because the engineers to operate them had gone home for the evening.
My stepfather and I had finished connecting and testing the new outlet in my room; all that remained was to screw the face plate onto the outlet to make it look nice. My stepfather detested what he called the "faggot work" of putting the finishing cosmetic touches on any project, so he handed me the plate and some tools and wondered if I wouldn't fuck up this part too badly.
Con Ed's Operations Center was thick with activity. The CSO decided to reduce voltage across the New York/Westchester operating grid by 8%, to "brown-out" the city. This was done to keep vital outside connections like Feeder 80 from overloading and cutting off.
But the action was too late. At 9:13, Feeder 80 shut down, leaving New York connected to the national electrical grid by only two lines: the connection to LILCO, the Long Island Lighting Company, and the Linden power cables, connecting the city to New Jersey. Both lines were heavily overloaded. (The Linden lines were, at this point, carrying 129% of their emergency rating.)
I was determined to show my stepfather that he was wrong about me. Expecting praise for screwing on a faceplate was rather silly on my part, especially after I had been so inept at helping to install the cable, but one can dream, can't one? I walked into my room, crouched down near the new outlet, and fitted the faceplate over the twin plugs.
The overload on the power line to New Jersey was too great. If that line went, New York would be completely cut off from all externally generated power. To ease the strain on the New Jersey power line and save New York, the Con Ed Chief Systems Operator gave the order to "shed load", to selectively pull the plug on certain sections of New York City and Westchester County.
I placed the screw in the screw hole, fit the cruciform head of the screwdriver into the top of the screw, and gave one half turn.
The ConEd operator turned the switch.
The lights in the house went out.
"Aw, no," I whispered in the dark. "I am so dead."
At that moment, I could hear it start downstairs. The loud, deep rumble of the pent-up forces of nature that were my stepfather. It was the rumble of two tectonic plates smashing against each other; it was the sound of lava bursting out of a volcanic caldera. It echoed up the stairway and through the halls of the house. It filled my brain.
"GAWDAMMMIT!!! WHAT IN HELL DID YUH DO NOW!!!!" my stepfather yelled into the darkness.
I could hear him start to tromp upstairs as my mother came running into my bedroom.
"What happened?" she asked breathlessly.
"I didn't do anything," I replied. "All I did was screw on the faceplate."
"The lights are out," my mother said.
If she had been anyone else, I would have given her a snotty comeback for stating something so obvious, but I knew I was going to need allies when my stepfather reached my room, so I kept my mouth shut.
My stepfather stormed into my room with his big Texas stride. "NOW WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOIN' ON HERE??" he demanded. I really thought he was going to hit me.
"The lights are out," my mother repeated.
My stepfather knew better than to make a snotty remark to her about stating the obvious, so he turned on me. "'ats cause he can't even screw on a goddamn faceplate!"
I was still young and naive enough to think that a logical approach worked when dealing with the insanely angry, so I said, "It doesn't seem likely that screwing on a faceplate would cause all the lights to go out."
"An' what the hell do you know about it?!?!?!" my stepfather shouted. "You couldn't even pull the goddam cable right!"
My mother, who only felt really happy when everyone around her was frantic, calmly looked out the window at our neighbor's house and said "Joan's lights are out, too."
"There," I said.
"He probably blew out the breaker on the utility pole!" my stepfather retorted. "That'd knock out ever'thin' on our side of the street."
My mother, who generally didn't stand up for her children, surprised me by looking out the other window and calmly saying, "The O'Connell's house, across the street, is dark, too."
My stepfather paused for a second and said, "He musta knocked out the whole substation, for alls I know."
My nine year old sister came into my room. She was wearing pajamas and her hair was wet; she had been taking a shower when the lights went out.
"The lights are out," my sister said.
"I know," I said.
"What happened?" my sister asked my mother.
"Your gawdamm brother did it," my stepfather announced.
Personally, I was amazed at how relatively calmly we were taking this. My family was one in which any slight disagreement quickly exploded into a screaming match, complete with slammed doors and flying brick-a-brack. For my stepfather to be the only one angry in a given situation was astounding.
"This is how it happened," my mother said in a faraway voice.
"What?" I inquired.
"This is how the monsters took over. Remember? The Twilight Zone?"
"Which one?" I asked, eager to change the subject.
"The one where the monsters shut down all the lights and made people go crazy," my mother replied. As usual, my mother has gotten the plot slightly off, but that was nothing unusual to us; my mother often remembered things the way she wished they had been, rather than how they were.
"Will y'all forget the Twilight Zone?" my stepfather commanded. "Ahminna check the circuit breaker box in the basement." He stomped out of the room.
"Are there monsters?" my little sister asked tremulously. My sister was obviously asking to be reassured that this real life blackout was not caused by creatures from outer space, but my mother assumed that she wanted to know more about the Twilight Zone episode.
"Well, they came in a spaceship," my mother explained, "and they magically shut off all the electricity to a town, except for some people who looked just like normal people, but were really monsters." That tale set the tone for the evening as far as my sister was concerned. Convinced that the blackout was the work of TV monsters, she would spend the rest of the evening watching us carefully for any hint that we were going to go crazy and kill her. She started to sniffle.
I sighed. "I really didn't do anything," I told my mother.
"I know," my mother said. "But I'm not staying in this house all night without air conditioning." My mother's idea of roughing it is having no ice in her drink. She turned to me and said, "Find the phone and call your grandfather; see if they still have lights."
My mother would have said "find the phone" whether the lights were on or not. In our house, finding the phone was a difficult task even in broad daylight. After the phone had first been installed, my mother bought 500 feet of telephone wire at Radio Shack and had my stepfather splice that into the phone line. Guests to our house regularly tripped over a phone wire that started in the foyer, snaked its way up the main staircase, along the upstairs hallway, down the back stairs, through the dining room, and ended up in the kitchen. In short, the phone was liable to be anywhere in the house.
I did what I always did. I inched my way down to the foyer, found the telephone jack in the baseboard, grabbed the phone wire, and pulled and pulled and pulled until the phone came bouncing down the stairs like an obedient puppy. I picked up the phone, was amazed to get a dial tone, and dialed the number of my grandfather's house in the Bronx.
While we're waiting for him to answer, let me tell you a little bit about my grandfather. Most of the waste and mismanagement in the New York City Police Department in the 1970s was directly caused by my grandfather. He was the guy responsible for buying supplies for the Police Department; batteries, floor wax, paper towels, pens, powdered soap, bullets, all the little things required to keep 30,000 police officers operating at maximum efficiency. My grandfather handled the purchase negotiations and the disbursement of this merchandise, and, I swear, most of the stuff wound up in a warehouse he and his brother rented in Queens. Our entire family, out to second cousins, was treated to discounts on just about any household goods you could name. Until I was eight, I thought "New York City Police Department" was a brand name.
My grandfather answered on the second ring.
"Hi, Grandpa. It's Patrick."
"OH! WHADDYA HEAR, WHADDYA SAY?" My grandfather believed that Yonkers, being in a different area code, was a long distance call from the Bronx, and thus required shouting into the phone.
"Grandpa, do you have still lights?"
"LIGHTS? YEAH, I GOT LIGHTS. I'LL GET YOU A BOX OF 100 BULBS, EIGHT BUCKS. WHADDYA NEED?"
"No, Grandpa, I mean electricity. Do your lights still work?"
"OH. LEMMEE SEE."
I heard the click of a light switch, and I assumed that he had been sitting in his apartment in the dark. The man hadn't gone into a supermarket to buy a cake of soap in years; he certainly wasn't going to piss his money away on something as intangible as electricity.
"YEAH. WE STILL GOT LIGHTS. WHAT'S WRONG?"
"Oh, nothing," I said. "It's just that we've had a blackout here, and we wonder if we could come down there and stay with you."
"WHAT? A BLACKOUT? WHY?"
I sighed. "I was screwing a faceplate onto a new outlet and the lights went out," I said.
"OH," he said. In my family you learn to accept the most bizarre explanations for things. "YEAH. SURE. COME ON DOWN."
"OK, Grandpa. Thanks a lot. We'll see you soon."
As I was hanging up the phone, the Chief Systems Operator of Consolidated Edison was looking at his plotting boards. He saw that his plan to shed load to save the city wasn't working. He had deliberately blacked out nearly all of Westchester County and parts of Queens, and the city's power lines were still tremendously overloaded.
With all the electrical surges racing through the New York Power Grid, LILCO, afraid of going down with the city, disconnected its generating stations from New York. Five minutes later, Con Ed's tie to New Jersey short circuited. The local generators that had managed to come on line reeled from the wildly fluctuating current loads, and one by one they tripped off. At 9:34, nearly one hour after the first lightning strike, New York City was without power.
course, my grandfather's neighborhood was affected immediately. Of
course, my grandfather didn't notice anything because he had gone
back to sitting in the dark, smoking cigarettes and brooding. And
even if he had noticed, it's doubtful he would have called us;
although a Bronx-to-Yonkers phone call is only 10 cents, he's
under the impression that it's long distance. He'd wait until we
got there to tell us....
Several thousand people were arrested in New York City that night for looting; hundreds of buildings were set ablaze.
Power was restored to our neighborhood by 6 AM the next day; New York City was 100% restored 25 hours after the blackout began.
My grandfather retired a few months before hearings into fraud and mismanagement in the police force began. He was never caught.
Con Ed added automated start-up ability to its generators, ensuring that New York City will be able to generate its own power any time of the day or night.
One month later, police arrested the Son of Sam, New York's .44 caliber killer, around the corner from our house.