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Escape from Manhattan: The Sequel

Notes from Robert Ivy, AIA, Editor-in-chief

The lights went out in a blink, a fritz, a drone-down, and there we sat, powerless. Unlike the traumatic explosions that had erupted and hastened our escape two years earlier, August 14's shut-down resembled more whimper than bang.

It still raised immediate doubts.  What had been the source of the power failure?  A corrupt computer virus, one of us proposed, or a fire at the 14th Street station. Someone reported smoke downtown.  All we could tell was that all power, save battery, had vanished, leaving us sitting nine floors above Pennsylvania Station in the half-dark, stuck by the radio.

Better up than outside, where, over several hours, tens of thousands of stranded New Yorkers paced, waiting for their trains, looking at their watches, filling Seventh Avenue until it choked down to a trickle.  Most people sat, hunkered in the 90 degree heat.  We were better off waiting it out where we sat, enjoying the remnants of conditioned air, which slowly waned and soured like ripe cheese as time passed.

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By eight pm, our crew had dwindled to a dozen or so—New Jersey or Long Island moms and dads, Greenwich execs, and me—with night drawing on.  All of the Architectural Record staff had headed home or out into the city, to live out the night. The memories of after-dark rampages from earlier times meant finding shelter for us all, since the radio promised hours more of darkness, perhaps as late as dawn.

The land-lines worked (though cellphones did not), allowing my wife Holly and I to keep up through the unfolding afternoon and evening.  She determined early on to remain at work.  So after scavenging for food and pillows, she and three fellow workers spent the night above lower Fifth Avenue, safely out of harm's way, until her own trek across the bridge on Friday.  Thank goodness she had worn sandals.

I scavenged through our post-9/11 emergency pack, an oft-ridiculed orange bag of tricks issued by security. Throwing over my shoulder the tissue-thin foil blanket pack (it was hot), the paper face mask (I had no intentions of cleaning the attic), and abandoning the police whistle (better  for calling the dog), I grabbed at the flashlight. Thank God for something practical in that pack!

So I struck out finally for my own home, after offering spare beds and sofas in my apartment, just as the remainder of the staff heard the announcement to vacate 2 Penn Plaza.  Then came the angst:  down the exit stairs lay security, but also the unknowable.  Once the doors closed, there was no way back.  Who knew what we might find as the hours clicked ahead?

Outside, Penn Plaza had turned into a teeming sea, roiling like Cairo, but after four hours, most had found a perch, covering every step or ramp, chatting with neighbors or strangers.  Wading through, I made the break and headed toward Broadway and Brooklyn.  Random snatches along the way:  smiles and ice cream dispensed for free at the St. Francis mission around the corner, the odor of pizza from gas-fired ovens along the way, and entrepreneurs hawking bottled water and soft drinks, outdoor tables overflowing with beer and cheers at the bars. The afternoon seemed more "school's out" than tragedy.

Then I saw her.  At Sixth Avenue, sitting propped up against a storefront like a long-lost alcoholic, her feet out and heels splayed like a rag-doll, a well-dressed matron, a shopper at Macy's perhaps, someone's grandmother, slumped and pondering what to do. Perspiration already clouded her coppery hair in a corona.  She frowned, facing the setting sun.  Where would she sleep that night? Was she safe out on the evening streets?  A moment straight out of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story.

Down Broadway, the downtown momentum increased, away from Manhattan and toward home, the pace quickened by the double-time phalanx of police cadets headed toward police headquarters at an orderly clip.  It would be a big night for the patrols. An undercover cop waved us through the backed up traffic and onto the bridge.  Wheras two years ago we had scrambled on our own, through the honking cars and over the handrails up onto the pedestrian walkway, this time the city had opened the inbound automobile lane to the tens of thousands of us bound for home.

Once on the bridge, the mood lifted further.  A mom waved at her younger kids, running along the footbridge above.  No apocolyptic cloud accompanied our escape.  Instead, the lavender twilight intensified as we trooped across the bridge, shrouding the familiar stone towers in gathering dark.  All the moment lacked was a riff by jazzman John Coltrane as a coda.

Instead of Coltrane, we got the politician. "Welcome to Brooklyn, the greatest borough!" wailed councilman Marty Markowitz into the megaphone.  I leaped the fence right past him and bolted down the stairs, where I found the borough plunged into deep darkness.  Ahead, the restaurant Noodle Pudding, its doors opened wide, glowed with what seemed a thousand candles; otherwise, my trusty  flashlight cut a path toward home.

That night, to escape the heat, I slept outside, like earlier New Yorkers, out on our deck, beneath constellations hanging over the city.  On my back, I witnessed the full arc of a shooting star, which looped over the St. George hotel.  Then the full moon rose, washing me in moonshine, and rendering me visible and vulnerable to the neighboring apartments.  Suddenly, the adventure waned, and I tumbled inside, warmer but removed from view.

Daylight brought information. While the scope of this calamity stretched across states and cities leaving millions stranded (what happened to that lady on the street?), few apparently had raged or lost control.  The city's polity had held.  The next morning, convinced that we had learned something through earlier adversity, I drank my coffee, wondering at the fragility of the virtual modern life. What we had lost, after all, was something that no one had ever seen.

Read Robert Ivy's first escape from New York.

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