Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Blackout


I was twenty, living on a loft in Soho, a different place in the summer of 1977: tougher, grittier, its cobblestone streets jammed with trucks and strewn with dumpsters slathered with graffiti and torn poster bills. No boutiques, no Balthazar.

Back then lofts were raw and illegal. Artists lived in them. Ours belonged to a professor at Pratt, a sculptor named Hockhausen. He sublet it to us, his students—an architect, a filmmaker, and a sculptor with two kittens, one black, one white, named Sacco & Vanzetti. The professor left behind some cans of household latex in different ugly colors: gray, purple, brown, pink. He left some big sheets of paper, too.

I carried everything up to the roof, and spread out a dozen sheets, their corners held down by bottles and bricks. With lettering stencils, a roll of masking tape, and a rough plan, I went to work. Pollack and Johns were my heroes. The paintings I made on the roof, surrounded by ventilators and tarpaper, owed everything to them.

Under a breezeless summer sun I worked all day. The forecast was good. I left the paintings up there to dry and went to bed in my cubicle. Each of us had his or her own private area. The filmmaker had one of two lofts, the architect the other; the graphic artist had her own room at the loft’s north end. I had the cube: a windowless box built into the loft’s center and painted white inside and out, the absence of color relieved only by a smudge or two. It was like living in a giant sugar lump. I considered hanging some of my paintings in there, but then it occurred to me that the white walls bearing down on me might be a source of inspiration.

I woke up the next morning to find the floor covered with pink, purple, gray, and brown paw prints. I ran up to the roof. All my paintings were ruined. The cats had run all over and ruined them.

The same day Sally, my high school sweetheart, called. A quiet girl into whose silences I read depths that probably weren’t there, I’d left behind in Connecticut to go to art school. Though I’d seen her over the summer, I wasn’t sure if I still loved her. She was more like a habit I couldn’t break. She was three weeks pregnant, she told me. No, she wouldn’t get an abortion. I reasoned; I argued; I pleaded. My words echoed off the white walls of my cube. Afterwards I walked onto the fire escape. The towers of Wall Street burned against the deepening dusk. I saw myself unloading crates of frozen fish at the Fulton Fish Market. As I stood there, John, the sculptor, came out in his bathrobe. He stood six-feet-four. “You know,” he said, seeing the look on my face, “if you were a woman I’d want to make love to you.”

That’s when the lights went out. Except for a few neighborhoods in the Rockaways the whole city went dark. Looters walked out of stores carrying frozen turkeys and television sets. Four thousand commuters had to be evacuated from the subway trains and tunnels. Anarchic mobs ravaged neighborhoods; in all thirty-seven hundred arrests were made. The lights were out for over 24 hours. Con Edison called the blackout “an act of God.” At least one man disagreed. “Tonight we are without God,” Father Gabriel Santacruz of Bushwick told his candlelit flock.

A week later, at Bridgeport Burger King across the street from Planned Parenthood, Sally and I sat at a table sipping milkshakes. A bright sunny August day. Thick slabs of sunlight poked through the window. Neither of us said a word.

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