Six million visitors come to the Museum of Natural History every year for a look at dinosaur bones, meteorites from outer space and a calm-as-a-Buddhist-monk Blue Whale dangling from the ceiling. The “history” here is on a geologic or evolutionary scale. How many visitors come to find history of their own?
The Great Northeastern Blackout happened over a decade ago, when a power plant in someplace called Eastlake, Ohio went offline. That outage put pressure on the rest of the electrical grid to make up for the lost power. Other electrical stations fell offline, and a cascade of failures left millions powerless from Ontario to New York.
My grandfather – my Pa – and I were at the Museum of Natural History that day. Both of us space geeks, we really went for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a cube-shaped cathedral devoted to all things alien from Earth.
The Rose Center, when viewed from outside during the nighttime, presents a paradox: The entire universe is contained in a transparent blue-glow cube. But as many a science geek understands, the universe is expanding. I suppose the only place where the universe isn’t expanding is the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
After a day of looking at moonrocks and seeing how much we would weigh on various interstellar bodies, we took the C train back to Penn Station, where we boarded the Long Island Rail Road to go back home.
Between Woodside and Jamaica, the blackout hit. Our electric train was stranded in Queens.
Rumors flowed at a rate electricity could never match. September 11th was still fresh in our New York minds and the Global War on Terror was terrifying. Reports of “smoke in Manhattan” circulated through the train, completely unsubstantiated. This was pre-Twitter and most cell towers were down.
A contingent of Police Academy cadets took charge of the train and warned passengers not to get off and walk back to Woodside. If the electricity should come back on, they said, the 3rd rail could fry a person. Long Islanders are taught to fear and respect the 3rd rail (and the gap between the train and the station platform) around the same age we’re taught the Golden Rule and to always say “please and thank you.”
Some passengers ignored the warning and took to walking the rails. The electricity did not come back on and they were not burnt to a crisp before making it to Woodside.
I was worried about Pa. He had diabetes most of his life, and we were out of the snacks we carry in case of a blood sugar crash. It was the middle of Summer, and the temperature abord the train was rising quickly. He was a big man, and if he did crash, I would have to enlist help to carry him to a hospital or ambulance.
“The same thing happened to me during the Blackout of ’77,” said an elderly lady nearby in an apparent attempt to be reassuring and lighthearted.
It didn’t work, but we smiled at her anyway.
A few hours later, the LIRR sent a diesel-powered engine to push our train back to Woodside, where my parents rescued us – and they brought snacks. Back home at my apartment, everyone was outside, grilling and drinking and having fun. It’s amazing how quickly the community of a village is restored once everybody loses their TVs and computers.
Last weekend, I didn’t really go back to the Museum of Natural History to look moonrocks and dinosaur bones. I went to find Pa. He passed away this past November after months of chemotherapy for Lung and Pancreatic cancers.
And the whole time I wandered the museum with my friends, I felt his arm around my shoulder and his voice in my ear, telling me about the Moon and Jupiter and why I weigh more on the Sun than on Earth. And on the subway ride home, I felt him making sure I watched the gap and didn’t fall victim to the third rail.