al berrios & co. CONSUMER STRATEGIES REPORT 08.15.03: My Day In A Mob: Blackout 2003
You now know that at around 4:20pm all lights, computers, faxes, phones, everything shut down. Folks around me casually joked that Baruch, where I was waiting to host a panel on Entrepreneurship and Advanced Negotiations, wasn't paying their bills. (I can't believe that joke still gets chuckles every time.) The full scope of what had just happened didn't strike me until I decided to go home.
At 6pm, I gave up on waiting for power to be restored and started walking north on Lexington Avenue from 24th street, headed towards the Empire State Building on 34th street, where my wife works. I had already heard from my local radio station 1010 WINS that the problem we were experiencing originated at Niagara Falls and affected many more cities. The first signs of major trouble were everywhere: buses, packed above capacity, no longer made scheduled stops and were re-routed; massive, parade-like crowds walking south towards the Brooklyn Bridge; and quick, street entrepreneurs selling anything that can be sold from $1 waters to $10 flip-flops for the long walk.
When I arrived at the Empire State Building almost 20 minutes later, I was told that the every story of the 101-story building had been evacuated. Makes sense, but suddenly made me realize the gravity of my individual situation: where was my wife and how was I going to get home to New Jersey?
I take a bi-state subway called the Port Authority Trans-Hudson or PATH between New York City and New Jersey. So, instinctively, I head over to a terminal on 34th street and 6th avenue from 34th and 5th. But by then, I already knew trains weren't working, and rescuers were busy navigating folks through miles of underground train tracks from stranded trains. I waited about 30 minutes anyway, in the hopes of power being restored. No such luck.
I remembered that a few months ago I took a community bus between Port Authority in New York to PATH's main terminal in Jersey City, Journal Square. So, I walked up to 42nd and 8th avenue, where PANY's terminal is located. Big mistake number 2. Evidently, I wasn't the only one trying to head back to Jersey via Port Authority during the typical peak of rush hour, coupled with a severely diminished alternatives. The scene was jaw-dropping. Memories of 9/11 were fast re-surfacing. In our information-deprived state, tens of thousands of people were herded, attracted, or diverted to one single block, 41st between 8th and 9th, and had this been a terrorist act, a strike here would have been highly effective.
I must be normal, because the sense of deferring to the majority was overwhelming and I merged into the mob thinking they had an escape. Although mobs aren't my cup of tea, I figured I had a size advantage and had a good chance of exploiting any information I learned in the crowd. As I penetrated deeper and deeper into the 15th century, I was reassured that I wasn't the only one affected by survival-of-the-fittest mentality. It was suddenly socially acceptable to step all over your neighbor, be her elderly woman or physically challenged man. As part of the mob, we automatically deferred authority to the mob. The mob's behavior set the standard for our behavior. Even cops were screaming and yelling.
When I realized that I had been standing amidst a horde of sociopathic commuters, kicking and screaming to get in front of moving buses, I came to my senses and actually gave up hope. I left the mob and proceeded towards Bryant Park on 40th and 6th avenue, back into New York City, but a place of atypical serenity as commuters gravitated towards the city's perimeter. I bought some drinks and found a seat, still without a clue where my wife was or how I'd get home. My only solace was that my white shirt and suit jacket were still clean, after all that walking and zoo-cializing.
Since I had nothing else to do, I looked at my cell phone and noticed I received a voicemail. It was my wife! She was safe and sound on her way home with her friends on the ferry. The FERRY! How could I forget. But, it was already 8pm, the sunlight was dwindling and the only ferry I knew of was in the financial district, all the way downtown. No biggie, I'd just gone through worse, and bolted from the park like a man on a mission. That mission lasted all of 15 minutes as my legs were giving out, my stamina had waned, and New York City increasingly resembled a post-apocalyptic scene, a dark, ominous canyon that you'd expect to see in that movie "Pitch Black" with Vin Diesel. All that was needed were the flesh-eating pterodactyls.
As I crossed each avenue, hopeful commuters waited for buses to take them downtown. Once again, I deferred command of my behavior to the majority, and actually committed to waiting for a bus even though I knew this made no sense. I had seen the state of the buses just 4 hours earlier and knew that there was no way that I was going to catch a bus. Thirty minutes later, and having wasted precious sunlight, I decided to walk cross-town to 12th avenue and 34th street where I figured it'd be a shorter route to downtown since Manhattan terminates in a triangle tip. The scene at the Long Island Rail Road terminal was equally pitiful, but looked worse as the sun's last rays vanished. Hot dog vendors became the new robber barons.
Luckily I was able to catch an empty cross-town bus on 34th street (for free - thanks MTA!) where I learned that there was a ferry on 38th and 12th. Risking my remaining stamina and a potentially pitch black west side of the city, I followed the crowd, again, towards the ferry. It was 41st street all over again, but this time, something was different. These commuters weren't trying to kill each other yet.
As I merged with this new herd, I met a man named Jack. It was by speaking with Jack that I started to make sense out of the last 4 hours. We spoke extensively about the different types of behaviors we had observed. (Jack's in the security business.) As it turned out, Jack and a few others around us had shlepped throughout the city via the same places I had, finally arriving at that pier. Our behavior to defer authority to the majority is rational because the majority, through a process of elimination and sheer numbers, all ultimately conclude the same things. And because it is a majority, wherever the majority is, you can rest assured that's where events are occurring that the majority wants or doesn't want.
As we patiently waited to board ferries, several aspects of human behavior became clear. First, it was obvious that we (New Jerseyans) had all accepted our fates, after initially denying it and seeking to frantically regain control of the situation, that this was the only means home. We were civil, polite, and even upbeat despite the weather (in suits and ties) and the day's events. (Poor Jack, a tough-as-nails old bird, was drenched). Second, we naturally seek interaction with others. How is it possible that two strangers that had never met and have no logical reason to speak to each other become fast friends, like Jack and I did? Third, although boarding was painfully slow, it was apparent to all that the two massive lines on either side of the pier were being alternated to give everyone a chance to board. This established the crowd's standard of fairness and the transparency of the process of getting us home, (two key tools lacking in our scandalous financial system). And finally, once these standards had been set, different personalities emerged to either abuse the standard (since there wasn't a clear punishment for such abuses) or cooperate with the standard, since it was expected that everyone was going to get across the river to New Jersey.
I boarded a ferry to Weehawkin, New Jersey at 10pm with the expectation that I was going to get shuttled over to Jersey City upon arrival. This expectation was set by NYPD, who, given the circumstances, performed admirably at containing what could have been looting, riots, or worse. When I arrived at Weehawkin, it was about 90 minutes before I did board, but during those 90 minutes, this civil crowd lost its patience and was on the verge of mutiny. I also received another message from my wife letting me know she was almost home.
In Weehawkin, we were greeted by local police, who seemed more like security officers than police officers. The leader was this overly-congenial guy, who lacked the take-charge sort of character the mob was seeking to place authority with. The mob therefore kept its authority, allowing the sentiment of incompetent Weehawkin officials to take over. To make things worse, there was no transparency as to whether or not there were any efforts in place to assist this mob in getting home, many as far away as Montclair and Princeton. When the lead official informed the mob of the situation, he lacked clarity. When he set standards for loading, he conflicted himself. And when boarding commenced, he lacked coordination between his men and the guidance we demanded. The result was a lynch mob that resembled 41st street. As the strong pushed aside the weak to board available buses first, our sense of fairness, established by the leader's standards, were raped, and the mob erupted into a free for all. Had this been a terrorist strike to inflict more damage to our way of life, they would have succeeded.
The ride from Weehawkin was long, but air-conditioned. Cool air had its calming affect, and even served to increase our acceptance of a situation outside of our control. Traffic was pandemonium, but manageable. It got me thinking of how life in a major metropolis such as New York City would be without traffic standards. Even without guidance, pedestrians and drivers were considerate and careful. Sidewalks and streets merged without incident. There didn't appear to be any mechanical, racial, ethnic, political, religious, or class differences. Everyone was part of the same mob, with a single unifying mission - getting home.
The bus from Weehawkin left me in Newark, New Jersey, minutes from my home, and lit up like the holidays. Had power finally returned? Since I had never taken a bus from Newark, I had no information on which to base my next choice - wait for a bus or walk home? At this point, because commuters had more information about their location and situation, civility and even humor returned to many. The worst of their mission was now behind them and the endgoal was visible. I had a similar feeling and decided not to risk anymore of my energy or quickly-diminishing patience on walking. The wait for the bus was almost an hour, but well worth the wait. During the wait, I learned my wife had finally made it home, and on my way to Jersey City, I realized that Newark wasn't fully lit. If you've never been to Newark, avoid going at night. Newark is like a huge, sprawling maze with conflicting streets and few street signage, providing little to no guidance - it's as if the urban planners were trying to make everyone get lost.
Upon entering the city of Jersey City, landmarks I could spot in my sleep were indistinguishable in the almost absolute darkness. The entire city was cordoned off from the direction of the bus, but the police allowed the bus to proceed into the city. Getting off the bus felt like I was in some third world country where the only way to see anything was from the light of the moon and stars. It was spectacular, but very eerie. The kind of eerie that you always know puts the actors in scary movies in danger, so they shouldn't be going into, but they go anyway.
I arrived at my home at 1am the next day and in only 7 hours, without getting stuck on the train, in Manhattan, and with my family all safe and sound. I vented, of course, but when I put it in perspective, my ordeal was more valuable than anything. After all, how often does a researcher get to go through an experience as rich as that, the largest in history, intact? Compared to my fellow commuters, my size and understanding of the entire situation made my ordeal relatively easy. And, thanks to the way human behavior is, I ended up saving money, too, because no one wanted to charge me anything to transport me home, unlike a typical, capitalistic day in New York City.
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