No night for melon; bring on the brie and fire

By Alphie McCourt

If you live in New York and you can walk or talk or sing or dance, multiply, divide, draw or chisel, you are expected to make some kind of observation on the recent Blackout. You must have a story. Carla told me hers.

Carla comes to us three times a week as mentor and friend to my daughter. She lives in Brooklyn. On that Thursday she was with another family, Uptown. From 125th St. to 81st St. she made her way, caught a bus to 34th St. and walked on down Seventh Ave., bumping into an old friend along the way. We drove by there the other day. She regaled me with her tale of all the free stuff she and her friend had been given by the merchants in the W. 20s. Calamari was number one, followed by mineral water, ice cream, a small salad, a beer, a slice of pizza and a container of yogurt. As they neared the Village they were in dire need of a bathroom. And no wonder. The real wonder is that the doorman in a high-rise building allowed them to use the employees’ bathroom.

As a Manhattan resident, my own Blackout experience was less well defined, less rigorous and definitely less interesting. But then, I didn’t end up in desperate need of a bathroom. In Manhattan, you are as likely to find an available bathroom as you are to find a parking space. And the finding of a parking space is about as predictable as the finding of a congenial sex partner. Mind you a parking space, once you’ve found it, never shows an urgent need for a bathroom. And you don’t have to bring it flowers, remember the anniversary of the day you first met, or bring it a gift on its birthday. Even so, a parking space, even when available, is not easy to get into and will require both negotiation and manipulation. But a parking space is what it is. There is no pretense. And a parking space may give you a headache but it will never plead a headache as an excuse.

On the day of the Blackout I had followed my usual routine; I picked up my daughter on the West Side and my wife on the East Side. Traffic lights were not working but there was no shortage of civic-minded civilian traffic directors. Gone were the wariness and the weariness of the career traffic person, just looking to move the traffic, without getting killed by some fool driver. Gone was the lifetime traffic director just looking to get through the year and add one more notch to the pension belt. Here was zeal. I am convinced that every one of these volunteers was an actor-in-waiting. Not one of them had ever driven a car in Manhattan. They were all from Ohio. This was their chance to be discovered, to have someone say, “I saw you on TV.”

Just above Columbus Circle a young woman stepped in front of the car. She motioned to me to stop, again she motioned and waved and pointed to a particular spot, almost dancing up and down in her agitation. A traffic cop would have been less dictatorial. Who was this woman and why was she doing this? The Blackout was only 15 minutes old. I am a New York City driver. I am wary and her gestures were too frantic.

New Yorkers do not perform acts of courtesy or politeness. They do not perform good deeds. None of these things do they perform. They just do them, commit them, as if they were committing a criminal act. Picking up the fallen off the sidewalk, holding the door for the elderly man, assisting the woman with child and stroller up the subway steps, holding onto the leash of the runaway dog until the owner retrieves it, all of these they do. Immediately, furtively, they turn sideways and walk quickly away, for fear that someone will see their face, commend them or, worse, offer thanks.

Who, then, was this young woman? Gradually I slowed down and continued to slow down, while I considered her. Only when I finally decided that she might be from out of town, that she might be legitimate, did I come to a full stop. She glared at the driver’s-side front wheel, protruding one inch over the white line of the pedestrian crosswalk. I couldn’t help it. I put my head out the window and told her. “O.K., I gotcha,” I said. “I gotcha. Calm down. Cool it.” I was tempted to congratulate her on a fine acting job but it was a very hot day. The truth is that later in the evening, I never would have been able to negotiate Fifth Ave. without the help of a corps of traffic-directing volunteers. They parted a sea of pedestrians so that I could get through.

On my own street, having parked the car, I joined my wife and daughter on the sidewalk outside our building. Across the street a group of well-heeled co-op owners sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. Consciously or otherwise, they had formed a circle. The building superintendent hovered close by. In a movie the leader would have murmured: “It’s quiet.” The building superintendent, in his role as scout, would have said: “Too quiet.” War whoops would have erupted all round us and the hordes would have swarmed from Uptown and Downtown.

This was not a movie. Within the circle, in a parody of camaraderie, in a poor imitation of the spirit of neighborhood, our chic neighbors feasted. On thin slivers of melon they feasted. No, this was not a movie. And it could not be real. Slivers of melon, on the night of the biggest Blackout in the history of the United States? Where was the fat, the grease? Where was the tribal fire? Where were the flames? How would they light their torches, repel all intruders and keep at bay the masks of darkness? Melon tippling during a Blackout flies in the face of the gods. Such delicacy in time of disaster cries out for punishment.

I had to turn my back on the melon people for fear of guilt by association and because the obligatory mineral water was in evidence. Who ever heard of passing around a bottle of mineral water and sharing it? And not a can of beer in sight. Only my friend John, down the street, in company with friends and family, thought of hoisting one in memory of the Blackouts of ’65 and ’77.

In 1977 I was co-owner of a restaurant on what was becoming the Upper West Side. Despite the dire predictions of our nervous partner and in the face of reported rioting, we stayed open during the Blackout. We sold out just about everything; all the beer and wine, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, all the salad and all the cheese, even the semi-soft cheddar. Brie would have been better but we bore up under the cheddar. The following morning I ventured out onto the outdoor patio. Not a mineral water bottle in sight. On the ground, under a chair, lay what looked like a fat bag of marijuana. The owner of this treasure must have had a good night, with such a stash and he must have been blessed with wonderful night vision. For he had left us a bag filled with seeds and stems.