The Blackout

“A happy memory can be erased if you do the same thing on another day and you are not happy.” –Lydia Davis, Happy Memories

July 13, 2007

The Quality Wash Center on the corner of E.2nd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway is a small laundromat with a mounted TV and a hand-written no cash refund sign taped behind the ancient register and almost nowhere to sit down. The laundromat isn’t air-conditioned and the industrial dryers fill the air with a vaguely floral, possibly poisonous, warm vapor. On a July afternoon, inside the Quality Wash Center, I feel like I am in a human-sized microwave. A subtle electric buzz, both audible and visible, enters my body. I am an oil spot on water, a shimmer, radio wave, swarm of bees, cloudy mirror. I am dying of thirst and flush with quarters but the Quality Wash Center doesn’t have enough space for vending machines. I perch on top of a washer. It is an almost spiritual experience. I pretend to read. I imagine myself on a precipice somewhere remote. Possibly in the Chilean desert. On the verge of disappearing, not needing anything, brushing up against the edges of infinity. Not needing anything.

July 13, 2016

I am reading Funes the Memorious (sometimes translated as Funes, His Memory), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Depending on your preferred translation, the story is either about an extraordinary man or a man’s extraordinary memory and it begins with a kind of apology. The narrator conjures Funes through objects—a passionflower, a cigarette, a cup, a window—but admits that his own recollections, unlike Funes’ intact, exhaustively particular ones, are refracted, partial, and reconstructed. In spite of this, we need the narrator, not to exhume Funes, who is irrecoverable, or his memory, which is irreproducible, but to pull a mythic Funes out of the chaos of his own preoccupations so that we might see him: the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world.

July 13, 2007

The TV at the Quality Wash Center, which I frequently watch while pretending to read poetry, is tuned to local news. NY1 is broadcasting a series of still photographs of the 1977 Blackout. A 30th anniversary montage. Two young black men carry a wooden dresser under the elevated subway tracks in Bedstuy, jubilant. Police in riot gear brandish batons. White teenagers at an ice cream counter huddle around a camping lantern. A shattered storefront yawns like a gaping mouth. The emergency lights at Shea Stadium illuminate a sea of people who will soon be turned loose in a dark, inhospitable city.

The pictures aren’t actually of the blackout, which is invisible. Negative space. The backdrop upon which a city is projected. And the story of the 1977 blackout, steeped in psychic-dark and impulsivity, is reduced to nostalgia and debris. A woman pushes a stroller past the broken spine of an uprooted security gate. A man stands in the middle of a dark street, backlit by the headlights of a taxi. The corners of him. Streets the cars crawl along. A five-alarm fire in the Bronx stretches skyward. The final image is of the quiet outline of Manhattan framed by a grainy band of sky and a grainy band of water—gray on black on gray.

July 13, 1977*

That is when all the lights went out and the radio stopped. We were swimming at the time. I was at the Metropolitan Opera House. Lore has it Big Dan Ingram was playing “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” on WABC when deviation from 60 cycles caused a peculiar off-speed effect. Minute by minute we saw the blackness approach us as each neighborhood in the Bronx blacked out in sequence. A young woman came up to me. Nearly every window of the bus had been broken by rioters. When we got back, the four of us sat outside on the patio, hearing nothing but crickets and other nighttime sounds, seeing more stars than we’d ever seen before. A press release from Koch had to be prepared on a manual typewriter. Koch dictated it as someone typed. I was 17 and in tune with these streets of the South Bronx. By the time I got to the corner of East Tremont Ave and Southern Boulevard the dark shadows of looters and fire was the singular nightmarish view from the bus window. Gershwin had it wrong. Manhattan was up and The Bronx was down. I remember thinking the most horrible thought—that the Russians had bombed us. At that time, no one cared. How lonely it felt to see so many empty skyscrapers. Picking up the telephone and hearing all these voices, like a Tower of Babel. I recall that the orchestra began playing again and the audience calmly starting filling out.

July 13, 2016

Because I am trying to understand Funes, I listen to a This American Life broadcast about hyperthymesia, a condition involving acute autobiographical memory that is characterized by the involuntary, exhaustive recollection of one’s own past. On July 13th, hyperthymesiacs are assaulted by previous July 13ths. A woman likes to write her memories down, to excavate them. She can’t forget her dead husband. His death paralyzed me, she says. A man compares his memories to a lantern slide carousel that he can project at will. He isn’t just remembering but reliving the past. Sometimes I am there, he says. He remembers important events in the lives of his close friends, events even they have forgotten. The past is a steamer trunk, the woman says. Her husband’s name aloud against dead air. Where have I heard that before? On the radio they play the what-happened-on-this day-in-history and the what-does-this-remind-you-of game. Everything reminds me of something. I have favorite memories I return to again and again, the woman says. Sometimes I am there. Inside the steamer trunk. Riding the lantern slide carousel around and around. At the end of the program the producer says she’s thankful she can forget and we’re all thankful too. Then the voiceover fades into an outro; it is Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore.

July 13, 2011

When I first wake up I can’t remember anything. That’s not true. I watch a bee throw himself at a closed window in the too bright humid morning. I didn’t sleep well. I remember a wooden bench outside of a bar with names carved into it, someone’s handwriting on the wall of a bathroom stall. Lingering shards of glass from a broken tumbler stepped on months earlier. Lodged in a heel. Where is my phone? Where is my credit card? A piece of paper in the pocket of my jeans with some illegible notation. No photographs. Several missed phone calls. Where my head usually is. Of the previous evening. Perhaps a shower to clear things up? Outside the window, the newspaper man is walking up and down the block with an armload of papers. His name is Pierre and I leave him $20 in a card at Christmas time. I remember a poem by Lisa Jarnot called lucky pierres from her first book with cut-out images and lettering. Like a ransom note. I remember at least five glasses of wine. Like a collage. Near the Jukebox. when I dream in series. At the second bar. I remember dancing to the memory of a previous good time. My mouth like sandpaper. A bee throws himself at a closed window in the too bright humid morning. The dotted line of Pierre’s route. The newspaper. Gathering clouds. I was on the subway. Found images. The threat of rain or actual rain. Last night. A man sleeping in a doorway. wake me drenched / and sober in the sparrow’s light with this neon. At some point in deep conversation with a stranger. lucky pierres is epistolary. Touching her hair. It is a letter from, not to Pierre. Then. The newspaper. Hitting the door frame. Swaying slightly. I remember listening to Elvis, alone on the F train. Are you Lonesome Tonight. Smoking weed in the bathroom of the third bar. My friends must have gone home. I can feel a pulse in my temples. I put my feet on the floor. The shard of glass is still there. Then. It is morning. A bee throws himself at a closed window. Two large glasses of water. The clock on the stove is broken and slowly gains time. Pierre has moved on to the next block. Then. The whole day outside my window. come to sing. Outside my window. Several lines of white space. yours, / pierre

July 13, 2007

The Quality Wash Center is only a few steps away from Greenwood Cemetery: moss covered mausoleums, footpaths, underground streams, and stone angels. Greenwood is a twenty-square block anachronism, an idyllic exception in an otherwise dingy landscape. Across Fort Hamilton Parkway is a run-down middle school with a bad mural and 24 hour car wash where the pavement outside is always oil-slicked and shiny in a way that makes me feel nauseous. I decide to walk through the cemetery while my clothes are in the dryer. I think about the blackout or rather about writing a poem about the blackout. Oil spots and nausea. In my poem. Other black, dark things. Ink. In the newspapers. In 1977. The real New York. Without boredom or washing machines. Irretrievable. Hews to the dark. In my poem. I can feel it, but I can’t find it. The words. Among grasses and gravestones.

July 13, 1977*

The most remarkable sight was the canyons of buildings. I had a view of the entire NY skyline from my bedroom window. Son of Sam was still on the loose. Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published. WABC was still a Rock Station. We got cheap seats and saw George C. Scott. It was a holy moment. She said she was scared, and asked me to walk her home to her place on Eighth Avenue. I heard people shouting “blackout blackout.” I remember seeing the movie critic, Jean Shallot, directing traffic on Central Park South. I remember watching people running around in the darkness, the sounds of breaking glass, and sirens from police cars and rescue vehicles. The sky was so beautiful. I’m sorry if you missed it. We peered over the railing at darkened Village streets with cars crawling along, their headlights eerily glowing, the Empire State Building a dark, ancient obelisk, the silence because all the subways had stopped. Finally, the only lights to be seen were the headlights on the New England Thruway and the walkway lights on the paths around the Co-op City lawns. The next day, I spent the afternoon sunbathing with at least three hundred other men on an abandoned pier at Jane Street.

July 13, 2016

The past overtakes the present, which is facing a dirty window overlooking a construction site. At the extreme periphery of the window I can see a narrow swatch of lower Manhattan skyline. How many days have I sat here writing? Soon today will be absorbed into all of those other days. And these words into oblivion. It is difficult to sleep, writes Borges, of Funes. On this palimpsest.

July 13, 2007

I walk around the cemetery until I’m not sure which way the exit is. Then I begin to feel nervous. I feel nervous a lot of the time, actually. And lost. My clothes are probably dry. I am a logical person and I walk in a straight line until I find the towering iron fence that marks the outer perimeter of Greenwood and I follow it downhill. When I finally reach the exit at Fort Hamilton Parkway, the gate is closed and locked. A sign posted near the entrance says Open daily from 9am to 4:30pm. Canine patrolled. There is a little booth where a guard is usually posted but there’s no one in it. Now. Presumably the guard has locked up and gone home. It is a long way to the other gate on 5th Avenue. A mile maybe. I look around. A bunch of small, dust-colored birds are perched on the roof of the guard’s booth. I can hear the traffic on Fort Hamilton Parkway. The muffled strains of a melody from a far-away radio. I walk a few yards up the main path, get nervous, walk back. I look at the iron perimeter fence, which is about six feet tall. I could scale it, I think, if I really had to. I imagine people driving by the cemetery watching a girl scaling the fence in broad daylight. I imagine how the cemetery might feel in the dark. A car with a middle-aged man and woman in it drives up. When they notice the gate is closed, they begin to turn around. I hesitate. I walk towards the car and the man rolls down the window. I’m locked in, do you think you could give me a ride out? The man nods and I get into the backseat. The woman in the passenger seat turns around. I can tell she’s been crying but she smiles at me. Where to? The man asks looking at me through the rear-view. I can tell they are amused. Amused mourners. Wherever is great, I say.

July 13, 2016

Funes lives in an indefatigable world that is both bottomless and meaningless. Though we admire him, we don’t want to be Funes. Overwhelmed by the sound of leaves rustling, by the grain of wood in a floorboard, by the changing lines in his own face. Who, paralyzed by difference and peculiarity, passes each day in the darkness, alone.

Near the end of the story, Borges describes the way Funes quiets his mind in order to fall asleep. Towards the east, along a stretch not yet divided into blocks, there were new houses, unknown to Funes. He imagined them to be black, compact, made of homogeneous darkness; in that direction he would turn his face in order to sleep. Each night. Inside of the blackout and whatever lives in the bowels of New York and longs to climb out. Funes drowns in nothingness and the unknown. Each day. Inside the steamer trunk. Funes drowns in the vibrancy of the observable universe and his own past. Lost without going anywhere at all.
*Note: July 13, 1977 vignettes are composed of lightly edited found text mined from reader comments posted in response to this article:

Chan, Sewell. “Remembering the ’77 Blackout.” City Room. New York Times. July 9, 2007.


Borges, Jorge Luis. “Funes, His Memory.” Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 1999.

“In Defense of Ignorance.” This American Life. Episode 585. Originally aired April 9, 2016.

Jarnot, Lisa. “lucky pierres.” Some Other Kind of Mission. Providence, RI: Burning Deck Press, 1996.

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