I’m standing in the middle of six lanes of traffic. Cars, buses and taxis aggressively trying to enter and exit the Holland Tunnel. TriBeCa no longer stood for the “Triangle Below Canal”. No. It was the “Triangle of Belligerent Cars”, with all of its points leading to my death.
It is 100 degrees, I’m standing on the corner of Holland and Tunnel, zig-zagging through moving vehicles as they honk and swear. August air in New York City is gelatinous and reeks of spoiled clam chowder and cat pee. With each sniff, I want to stick my thumb out further into the gridlock traffic and hitchhike a ride to the Jersey Shore.
I spent most of this summer indoors, working three jobs that did not pay my Brooklyn rent. During the day I was selling Paul Frank’s famous monkey t-shirts for $9 an hour in Nolita. In the evenings, sitting in the audience of NYU’s jazz ensemble concerts with a fire extinguisher in my lap for $12 an hour as an NYPD certified Fireguard. And, on my days off, I was interning, unpaid, for Time Out New York magazine.
I had two days left of my internship and I wanted to end on a good note. So I agreed to fetch cargo so precious, the magazine did not even want a bike messenger to get it. This delivery was as time sensitive as the bus from Speed. “You must transport this 8 x 10 photograph of Sean Penn from a loft that towers above an extremely dangerous intersection and return it to Soho by 4pm or everything will explode!”
As a modern reader, I bet you’re thinking, why wasn’t this photo scanned in high resolution, and emailed directly to the art director? This was 2003 and people hadn’t figured that out yet.
I continued to weave through cars while my fingers dug moist imprints into Sean Penn’s two-dimensional eyebrows. I jumped in front of a Big Apple tour bus. Accidentally. As it inched closer to my face, the drudgery that was my summer break flashed before me. This double decker bus is going to run me over, I’m going to end up in an ambulance en route to Beth Israel and from my stretcher I will tell the ENT: “Please deliver this photo of Sean Penn to 645 Broadway by 4pm. It is my dying wish.” The editors will simultaneously receive the envelope and the news of my passing, and mourn.
Editor #1: Remember that adventurous, courageous, and dedicated intern?
Editor #2: Not really. Which one was she?
Editor #1: The dead one. We totally would have hired her for a far more interesting job than opening the mail and running errands.
Editor #2: Too bad she’s dead.
The bus driver honked. I got out of its way and triumphantly returned to the office with Mr. I Am Sam. My editor responded with a faint grumble of a “Thank you.”
I shuffled back to the intern cubicle and flopped down at my desk next to Creepy Eric — the other intern scheduled on Thursdays and Fridays. I tried not to make eye contact in fear of sparking yet another mundane conversation about balancing his business school life with beer and ultimate frisbee. His stare was relentless and it burned like a cigarette butt to the skin. With each singeing glare, I was fast approaching a nervous breakdown. I opened my mouth to scream, “SHUT UP, CREEPY ERIC!” and was silenced by a loud electrical buzz and a lingering sizzle. All of the lights in the office went out. The computers in front of us zapped to dead screens. Cue the groans of editors on deadlines.
As a modern reader, I bet you’re thinking, why didn’t I use a 4G network on a smart phone to Google “What is happening in New York City?” This was 2003 and people hadn’t figured that out yet.
I looked out the window and there were no functioning traffic lights, and no fluorescents spilling out from neighboring office windows. The intern supervisor came over to us and like a robot, informed us “There. is. a. blackout. You. can. leave.”
Creepy Eric was on my heels as we ran down ten flights of stairs. “Hey, if you don’t want to walk all the way back to Brooklyn, I live on Avenue D.”
The idea of walking to the Williamsburg Bridge and then over the Williamsburg Bridge, in a heat wave, was not exactly how I wanted to finish my already exhausting day. But then I thought about getting trapped in a blackout on Avenue D with Creepy Eric and his acoustic guitar playing roommate. Both of them strumming away at the entire Dave Matthews Band discography. In chronological order. Shirtless. If killing me wasn’t already a bullet item on their evening agenda, I’d probably just kill myself.
“Sorry, Eric, I choose the Williamsburg Bridge!”
I was one of the hundreds of unplugged warriors, marching across the East River on the pedestrian path, all of us determined to make it home without sun poisoning or heat stroke. No one looked worried. No one seemed to think anything catastrophic was going to come of of this power outage. But somehow, this made me more nervous. I was nervous for the blackout’s unknown. And then nervous for tomorrow, my last day as a Time Out intern. I was nervous for my last two weeks of summer and then nervous for my final year of college. Nervous for life after college and so on and so forth until I finally get struck down by a Big Apple tour bus.
I continued walking with determination, with the same motivation that got me out of Tribeca earlier that day. I started to feel at peace with what was happening around me. And then I transformed. Totally out of character, I thought: Hillary, just go with the flow.
And so I did. I flowed on by the commuters in suits who were fainting from the weather and the walk. I flowed up three flights to my apartment and the freezer filled with thawing popsicles. I flowed across the street to my neighbor’s roof where a party was already in progress. I ate all of the popsicles. I didn’t care. I just watched the sunset with my friends. And when all five boroughs fell into complete darkness, there was a stillness that the city never experienced before. I had a stillness I never experienced before.
In typical New York fashion, the city’s calm only lasted 5 minutes. Then the fireworks began. They flew through the air. Kids cheering from the street, groups of neighbors cheering from rooftops. Soon after there were tiny bursts of light shooting through the sky for miles.
This evening was perfect. The kind of summer night I never allowed myself to have with my two jobs, the internship, and the stress of rent money and food money and plain old money money. As the noise and the sparkle of the fireworks enveloped that roof, I maintained a stillness. I wished for the power to never turn back on.
I woke up to a dream fulfilled. Still no power. I glanced at my cell phone. Only 10% battery remaining. And with that, living an electricity free life was no longer a whimsical notion. This was a nightmare. I can’t call my friends. The little food left in my fridge was inedible. I’m going to starve. This was supposed to be the final day of my internship. I can’t get to Manhattan. Should I even spare a battery percent to tell them I’m not coming? But if I don’t go to my internship today, what will I do? I had no agenda. I did not know how to function without a pre-existing schedule. And without access to the internet, a lamp, or a phone how could I ever “to-do” my To-Do list?
As I grabbed my backpack, it clicked. This is why a Bug-Out bag is called a Bug-Out bag. I was bugging out. I unzipped the bag and threw in a flashlight, phone charger, band-aids, ramen noodles, a piggy bank and my cat. My cat jumped out just before I shut my apartment door.
In a blur of power outage and heat induced mania, I fled. I’m not sure how long my panic attack lasted, but when I came to I was sitting in the Times Square McDonalds eating a 20-count box of chicken nuggets.
As a modern reader, I bet you’re thinking, didn’t you watch Super Size Me? McDonalds is so bad for you. Don’t eat that shit. This was 2003 and I hadn’t figured that out yet.
My cell phone was charging in a socket under the table. I stared out the window at the fully lit billboards and theater marquis’. The Naked Cowboy was in his usual place, going about his usual business of dancing for tips for flocks of tourists swooning over his tighty whitey gyrations.
As I dipped nugget after nugget in Sweet and Sour Sauce, I started to recount the logistics of my journey to Times Square. Bug-out bag in tow, I jumped on a bus heading over the Williamsburg Bridge, and then saw a couple hailing a cab. I screamed “Where are you going?” They shouted “Uptown. They have power.” Before they could say yes, I jumped into the cab with them. As soon as I saw the glisten of the MTV studios jumbrotron, I threw down some cash and rolled out of the taxi. I searched for a place where I could be air conditioned, and nourished. I looked up and saw the golden arches. They were alive with shimmering yellow light.
Once I gathered together the chronology of my expedition, my stomach started to hurt. It was a stomach pain of shame. Or perhaps chicken nugget induced. I should not be in Times Square. Most areas of the city and it’s boroughs were still powerless and I immediately ran to the place that uses their electricity to ignite consumerism and capitalism and plenty of other isms that one can cling to while panic stricken.
I unplugged my cell phone. Why not celebrate the last day of my disappointing internship by not going there? Instead I left a farewell message on Time Out’s voicemail. And then I powered it down. I left the McDonalds. I made a mental note to become a vegetarian. I headed uptown on Broadway. The skyscrapers gave way to Central Park South. Nature. Foliage. Dirt.
I told myself: Hillary, just go with the flow.
So I flowed over to the Sheep’s Meadow, flowed down onto my back and closed my eyes. Forget To-Do lists. My last few weeks of summer were going to be unplanned. Starting now.