NEW YORK - The first thing that crossed my mind when the lights went out on the 22nd floor of my Times Square Hotel last Thursday afternoon was, "Klaatu warned us." OK, it wasn't the first thing, but it makes for a more interesting lead sentence.
Sci-fi film fans will recognize the name Klaatu from the 1951 film "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The alien and his robot, Gort, land their flying saucer in Washington in the middle of the Cold War to warn earthlings that we had better get along or suffer consequences of galactic proportions. Now isn't that a better way to explain the nation's biggest power outage than listening to insufferable politicians blame each other: "The power failure was your fault." "Was not." "Was too." "Was not."
President Bush said the power outage was a "wake-up call," begging the question whether you can receive one if there is no power. House Majority Leader Tom Delay promises we will now get that long-awaited and revised energy policy. I doubt it. We'll be back to Laci Peterson and Arnold Schwarzenegger before you can say "drilling for oil in Alaska" or "energy independence."
Power failures bring mixed blessings, but blessings nonetheless. They force us to consider our ultimate powerlessness. The grid we have constructed is one of self-deception. We pour our time, attention and money into so many things that, when the power behind our inventions lets us down (computers, cell phones, Blackberrys and TV), there is an overwhelming sense of resignation and realization. Resignation, because we are all caught in the rarest of circumstances, namely, the same boat. Realization, because we aren't as smart as we arrogantly think we are.
Looking out my hotel-room window after calling my wife in Ireland before the cell-phone connection went down (she was watching Fox News and told me that terrorists were not being blamed), I recalled my past associations with Times Square. How many times had I stood in that place over the years - in poverty and in plenty, in success and in failure, in uniform and in civilian clothes, in love and out of love?
I was living in New York at the time of the 1965 blackout (another massive power-grid failure that should have been a "wake-up call," but we went back to sleep) and remember the street merchants hustling transistor radios, flashlights and candles at disaster mark-up prices within minutes of the city's descent into darkness. I was an Army private, fighting Commies through Armed Forces Radio from offices at Broadway and West 57th Street, making $99 a month and working a second full-time job as a WOR-TV engineer to make ends meet.
During that and this blackout, there was a feeling of unity that has escaped most other efforts to "bring us together," a slogan from a forgotten political campaign. Of course, 9/11 was a unique moment, which we hope will not be repeated, whatever positive side but dissipating benefits (there weren't many for the families of the victims).
A large clock outside the Renaissance Hotel froze at 4:14 p.m. The Jumbotron and other electronic advertising that have long been a part of Times Square went dark, as if a huge plug had been pulled or a large bill left unpaid.
Walking down 22 flights, eating a cold sandwich and limp salad for dinner and then climbing the same steps barely illuminated with eerie green glow sticks, I thought of the many in the world for whom cold food, a safe place to sleep and an indoor toilet would be a major upgrade.
Someone wrote that the outage drove us back to the 19th century. Is that necessarily bad? Then, it seemed more people talked to each other. Now, on the shuttle to New York from Washington, people are mostly buried in their newspapers during the flight and in their wireless contraptions after landing. Then, we mostly knew our neighbors. Now, we often move before we've met them.
The fictional Klaatu warned us. So have nonfiction writers, philosophers and religious leaders. But as Don McLean sang in "Starry, Starry Night": "They would not listen, they're not listening still, perhaps they never will."