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What Do You Do?

Boom Boom, Out Went The Lights

August 18, 2003

Bartending classes are over and I have graduated with top honors and fastest speed-drill time: twenty drinks mixed, poured and served in four minutes and thirty-three seconds. They’ve asked me to speak at next semester’s commencement ceremony, having bumped George Pataki from the podium.

Now what? I’m not a bartender yet, and am faced with the task of landing a post with no actual experience. Surprisingly, proprietors at some of Brooklyn’s more colorful taverns are quite able to contain their enthusiasm when I casually drop my drill time. All in due course. For now I am a columnist, aspiring raconteur and surveyor of the Human Condition. I would gladly use any for those asking at cocktail parties. This is, after all, New York City.

That’s a great one, the “what do you do?” question. It is completely overwhelming and unanswerable, yet people throw it out with the casualness of “more peanuts?” I’ve been around long enough to know that titles like “Vice President,” “Managing Partner,” and “CEO” often carry the emotional weight of a blowjob from a fluff girl, yet people hang on to them like the last raft tossed from the Titanic. “Owner,” however, says something, even if the establishment in question is a shit hole. It’s like being the one throwing the party; it may not be a P. Diddy barnburner, but when it comes time to pull the plug, it’s your call.

That’s the thing about the third floor reading room at New York’s public library – I don’t own it. Not yet, anyway. So I have to tolerate the guy next to me with the dry, hacking cough, content with fantasies of wrapping his modem cord around his neck and pulling tightly from both ends.

It’s always darkest just before it goes completely black.

Like that it happens: mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-wrapping the hacker’s modem cord. Library filaments dim and the Juice is lost like it’s back on the 405 with Cowlings at the wheel of the Bronco. Unbelievable- of all the places you’d think would pay heed to their Con Edison past-due notices, the library has to be one. So I figure I’ll sit and wait until the Head Curator tries another Visa card. An hour later, we’re told to evacuate.

The 42nd Street library steps (famous for their two huge lions) are a great place to quickly size up a citywide power outage. I’m no electrician, but within a few minutes I put a few things together. Subways dead, traffic lights out, cell phones not working, eight hundred people waiting for one bus. Something is up here. Slowly the news trickles in from car radios. It’s a major national event- Manhattan is crippled by a massive electrical failure covering much of the Northeast. I’ve always known I have a talent for sucking the energy out of people, but now it’s apparently extended to large metropolitan areas.

I head uptown forty-plus blocks to my friend Sara’s place. Autos crawl and pedestrians rule the pavement, all seeming to have somewhere to go. Can I be the only person from Brooklyn visiting the city today? One dazzling urbanite beckons an Upper East Sider in her towncar. “Yo- you headin’ up toward hundred an eighty-sixth?” She smiles, crisis-polite, and explains she doesn’t live that far north. He waves her on kindly, content to wait for Clinton returning to the office for the half burrito he left behind.

Sara’s doorbell is dead and she’s not home. I spend my last eight bucks on a pint and tip a block away. ATMs aren’t functioning, and credit cards can’t be cleared. Bar patrons are mildly indignant when told they have to use real money, particularly on East 83rd. Some things hit home harder than others. I’m reminded of a Christmas dinner years back when my brother asked a banker friend of the family for financial insight. “Cash is king,” the banker told him. And so it would seem, particularly when it all starts hitting the fan. I get through to Sara on what’s left of my cell’s battery.

“Surreal” doesn’t cover the feeling, walking the streets of a city with twelve million people in almost total darkness and ninety-degree heat. And yet as we survey the situation this particular evening, things are calm. People are stuck in their cars and sleeping on public steps miles from home, but the prevailing sentiment is “what are ya gonna do?” Others revel in the situation, sharing sips of beer, flash and candlelight, and the knowledge that they are partaking in history.

I think about it that night as I doze off on Sara’s floor – how some fighters are as renowned for their chins – for being able to take a punch, as much as they are their footwork and jabs. While it may be difficult to resist labeling the country as a whole as “bullying” its individual and more prominent components often shine admirably under the most adverse conditions. The power is out tonight, but it will be back on eventually. This is, after all, New York City.

2003 Rick Monaco All Rights

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