NYC BLACKOUT OF 2003
By: Jason Nettle
I guess everything happens for a reason. At least that's what I've believed and what I've been told. I had just gotten back from doing summerstock at the Theaterbarn and was back to work at Big City. Since there weren't many bartending shifts available, I had asked Brendan if I could wait tables during the days. It was a sucky job and the money wasn't great. But hey.... I'm an actor and I just needed enough money to get by. Although, the day business sucked so bad that I was starting to fret the upcoming month. It was about the middle of August and my mind was stuck to paying my bills Sept. 1st. I actually had sat at the bar with Corey and plotted out my budget, the first time since i moved in 1998. I was working for someone that day, and Erin was out of town so Corey just happened to be there too. No one was at my tables at this certain time so I was standing at the golden tee golf game talking with Corey. He knew about my financial troubles and I was joking around about it. I recalled the story about the guy who got the lead in Footloose and how he had said when he was on the Today show that he was down to his last quarter and it was really the last audition he was going on and then BAM! he got the lead on Broadway. I told Corey I guess big things were in store for me now. Now there's this guy we call douchebag whose real name is Bruce. He looks just like Locke on "Lost", except take away the cool part and add a douchebag. He sits on the exact same stool every day and drinks his Meyers Rum and coke, no ice, in a snifter. Could anyone be more of a loser than that? He wears what looks like a fisherman's vest without the bait and hooks all over it and gives some stupid Star Trek phrase every time he comes and goes. Live Long and Prosper I think. Some days, I replied in my head, now that you're leaving, I have a chance.
Now douchebag sits there everyday with the newspaper that WE bought and has that aura of being better than most living creatures. He has succeeded in acting much more than me, see he's the face of Smirnoff Vodka, from back in 1980. I don't know what he does now, I think he lives off that and his wife. Poor bitch, I don't even know her and I feel sorry for her.
Douchebag overhears what I say to Corey and feels he needs to chime in. But first let me ask you, when you see two people talking to each other and laughing, why do you feel the necessity to bring the mood down, especially when you're a douchebag? So Douchebag says (not knowing my name, even though I've worked there longer than he's been a douchebag) " Yeah, but those are the stories you do hear about. The majority of people in those situations never get the big break and end up failing." End of statement. Are you kidding me? Would he not have been able to sleep if he hadn't guided me with those fucked up thoughts? He put his bald head back down and started to read. Corey and I had nothing to say. The fact that those words still ring in my head 2 years later frightens me.
So the day progresses, Douchebag has put on his Australian fedora on and lived long and prospered, and Corey and I are there by ourselves. It's getting to be 5ish and the cafe is starting to fill up with happy hour folks and I've got a few tables now. I do remember I had two typical middle aged-should never deal with customer service-lived off of their husbands-I get whatever I want- I know how to run your restaurant better than you- my happiness should be your highest goal cunts sitting in the cafe. They were drinking wine or something and asked me if we had munchies. I said we had an appetizer menu and they didn't like that at all. I guess we should spend all of our money on things to give out for free so no one spends money to eat! EVERY time I walked by the table they asked again coming up with a different idea of what I could give them for free. "You should really have munchies" "Yeah, you shouldn't have a case of the uglies, but you do!" I finally had it and walked next door to the deli and got 2 small bag of pretzels for 50 cents and came back and dropped them on their table. "Oh, you didn't have to do that" "Oh no, because by doing that I've finally gotten you two to shut the fuck up and finally in your life have nothing to complain about, but that probably won't last very long because you'll find something else to harp on".
It was about this time that my manager, Steve, showed up. Did the normal hellos and how are things and he disappeared downstairs. At that exact time, all the electricity went out in the restaurant. Now it was pretty damn hot so the heat could have had something to do with it. The lights above the EXIT signs came on, but that was it. I thought about our big ass fuse box downstairs and went to check on it. Steve was already down there flipping switches and cussing at the box. In his deadpan delivery he asked, "what'd you guys do?" not knowing if he was kidding or not I said as a small child, "nothing". None of the switches were blown so I went back upstairs to see what was going on. I walked out side and noticed the street lights were off. Then I noticed something that has made me laugh to this very day..... everyone was looking up. So what did I do? I looked up thinking I was going to something that would make all the lights go out around me, like the Green Goblin or something. Why does everyone look up when you don't know what's going on, it's like turning down the radio when you can't find a place, or women opening their mouths when they put mascara on.
So I looked around and noticed all the other shops were dark, the traffic lights were out, and far as I could see, the lights down the street were out too. I guy was parked in front of the bar listening to his car stereo and he said "All the electricity in NYC is gone!" OK, this was the only time all night I had a small case of the panics. All the electricity in NYC is gone? That's like saying all the cows in Iowa were missing. Or everyone in Mississippi have all their teeth. It 's something my brain wasn't able to wrap around. I went back in and told Steve what I heard and he went into his "zone". Steve is the best guy I've ever worked for. Always fun, loves sports, not on your back all the time, but when it's time to get serious, he's there physically and mentally. He goes into survivor mode. He started telling us what to do before I even realized what was going on. The first thing he said was to bring up as much bottled beer as possible and fill all the tubs with ice. ok. Next was to get every candle we possessed in the restaurant and have them out. Next was to get as many flashlights and make sure we had batteries and backups. It was as if this guy saw the entire night happening before him and letting us in on it. He had the kitchen guys get his generator and start charging up one of the beer coolers. He sent Brendan to get gas to fill up the generator. All of a sudden, Corey and I could see what we were going to be in for. The heat was starting to get to us now and it was about 6 pm. Everyone was just getting off work and word was getting to us that the entire east coast had no electricity. that there was some problem in Canada blah, blah, blah. A few people talked of terrorism, but that didn't seem to be the case. I do remember one guy coming in and he looked a little distraught asking if he could use our bathroom because it was hot and he was feeling a little panicked and now that I think about it, I don't ever remember seeing him again, I wonder if he's still in there.
Our bar was starting to get pretty full with a lot of the neighbors from high rises around us just waiting for the electricity to come back on so they could go up to the 35th floor. Dormandy courts has about 3000 residents, and I think almost everyone of them came into our bar. We knew this would be just like 9/11. Everyone was walking from downtown and would be here in about an hour. People were hungry but all we could make were salads. We had to save all of our ice so all we were selling were bottled beer and wine.
As the sun was setting it was getting REAL hot in the bar with 200+ people in there. Chris Byrne finally showed up after walking all the way up from Stuy town. He instantly went into his "I'm going to get fucking stewed tonight!" Now Corey and I were going to go home after our regular shift but we were here for the long haul. I remember 2 girls showing up at one point dressed so nice and most likely hit with the stupidity stick telling us they were there to "guest bartend". Without missing a beat I said there was no way in hell. We were going to make so much money for the bar tonight that we might be able to open a new place tomorrow. Since the electricity was out, the NCR registers didn't work so the register was open and we just made change out of that. I asked Steve what he wanted us to do about ringing stuff in and he just smiled and said "just be fair". When he said that I sort of chuckled because I don't think he could've asked for 3 better bartenders behind his bar on this particular night. Corey and I were in the middle and Byrne was down at the hook doing shots and getting stewed. Steve didn't have to worry about a thing. I think he had 3 of the most trustworthy bartenders in the city.
This was the jist of the night. People were coming into the bar out of the scorching humidity and asking what we were serving. "Cold bottles of beer". The was the best thing. They usually asked "Just give me 3 of your coldest" and we reached in and just handed them to the person and took the money. It was perfect. No mixed drinks, no cosmos, no margaritas, nothing. A person actually asked for a pina colada. Corey lost his shit. They couldn't understand why we couldn't blend one for them. idiots. Rule was.... no ice given to the customers. 2 reasons. We had to save as much as possible to keep everything cold. 2- for hours on end, we had bottled beer all up inside of it and the ice was definitely...."not clean". One lady demanded, and I mean demanded that she have ice in her wine, so Corey said he wasn't responsible for anything that happened after he put it in there and when he scooped three ice cubes into her glass, there was the nastiest label/moss from a bottle that had been at the bottom of the cooler that just floated in her drink. I think she drank it.
Lights? Have you ever served beer by candlelight? have you ever served beer by 200 candlelights? Well, we did. If I had farted at any point of the night. You know one of those farts that hurt your ass when your done? The place would have exploded and set off a flair that could've been seen by a satellite. My friends lived in a high rise across the street and said when they looked down at our bar, it looked like we were doing work on nuclear waste. The glow coming from inside the bar might have been enough to light the city. The three bartenders had flashlights. BUT, since we needed both of our hands at all times, we found that place in our necks when you tilt your head to the side to keep the flashlight the entire night. Not one person who came into the bar knew what we looked like. All they saw was a flashlight facing them as if they had just gotten pulled over and a cop was questioning them. "How many" my voice would ask. 6! I would reach in and grab 6 beers. NO clue what they were. We actually placed all of our budweiser select on top because we had such a hard time selling it when the lights were on, we told the people that was our coldest beer. Everything was either 5 or 6 bucks. So no matter what I gave, it was 6 bucks, by the end of the night it was 7 or 8. People didn't care. They had nothing to do but drink. They couldn't go home, everyone was out, there were hot girls there, hot guys, people sharing stories, people not having a CARE IN THE WORLD. There was nothing anyone could do. Steve went out and turned his car on and blasted the stereo. So we had music. People were dancing, smiling, laughing, making out. Even if we got behind a little, people just cheered us on, because it didn't take long to catch up. We just pulled as many beers out of the ice and started handing them out and taking money. People were tipping like crazy. Giving us a 20 dollar bill for 2 beers and telling us to keep the change. Being so grateful that we were open and supplying such a good time for everyone. Corey and I turned around at the same time to put money in the register and put our tips in the bowl and the money was overflowing, falling behind the register, on the floor, etc. Corey picked up 2 handfuls of money looked at me square in the eyes and screamed, "HEY BRUCE...... FUCK YOU!!!!!!! " That douchebag was sitting in his 120 degree apt. hopefully pooping his pants 'cause he couldn't find the toilet.
I definitely have never been sweating that much in my life. Anytime someone ordered a water, I'd fill up 3 glasses. One I would hand to the person, one I'd dump on myself, and one I'd throw at Corey. We didn't know what was water or sweat after awhile. At one point, I looked up and my cousin was standing there with her friend. I handed them 2 beers, and the crowd and darkness swallowed them up and I never saw them again that night.
I would be lying if I said everything went real smooth all night. The worst was the heat. But the flip side was everyone was real thirsty. Second was this huge bin of ice that was on the floor right behind the bar. Corey was on one side and I was on the other, but since it's bartending, we were switching a lot. Hence, everytime we jumped over the bin, our shin would hit it. Corey and I had the worst bruises the next day. Of course we couldn't look down at them because our necks hurt so bad from holding the flashlights there for 10 hours.
At about 5 or so, I think the last person left. It was the three bartenders, I think Steve was asleep in the office downstairs, and a couple of our friends. It took us about an hour to blow out all but 2 of the candles. Corey went to sleep on the couch in the restaurant and Byrne and I walked down the street, each holding a candle. We walked to 2nd ave. only being lit by our candles and the moon. My God you'd think we were on a romantic date. Byrne got into a cab there and I walked back to my apt. Not a light was on. The whole city was asleep and I felt like I was the only one alive. No one. All apt. high rises dark. All shops and delis closed up. It was beautiful. I held my hand over the candle to make sure it didn't go out. I was a little worried about getting into my apt. Just as I got to the steps to my building, the candle went out. I made it through the first door, and then things got scary. It was pitch black.....I mean close your eyes dark. I've walked down that hallway a million times, but it was the perfect acting exercise to see what it was like to be blind. My biggest worry was that someone was on the stairs. Made it to my door, fumbled around the keyhole, dropped my keys, made it in, scooted my way to the couch and just laid down and went to sleep.
I woke up the next day to sun but no electricity. It was about 10 am so I had nothing else to do so I walked up to the bar to clean from the night before. When I arrived, Corey was opening the windows and Ricky was setting up the cafe. I realized we were opening. I was wearing a tshirt and shorts which would be now known as my uniform for the day. To our surprise, a shipment of fried food came that morning. And by the way, our fryer was working.....so........ once one person sat down and ordered wings and mozz sticks and people walked by and saw that and started salivating, we were packed again. A lot of the city hadn't eaten in a while. Everything in their fridge was bad. The deli's didn't have much because it went bad, and we were serving hot food. I was the waiter and Corey was bartending. Same thing. Packed. Since ATM's didn't work we had people begging us to take their credit cards so I learned how to manually make copies of them and had a stack of them about the size of the 9/11 commision book at the end of the day. Corey and I ran around until 4 pm when we finally ran out of bottled beer and the ice was all but gone. Just then the NCR's shot open, the fans kicked on and you could hear a cheer coming from the streets. Corey and I collected our money.....our piles and piles of money, our pay all our rent and bills for a month money from the last 24 hours and went home and slept for a long time.
Corey and I have always talked about having an anniversary party every year and turning off all the lights, kicking the AC on, and only serving bottled beer. It was a great night. I've been here 7 years, and I can honestly say those 24 hours were the absolute best hours I've ever had here.