After Sandy, 21st-Century Tech Meets the Past
A scarcely lit building on University Place in Manhattan.
CREDIT: Sean Captain
Not long ago, and for most of civilization's history, cities were not brightly illuminated at night. Yet the New York City blackout showed residents just how dark that dim past had been.
The last big light many people saw on Monday night was a greenish hue in the cloudy skies as the 14th Street substation blew. At that moment, the 19th-century tenements in the now-hip neighborhood reverted to 19th-century darkness. Many people had flashlights, but they cast at best a feeble light on long, dark streets. A few minutes later, a handful of windows lit up, but dimly and often with candles.
However, friends as well as strangers were in better touch with me digitally than usual, as I had been posting obsessively to Twitter and Instagram as I wandered the dark and sometimes flooded streets.
I was far from alone. At least hundreds of people took advantage of the still-functioning cellular service to call family and post their own pictures. But there was a limit to what we could photograph. With just a faint pink glow in the sky from neighborhoods that still had power, our cameras were unable to pick up much. If there weren't the occasional headlights or multihue glow from emergency vehicles, Instagram pictures came out as nicely framed black squares.
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As I continued on, I passed a Union Square park without a morsel left on the empty plaza. Normally at that time — about 10:30 — it would still be well "occupied" not only by Occupy Wall Street remainders, but also gangs of skateboarders. Walking south on University Place, even with my LED flashlight, I could barely make out the massive fallen tree branches until I was nearly upon them.
Returning home, I came to an apartment that got most of its light from two oil lamps casting mild orangey light and a strong chemical smell. But my roommate and I also basked briefly in the blue light of our laptop screens — suddenly blindingly bright to our dilated pupils.
We connected to the wireless hotspot my iPhone provided for a few minutes of email and Facebook checking, careful not to deplete the batteries — or the 2GB-per-month Verizon wireless data cap — too much.
In the first true darkness ever in my bedroom, I fell asleep quickly and slumbered soundly. And in the morning I awoke, not to a clock radio or alarm, but to the rising sun.
Sean Captain filed this story from a restaurant uptown that had electricity, still using his data-taxed iPhone as a hotspot. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain