10 years ago this afternoon, I was a summer intern at Pfizer corporate headquarters, doing some not very exciting traffic analytics for the Pfizer.com team. By some odd stroke of luck, I had been assigned to a glorious office with a wide 11th-story view out over 42nd Street.
I was working on my computer as usual when everything turned off at 4:15 PM. At first I thought I might have kicked the power strip by accident, but of course it was immediately apparent that the whole floor had lost power. Cell phones kept working for a few minutes, but quickly failed, maybe due to congestion collapse. Only the Blackberry owners continued to have contact with the outside world. They were the ones who told us: it’s a blackout.
I went back to my office and looked out my floor to ceiling windows at the floor-to-ceiling windows of the building across the street, where I saw a dozen other people looking out their windows at us. Traffic below was snarled, presumably due to the lack of streetlights.
My team stuck together and made our way down to the ground floor, where we sat on the marble floor and tried to come up with a plan for the evening. Like most of the people on the team, I was a commuter, living at my parents’ house in Connecticut and taking the commuter rail both ways every day &emdash; commuter rail lines which, we were now acutely aware, are entirely electrically powered.
The way I remember it, Pfizer somehow managed to arrange a makeshift dinner for all the trapped employees, in the lobby because the cafeteria was only accessible by walking up a whole ton of stairs into darkness. We ate on the lobby’s marble floor, and tried to come up with a plan.
One member of our little team was an MBA student and management intern, living in corporate housing a few blocks away. In the late afternoon the five of us went over to his 6th-story now-walkup, across the street from a restaurant that was doing their very best to sell out their entire inventory by candlelight.
It was less than 2 years after 9/11, and in New York City that was the obvious and only point of reference. The streets were incredibly full of people, almost all on foot … and seemingly all with a smile on their face. In New York City in 2003, any disruption that wasn’t an attack was just a shared, joyous afternoon out on the town.
One of us happened to be carrying a fully-charged iBook, with its groundbreaking built-in DVD player and multi-hour battery life. We watched Animatrix on the small screen as dusk fell, and held a sleepover on pillows and couch cushions spread across the floor. It was an amazing bonding experience.
In the morning the power was still out but my cell phone was somehow working again, and so I called my parents (who had power) and learned more about the plans for restoring Metro North service. I walked back to Grand Central, and through the dim interior, full of emergency personnel and occasional generator-driven lights. I waited on the floor again, this time for a diesel-driven substitute train out into Connecticut.
After that everything was pretty boring.