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      Remembering the 2003 Blackout, My Most Shameful Night

      April 27, 2013

      By Chris Gethard


      Photo by stu_spivack, via Flickr

      I will never forget what happened on August 14, 2003. I know the exact sequence of where I was for every moment of that evening. It was a tragic day, and it’s burned into my memory.

      Many people might remember that date, vaguely, as the date of the infamous eastern seaboard blackout that plunged all of New York City into darkness. It was that, but for me, the blackout was only one piece of a shame puzzle that lead to one of the more degrading and humiliating experiences of my life.

      While every resident of the eastern United States and Canada dealt with adversity on the night of the blackout, I dealt with an additional, more secret, more shameful challenge that I still haven’t fully processed close to a decade later.

      This is the story of the most ashamed I’ve ever been.

      By August of 2003, I had graduated from Rutgers, gone through a stretch of living at my parents’ house, and wound up sharing an apartment with a college friend of mine in Montclair, New Jersey. Montclair is know to be one of the state's “artsy” towns, which is to say that pretentious people like to spend money there. Montclair has many permanent residents, but it’s also home to two distinct types of migratory species—the first is people who have lived in the city and are finally admitting it’s cruel to raise children there, so they’re dipping their toes into the suburbs by stopping off in one of the “OK” towns in Jersey for a few years. The other group, which I was a part of, are young creative people from New Jersey who desperately want to be artists of some type, but who are scared to take the full on plunge into New York living, so they live in Montclair for a few years while frantically trying to convince themselves that it’s the same level of commitment.

      During my tenure in Montclair, I was traveling into the city nearly every night to do comedy-related things. If I wasn’t doing a show, I was taking a class. If I wasn’t doing either of those, I was watching a show. I lived and breathed the New York alternative comedy scene. The more time I could be immersed in comedy, the better.

      Well on Thursday, August 14, 2003, I was in Manhattan to see a comedy show and got there a few hours early. I headed to the office/classroom space of my home theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade, because it was a reliable place to kill time and do “bits” with other improvisers. Bits are fake conversations comedians have because they are uncomfortable being vulnerable with other human beings in any way. It’s much easier to have an entire conversation where both parties are pretending their hands are hamburgers than it is to talk about the insecurities, fears, and self-doubts that come with being someone trying to make their living in a creative art.

      So I was sitting around having a totally insincere interaction with someone or another when the lights went out. The UCB has long been known as a hub of the best comedy in New York City, but it’s never been the most well organized or cared for place in the world. Anyone who’s been to the UCB Theater in Chelsea can attest to the fact that part of the charm of it is that you assume if you were to ever cut your skin there, you would just have tetanus. No debate. No need to double check. Get the shot. Get checked for Hep C while you’re at it too.

      So when the lights went out, the half dozen or so of us hanging out at the UCB space assumed one of two things—either rats gnawed through the cheap wiring of the facility, or someone in charge of paying the light bill forgot to do it that month. Either would have been very feasible in that day and age. We all immediately shifted our bits away from “hamburgers for hands” and into “let’s pretend we now live in a world where the lights will never come back on again.” Because if any of us were nervous or scared, those would be feelings reflecting vulnerability, and again, comedians are not good at showing insecurity to each other. It’s much easier to instantly do a bit where you claim you’re developing sonar to deal with your newfound life that exists only in darkness.

      Then, we heard a ton of car horns honking. Someone looked out a window and realized that people were pouring into the streets. Traffic lights were blinking. And from looking across the way, it was clear that all the lights in all the buildings had gone out. It wasn’t just us.

      In August of 2003, every single person present—not just us in the office, but the people on the streets, in the stopped taxis, everyone—was having the same thought: Oh shit, 9/11 part two. September 11th was still very much on the minds of New Yorkers in August of 2003, and as a culture we were skittish to the point that it took a lot less than a blackout for all of us to assume it was a terrorist attack. And this was clearly a big one—from the increasing yells, car honks, and masses of people, it was clear that it wasn’t just Chelsea. The entire city was shut down.

      All of the people I was in a room with turned and looked at each other, which was lit only by small streams of sunlight coming through the tiny dirty windows that faced 23rd Street. And each of us was thinking the same thing:

      Who among you do I think will help me live through this apocalypse? Who can I trust? If I had to fight my way up the shoreline of the East River to eventually escape to upstate New York via the aqueduct tunnels as seen in Die Hard with a Vengeance, who among you do I trust to have the ability to kill anyone who attempts to steal the food we horde along the way? And perhaps most importantly, who of you would I be comfortable leaving behind as a decoy so I could dodge death personally? If it came down to it, who of you would I eat?

      Maybe everyone wasn’t thinking those things as severely as I was. They were fools if they weren’t. You may think I’m exaggerating, but a lot of New Yorkers really thought this way back then. I have a friend who worked in the West Village and when the lights went out, he sprinted to the Hudson River, all the way up the West Side highway, and ran over the George Washington Bridge on foot and hung out in Fort Lee, New Jersey until he found out it wasn’t a terrorist attack. He was married, and hadn’t even tried to contact his wife before fleeing.

      Anyway, my Hunger Games logic explosion was interrupted when one of the guys who worked at the UCB facility turned on a handheld battery powered radio. 1010 WINS was making it very clear that this was not a terrorist attack and instead a massive failure of the east coast’s power grid. A subsequent look out the window back into the streets of New York showed that word was spreading fast—between car radios and cell phones, everyone was figuring out that this was not a disaster. And in New York City that meant it could only be one thing: a fucking party.

      For anyone who wasn’t in New York in 2003, imagine if every single office in Manhattan wound up completely unable to function all at the same time. Every worker was sent home. BUT—no subways were running. Cabs were impossible to find, and even if they were, every traffic light was turned off so gridlock traffic set in instantly. On top of all of that, the many alcohol-selling establishments in New York had no working refrigeration systems, so they all had to immediately go into damage control mode and sell off all of their wares as quickly as possible.

      Once the possibility of a terrorist attack subsided, everyone sprinted to bars. And I was in Chelsea. If any neighborhood is going to embrace the insta-party, it’s Chelsea. Things got fun fast.

      Now I personally didn’t head to the bars. I had quit drinking the year before, just before my 22nd birthday. This is because I am not good at drinking. I am not the kind of Irish kid who can have a few drinks and be the life of the party in that “what St. Patrick’s Day theoretically is” kind of way. I am the kind of Irish kid who drinks hard, to blackout, and then vomits and fights publicly in that “St. Patrick’s Day as it is in reality” kind of way. I was smart enough to realize that I couldn’t handle liquor at a young age, and backed off.

      But I was still determined to reap the benefits of the blackout, and quickly isolated my sober man’s version of the party that was erupting around me: ice cream. Anyplace that sold ice cream was completely fucked. All freezers and refrigerators were turned off, and this was mid-August in New York City. Anyplace selling ice cream needed to get rid of it. Any place dumb enough to try to sell it half price was foolish. Ice cream was being given away left and right. One thing I learned on August 14, 2003 is that people who scoop ice cream for a living are looking for any reason to not scoop ice cream. Some places were pushing their mobile freezers onto the sidewalk, stacking dishes and plastic spoons up, and then walking away.

      I ate at least—and I’m being conservative here – a gallon and a half of halfway melted ice cream that day. To be fair, some of it was gelato. None of it was frozen yogurt, because I don’t hate fun. I sprinted through the late afternoon heat, consuming free ice cream to my heart’s desire. It was glorious.

      When night fell completely, I wandered through Chelsea. People were drinking in the streets. I saw two men blowing each other in the middle of a Chelsea block. No one was indoors—air conditioners didn’t work. It felt like what New York must have been like back when New York was a series of ethnic neighborhoods where people hung out on their stoops all the time, like they show in old mob movies. Better, pre-Giuliani days where people sat on stoops, public sex acts happened, and lurking occurred for the sake of lurking.

      I made my way south, to Washington Square Park, assuming that there might be some real debauchery happening there. Unfortunately, the only thing going on was a drum circle, which was a true disappointment. I was hoping for maybe an NYU kid mass orgy in the park, or a bunch of buskers fighting to the death, and instead I got dumb hippies hitting drums and doing those devil stick things.

      I wandered back uptown, and stopped by the actual UCB Theater at 26th and 8th Street. To my surprise, the lights were on and the air conditioner was on full blast. It turns out that the complex the theater is a part of was built in part by electricians who lived in another building in the same complex. They made sure the whole complex was outfitted with its own generators expressly to avoid a mess like this one.

      I hung out with a bunch of comedians, watching people do impromptu shows all night. When no one was inspired to perform, movies were put on the projection system. Most of the people there were friends, and we were joined by more and more fun loving, cool-air-seeking drunks who stumbled in throughout the night, adding to the party vibe. It was a good night.

      I had driven into the city that afternoon, and planned on driving back to Montclair. But every time I looked at the street, it was more and more chaotic. With people flooding into dark streets and no street or traffic lights operating, I knew that there was no point in trying to leave early. I stayed at UCB until about two in the morning, when things started to calm down enough that I thought I could get my car through the Lincoln Tunnel. I mentioned to a few people that I was going back to Jersey. A guy named Mike I went to college with also happened to be at the theater, and his ears perked up.

      “Any chance you could drive me to the train station in South Orange?” he asked. “My car’s parked out there.”

      “Of course,” I said. Mike and I got into my car. We had a weird relationship. We were friends, but years earlier we’d both gone after the same girl, and he won. I am petty, and was bitter for a long time. We’d settled it, but it was always hanging in the air when we were around each other.

      He and I made our way to the Lincoln Tunnel—it was eerie driving through blacked out streets, and exiting the tunnel into a completely darkened Jersey City was like being in a movie scene about the post-apocalypse.

      “If any zombies jump into the road, please just hit them,” Mike said.

      “Trust me, I’m ready,” I said. We were enjoying each others company without any reservations for the first time in a while.

      “Got anything I can fight off a zombie with in the car?” Mike asked.

      My face turned angry and I went silent.       

      “A shovel? A crowbar?” Mike continued, getting more confused. “Maybe a tire iron?”

      I responded with nothing but a focused and intense brooding that quickly filled my eyes.

      “Come on, man,” Mike mumbled. “You’re really not over it?”

      Mike thought I had somehow stumbled back into anger related to our previous girl related drama. I could see why he’d assume that. To go from joking to silent anger made no sense, and it was the easiest assumption to make. He was wrong.

      Mike had no way of knowing that I had gone from totally fine to “Oh shit I’m about to fucking shit my fucking pants” in less than ten seconds.

      I am a veteran of the pants-shitting game. I have shit my pants in theme parks, while riding public transportation, and once at the San Diego Comic Con. My guess would be that there are few adults who don’t suffer from outright medical conditions that shit their pants as often as I do. I will put my resume of pants shitting up against anybody’s.

      And I can tell you, I have never had to shit my pants as quickly or as badly as I did on that August night in 2003. One second I was perfectly happy, no storm clouds on the horizon. And in the blink of an eye, I skipped all the standard phases of pants shitting—from feeling stomach rumblings, to foolishly passing up chances to use public restrooms, to the “Oh God” false alarms of being close to shitting one’s pants that come and go before the main event—and had gone directly to DEFCON 1. With no warning and no build up, I had gotten right to the “leg muscles trembling as I clench tighter than I knew I could” phase while bursting out into an immediate cold sweat. I positioned my hands underneath my steering wheel, sort of doing a pull up on it to force my asshole down more tightly against my seat so that it would face an actual physical barrier that would prevent poopy from escaping my asshole.

      The bright side of a blackout is free ice cream. The dark side of over a gallon of free half melted ice cream is the gastrointestinal attack that follows three hours later. It’s a life lesson I’ve never forgotten. Warm dairy = cruel diarrhea.

      Mike and I finished the ride in grim silence. I had no way of expressing to him that if I unclenched my jaw muscles for even a second, I was going to violently crap in front of him. That I made it to South Orange without blasting diarrhea all over my pants was a miracle. Mike got out of the car, grunting a goodbye, and I peeled out in the direction of my apartment in Montclair.

      To get from South Orange to Montclair, one has to cut directly through West Orange – the town where I grew up. I knew the location of every public restroom in that town – and tried for them. I flew towards an all night diner on Main Street, and as I came around the corner where it was located, I was dismayed to see that it was closed. Of course it was. There was no electricity on the entire eastern seaboard. I went from parking lot to parking lot of bars and restaurants I hoped would by some miracle be open – but none were.

      The only terror greater than an imminent pants-shitting is an imminent pants shitting where you are driving to different locations you remember from childhood and wondering which one you’re going to soil your paints at, erasing your happy childhood memories and replacing them with memories of your own pathetic-ness instead. I cried from clenching my muscles so hard. My leg muscles were wound so tight that they began twitching. My entire body was racked by physical pain as I crossed the border from Montclair into West Orange.       

      By some miracle, I found parking directly in front of my building. It was at this point that I began thinking that maybe God didn’t want me to shit my pants that day. Maybe he wanted me to conquer this. Maybe he wanted to give me a victory that would instill me with a newfound confidence.

      I sprinted up my front steps, fumbling with my keys along the way. I got through the front door and dashed to the staircase. I lived on the second floor, in a door right next to the stairway. I was about ten steps away from my own toilet. I’d made it from Manhattan to Route 3, then to South Orange and through my own childhood neighborhood, and somehow here I was – home.

      I turned the corner and bounded up the final four steps, the door to my hallway in sight. I broke out into a grin – and that was the moment of hubris that lead to disaster. When I relaxed my facial muscles, I felt it – a pop. Not a full on pants shitting, but a short burst of fecal explosion.           

      It wasn’t an eruption, I reminded myself. The fight’s not over yet.

      I threw my door open and undid my belt while stumbling straight towards my bathroom. I threw my shoulder into the door and landed on the toilet so hard that I loosed it from its moorings. This is not an exaggeration – for the rest of my time in that apartment, any time a person sat on that toilet, you’d feel it shift slightly because it was no longer fully anchored to the ground. I let loose a torrent of powerful shit. It had the same power and viscosity of a Texas oil strike. I let out an Oh! of surprise at how strong this diarrhea stream was. I safety flushed twice while still shitting, and was sweating so violently that I took my shirt off and threw it into the bathtub while poo was still exiting me.           

      When I was done, I hunched over, breathing heavy, sweat stinging my eyes. I reached up and felt my hair – it was so soaked, you would have thought I’d just stepped out of the shower. I laughed, a joyous expression of emotion that only someone who has walked the razor’s edge like I had could understand – I’d made it. I’d actually made it.

      Then I remembered the stairway pop. I realized that the initial warning shot had been fired in my pants. I was elated that I didn’t have to clean up the huge amount of shit that did wind up in the toilet, so I wasn’t all that upset that a nugget or two needed removal from my pants.

      Only, there was nothing in my pants.

      I checked my boxers. All clean. The pants themselves—all clean. It was mystifying. I was certain I had shit a little bit while running up the stairs. It wasn’t a fart. At this point in life, I know a fart and I know shit. I know a shitty fart, and I know about thinking you’re going to fart and shitting a little bit instead. I had dead on shit a little bit. There was no debating it. Even in my frantic state, I knew it. And yet – nothing.           

      I stripped completely. I held my jeans upside down. Nothing fell out. I turned them inside out. Totally clean. I did the same routine on my boxers. It was as if that shit had entered the Bermuda Shit Triangle and disappeared somehow. I was more perplexed by the second.

      Then I looked down at my left leg. I am a ginger gentleman, and my legs have a number of freckles on them. But I noticed on my awful pale legs that evening a series of freckles… that were a little more brown than usual… and evenly spaced… and a little too large.

      There was no way.

      I put pajama pants on and headed back into the stairwell. And that’s when I saw it in the dim moonlight streaming through the stairwell window: a completely round ping pong ball sized hunk of feces balanced perfectly on the edge of the top step. It made no sense. You couldn’t have balanced that shit there intentionally if you tried, and somehow it had shot out of my asshole, evading capture in my underwear, never getting trapped in my pants, avoiding being misshapen by my cuff, sock, or sneaker, only to land on this step in what was a borderline poetic moment represented frozen in time via that hunk of turd. It was almost like a sculpture placed there to inspire, a commentary on the human condition—it was perpetually on the brink of falling, but would never fall. It was walking on the edge, but somehow maintaining its safety, despite gravity’s pull. It overcame insurmountable odds to get where it was, and it was now refusing to fall onto that second step.

      Anyway, I mused poetic over it for a moment, then sadly schlepped inside, grabbed a roll of paper towels, and pathetically picked up the shit ball and carried it inside. I flushed it in my now broken toilet. I knew that while the shit ball itself was swirling away, the feelings of complete degradation I was feeling in that moment wouldn’t exit my life so easily.       

      Shirtless, sweaty, and holding my own shit: that’s how I ultimately spent the evening of August 14, 2003. My biggest regret of that evening is that the lights eventually came back on; it meant I’d have to look myself in the mirror again.

      @ChrisGethard

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      Topics: blackout, ice cream, NYC, comedy

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