We learn most about power when we lose it and are left eating cereal by candlelight on the front stoop. Or helping the waiter and the hairdresser and the deaf man direct traffic at the intersection. Or meeting an elderly neighbor for the first time when we stop to deliver some water. One woman who had lived in Manhattan for 40 years saw the Big Dipper for the first time. You could see Mars hanging over midtown. Outside a Tribeca bar, a patrol car cruising by turned on the bullhorn: "Attention! Make sure you drink your beer before it gets warm." There turn out to be some things you can see only when the lights go out.
Some cities still carry scars from past blackouts that turned into festivals of looting and despair. But it was clear that we are living in new times, when at 4:09 Thursday afternoon the power flickered and died in the largest black-out in North American history, and instead of exploding, the cities fell quiet. Horns didn't honk. Though there were nasty exceptions here and there, shopkeepers didn't gouge, and windows didn't shatter, and most of the fires were coming off grills. Ottawa saw more looting than Detroit or Toledo. The latest test of people's nerve and grace found them equipped with both.
In Toronto delis and store owners sold bottles of water for less than the usual price; people shared cabs in the city and cell phones at the airport, and one theater company moved its performance out onto the street by the light of a pair of parked cars with their high beams on. In Ohio the Akron Beacon Journal printed a special edition of its rival, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose editors typed up reporters' notes by flashlight. Modell's sporting-goods company parked two trucks stocked with 2,000 pairs of shoes in Times Square and handed them out to stranded people walking home. In Harlem a group of church ladies in large hats outside a small Pentecostal church set up a card table with cups and plastic pitchers of iced tea and lemonade; they were giving drinks away.
Maybe people didn't panic because word went out so quickly from every public official from President Bush on down that there was no evidence of any kind of attack. There was no sign of a bomb or a break-in, and for anyone concerned that it might have been a more subtle, cyberterrorist assault, Michehl Gent, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), offered soothing words. "It's virtually impossible to get into a system without leaving some tracks," he said.