One man’s blackout

Levin Santos was sitting in his windowless office. The administrative aid at Columbia University’s Ophthalmology Institute on 165th street was composing an e-mail message to his boss. Just then, at 4:10 pm, everything went black.

“It was pitch dark, I couldn’t see a thing,” recalled the 41-year old Santos, “I tried to feel around and find a phone to call my loved ones, but the phones weren’t working. I grabbed my cellphone, but it wasn’t working either.”

Santos was only one of millions caught off guard by Thursday’s massive blackout, the largest in U.S. history. The power failure, which shut down much of the eastern seaboard, reached as far east as Cleveland and as far north as Ottawa, Canada. And it produced dozens upon dozens of breathtaking stories in New York City alone. From the 26-year old who was stranded underground before climbing to safety out of a subway car door, to the high-heeled actress from Harlem who forced a Manhattan bus driver to deliver her and 10 others to their destination. From the mother of two, caught in the middle of a move from her Upper West Side apartment, to the elderly couple from the Bronx, who simply decided to stay in their high-story apartment. New Yorkers from all walks of life weathered the storm in various ways, but during those first critical moments many shared the same fears.

After meeting his fellow colleagues in the dimly lit corridor, Santos began hearing the rumors. It’s not just the building, it’s the whole block, one said. Soon it was all of Manhattan, then the entire East Coast, then Canada as well. Finally, one of the scientists said aloud what everyone was thinking: “Oh God, I hope its not terror.”

That’s when Santos put on his backpack and headed downstairs. “I just started walking,” he said. And walking. And after that, he walked some more. Past Columbia University, Lincoln Center, Times Square, Penn Station, the village, over the Manhattan Bridge and along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

Five and a half hours later Santos collapsed in a dead heap as he arrived at his apartment near Grand Army Plaza. Two days later, still exhausted from his journey, this real-life Forrest Gump said it was one of the most memorable days of his life. “It was wonderful, it was energizing, it was almost spiritual,” he said, “it’s something I will always treasure.”

Santos was born in the Philippines but immigrated to America at 11. For the past 30 years, he has resided in New York. He has lived in Manhattan, in Queens, in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. But he says the best feeling he has ever had about the city was this past Thursday. “It was New York at its finest, absolutely,” he said, “New York is the sum of all its parts and in their hearts most people are good. This image is how I will think about the city.”

His first moment of clarity was at 125th Street. After marching for 40 blocks and assessing his surroundings it became clear that terrorism wasn’t the cause of the blackout. People were lining up outside supermarkets in an orderly fashion and huddling around transistor radios to hear the mayor explain the situation. At 116th, Santos stopped for a drink and an ice cream cone and started to take it all in. “This is an adventure,” he said. “At first I was afraid there would be looting, that people would go wild. But they are so calm. After 9/11 you see the good side of people.”

Santos did his fair share of walking on that day as well and remembers the horror on the streets as the masses began their exodus from Manhattan. This time, though, it was entirely different. “It was like a party. There was the same camaraderie among people like on 9/11, but this time it was a happy feeling,” he said. “People were taking it seriously, but they were very pleasant. People were volunteering to direct traffic, some were giving others rides and I didn’t see anyone selling overpriced water bottles along the way. Some were even giving them out for free.”

At Times Square he says he was overjoyed. Mobs of people were out on the streets. “It was fun,” he said. At some point he started to tire. He tried to hail a cab a few times, but they were all packed. He considered taking a bus, but they were crowded with woman, children, elderly and handicapped. “I mean I’m a little overweight,” he said with a chuckle, “but I could make it. I didn’t want to take a place away from someone who really needed it.”

And he met the most interesting people along the way. “Everyone was taking it in stride. They were all enjoying it,” he said,” we were all comparing where we were when the lights went out. It was a shared experience.” After another lengthy breather in the village, he headed for the bridge. He crossed it along with dozens of others just as the sun began to set over the city. “We were all trying to get home,” he recalled, “but part of me just wanted it to last a little longer. I stopped to take pictures, to look and to think.”

After a weekend of further contemplation Santos only feels stronger about his physical and emotional journey. “I have a renewed faith in New York City,” he said, “there was such a small town feeling in this huge city. It was so nice. I know that anything they throw at us, we’ll be fine.”