Fifteen years ago, I was sitting at my desk at a previous day job, listlessly pecking at my keyboard as the late afternoon dragged on. I was scheduled to perform that evening in a play called Workday, which was written by my friend Arthur W. French III and directed by his father. It had been selected for one of this city’s many one-act play competitions – I can honestly no longer remember if it was the Samuel French Festival, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, or one of a myriad of lesser-known, long-forgotten programs. The opening round of the festival was a guaranteed two performance run; popular audience vote would determine which shows moved on to a semi-final round and further performances. We had been on a very tight rehearsal schedule, and hadn’t really had time to run the piece prior to opening, so the first performance the night before had been a little wobbly. I had every faith, however, that we were going to crush it that night, now that we had a run under our belts. I was already hearing new line readings, envisioning new bits of business to try, as I sat there at my desk, already wearing the wool suit I’d be wearing in the show (it fit the character, and given the festival format arriving already in costume made things much easier). And suddenly, as I sat there in my reverie, there was a strange grinding noise as the power went off.
I had no way of knowing at the time – that late afternoon of August 14, 2003 – but the entire Northeastern United States had been plunged into a historic blackout. We didn’t have smart phones or any of the other informational devices we take for granted – transistor radios and pay phones were the only means we had of getting any news. And so, not knowing what was going on and having nothing else to do, I trudged off to the theater. I walked through the heat of the late August afternoon for twenty blocks, to the Producer’s Club on 44th Street and 9th Avenue where we were performing, to rendezvous with everybody else. After an hour or so of talking with each other at the bar, condensation forming on every bottle around us as the cooling systems failed, it became obvious that there would be no show that night. So, not knowing what to do, we had some pizza – the coal ovens were among the few things still working and all the nearby pizza joints were making pies as fast as they could, giving the product away before their inventory spoiled.
With nothing else to be done, the cast dispersed into the sweltering evening. Arthur, our playwright, had come to what should have been this second performance; instead, he and I tried making our way home. I was living on Long Island at the time, and he lives in Jamaica, so we headed east, our mutual destination. Mass transit in Manhattan was shut down, but there was a rumor that the buses were running in Queens. We just had to get there, somehow.
So, as night fell, the hot and suffocating darkness engulfing us, Arthur and I made our way across town and trudged the endless expanse of the 59th Street Bridge to catch a bus once we’d made it to Queens. Of course, no sooner had we crossed the bridge that we learned that the buses had stopped running altogether. So we kept walking, in the general direction of our homes, not remotely prepared for such a jaunt – remember, I was still wearing my costume, my a grey wool suit. We kept looking for somebody – a bus, van, anybody – to take us the rest of the way, and with each step that goal receded further into the distance.
By the time we found gypsy cabs able to take us the rest of the way, Arthur and I had walked – on foot, in the heat and the darkness – from the corner of 44th Street and 9th Avenue all the way to Jackson Heights. They say you can’t know a man without walking a mile in his shoes; I think Arthur and I know each other pretty well by this point, since we travelled about eight miles together.
Tragically, due to the blackout, Workday never did get its second performance. And fifteen years later, it still galls me. After all that we went through, and with the competition cut short in such a fashion, it hardly seems fair to this day. But then again, it’s not a particularly fair business.