Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Blackout of ’77 and the Longest Joke

It is now almost 40 years since that fateful night in New York City, the second time the lights went out. The first time this happened, in 1965, I was 10 years old, and it was exciting, unexpected, and there was a prospect of school being canceled. 
12 years later I was out of college, living at home, working in my parent’s restaurant in Rockefeller Center, a musician with no real direction, and without a clue. I bussed tables during the day, then broke out my keyboard to play music in the lounge in the evening. By 9:00 PM we were done…closed and cleaned up. I don’t remember if we had plans that evening, but my friends Geoffrey and Joey were there, Geoffrey was also doing some summer work at the restaurant. Also hanging around was my sister, Gay, and her soon-to-be husband John. 

We were finished cleaning up around 9:15 the night of July 13, 1977, and were waiting outside while my mother, Aunt Billie and Uncle Kermit (yep…really his name) tallied up the receipts. We who smoked, lit cigarettes, and I decided to tell a joke I had heard recently, one I describe as “The Longest Joke Ever Told by Henny Youngman”.

Youngman was famous for his one-liners: “Take my wife….please!” Other classics like “Why do Jewish men die before their wives? They want to!” make him a favorite of many who love old-fashioned comedy. This joke was the exception to his usual routine of economic quickies.

A Jewish boy and his Grandmother are at the beach. The kid goes out swimming, and gets hit by a wave and starts to drown. The Grandmother sees this, and yells at a lifeguard to go out and save her grandson. He is unable to save him, and soon a 2nd and 3rd lifeguard swim out, eventually dragging the child to shore. The boy is not breathing, so they administer CPR, and after 10 minutes, the boy coughs up some seawater and starts to breath again. The Grandmother then turns to the lifeguards and says, “He had a hat.”

My friends and my sister all start laughing, but my brother-in-law, who is from North Carolina. is stone-faced. “I don’t get it”, he says. My sister says, you can’t explain a joke like that, it never works. RIGHT THEN, the lights go out. 

At first we think it’s just a local brown-out type deal, one that “Fun City” had been experiencing for years since the 1965 event. I went down to 6th Ave to see if there were lights on up and down the avenue, but there was nothing. People were yelling, and some were running and freaking out. I walked back to the restaurant, and my entire family was outside. Normally we’d take the subway home, but no way were we going down there! My mother locked the door, and we proceeded to walk home, about 20 blocks. My Aunt and Uncle, went to the garage to get their car, and attempt the drive back to their house in New Rochelle.

Now remember, this is midtown Manhattan, tons of cars and people, no lights except headlights on cars, no TRAFFIC lights at all. It is chaotic, but we aren’t really scared, because most of us remember that blackout in 1965, that was pretty peaceful, except for those poor S.O.B.’s who were stuck in elevators or subway cars. Most of the chaos we see is from the gridlock that had ensued. Cars honking, drivers yelling at each other. This certainly is nothing unusual in the city, but it was pretty amplified by the fact that nobody knew if they would make it home. 

We eventually did make it back unscathed. Our high-rise was pitch black like everything else, and of course the elevators were not running. We proceeded to climb the 14 stories to our apartment. When we got in the door, we turned on the radio to hear what was going on. Our view was still unobstructed in those days, and the totality of this thing quickly became apparent. My view to the south was entirely dark, with the exception of the car headlights down on 3rd Ave. It is an image I will never forget. 

My friends stuck around, since both of them lived much further uptown. We decided to light some candles, which made the almost completely obscured apartment dimly visible. For lack of anything else to do, we proceeded to smoke a joint and play some chess. Just as I finished setting up the candle-lit board, the phone rang. My uncle informed my mother that his car was on a different level in the garage, and, as it is in many New York City garages, the only way to get it out was via an elevator. He will be coming over.  

My mother hung up the phone, and yelled in to me. “Wayne, your uncle and aunt are coming over. Clean up your room!” We all looked at each other in this darkened apartment, speechless. 

My brother-in-law then chimed in; “I get the joke!”