It’s blackout season and that means you get so drunk when the power cuts out, you can’t remember anything. If you’re not in the city during this mess, you’re on the beach reading about it. I can say, without bias, that How to Piss in Public is the perfect summer read. It combines all the fun of the party years with some uplifting undertones that make you feel really good about being born. Here’s the chapter about the 2003 blackout. It’s a great example of why new New York is often a lot better than old New York.
On August 14, 2003, fashion photographer Terry Richardson turned thirty-eight and the entire Northeast sank into darkness. Forty- five million Americans and half the Canadian population were without power for two days.
I was at Terry’s on that fateful day. Blobs and I had reunited after our longest breakup ever but she had to work so she couldn’t join me. I love Terry and I respect the way he revolutionized fashion photography by replacing airbrushed fakeness with punk rock irreverence. I’ve had a lot of great nights doing drugs at his place one-on-one and talking about life but I gotta say, his parties kinda suck.
I used to think it was because he’s sober and you’re not allowed to bring booze, but even when he was a heroin addict his parties blew chunks. At his bachelor party, everyone was so strung out on smack, the strippers thought they had been invited to a morgue. The girls just sat there, nude and bored, watching TV and eating popcorn in a room full of sleeping men until a sober Iranian named Omid arrived and fucked their brains out. I was pining for something like that, at least, at Terry’s birthday party in 2003. I had smuggled in an Evian bottle full of lukewarm vodka and tried not to contort my face after every swig because I didn’t want to tempt any of the Anonymous Alcoholics staring at my drink. I don’t care about teasing junkies, but messing with alcoholics is simply NOT cool.
Terry lived in his photo studio, which was a huge loft that opened out to a large backyard that was really the roof of the building below him. It was one of the hottest days of an already sweltering summer. Terry was cooking hot dogs next to a picnic table full of pretty girls while old punks played Ping-Pong and made fart jokes. Dash Snow was drawing his tag all over a Dunkin’ Donuts box and despite liking everyone there, I considered hara-kiri. How can you have a party without booze? It’s like wearing a bike helmet. Only retards and kids do it.
Just when I was trying to think of an excuse to leave, the music cut out. I walked into the kitchen and heard the fridge shudder to a halt. The clock radio over his bed was dark, too. “Your whole place lost power!” I yelled out to the backyard.
I called Blobs, who was doing fashion publicity for the notorious Kelly Cutrone at the time. Kelly, who later got her own reality show called Kell on Earth, was refusing to let anyone leave. “I don’t know what kind of work she expects us to do,” Blobs whispered to me with dwindling reception. “Everything is dead.” I told her to leave and she said, “Doy.” After September 11 happened we made the plan to meet at Tompkins Square Park if there was ever another state of emergency. We had no idea it would happen in less than two years. We both agreed to head to the spot.
I made my way up Bowery and was thrilled to see people out on the street already figuring shit out. Car batteries were used to power TVs that sat on the sidewalk. Kids played next to open fire hydrants as parents strained to hear the news. New York’s last blackout had been in 1977 when crime was at its peak. The entire city was looted and thousands of fires raged throughout the night. This was a different New York. Giuliani’s zero-tolerance laws got rid of all the criminals and the Twin Tower attacks turned the remaining residents into the Get Along Gang. Walking through the new, newer New York without power felt as safe as walking through your mother’s house.
As I walked along Houston Street the sun sank behind the buildings and things started to get dark fast. For the next forty-eight hours the world was left wondering: Now that New York’s gone black, will it ever go back?
Most New Yorkers seemed to be walking to the bridges and tunnels to be with their families, but a lot of people wanted to stay for the party.
About five blocks from the park, the street became totally devoid of light and I felt my way into a bodega to get beer. Inside it was the kind of pitch-black usually reserved for the forest. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The bodega wasn’t empty and there was someone at the register, but they couldn’t open it. The conditions were perfect for looting. Instead of taking advantage of our fellow New Yorkers, we all did the right thing. Everyone there formed a blind line that involved bumping our way to the fridges, grabbing a six-pack or two, and then making our way to the register, where we felt out what was probably about $20 for the cashier, who then stuffed the money in her pocket. The mood was cheery and people made jokes like, “Hey, that’s not my hand!”
I made my way to the park. Soon after, Blobs showed up with Ben Cho and a bunch of other fashion fags. My eyes were getting used to the darkness and I could finally see this motley crew. Blobs’s gay coworkers were dressed in ridiculous parachute pants with huge SpongeBob prints and wrestling boots. The girls looked like groupies from a Van Halen concert in the eighties and I was dressed like a homeless businessman in skintight white pants and a vest with no shirt. We all made rape jokes about the darkness while strangers hollered “yahoos” from the void. I discovered later that David Cross was having a horrible time with fellow comedian Todd Barry about ten yards from us. We never found each other. Hearing his version of the night is a great example of how one shitty attitude (Todd’s) can drastically change the course of events.
After finishing our warm beers, we decided it was time to check out the city. We might have been killed or we might have died laughing, but it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t. The terrifying Avenue A of 1977 was now more like Sesame Street. Instead of hiding indoors with their rotting groceries, people were out on the street grilling steaks and hot dogs and handing them to random strangers. Puerto Ricans blared salsa music out of their cars and kids had their beds made right there on the sidewalk.
We walked south and west through the Lower East Side, across the Bowery, and into SoHo, where bartenders were out on the street handing out free beer. If you saw this in a movie you’d say it was corny bullshit that didn’t seem real and you’d be right. It was a scene from Fame but it was real. The only thing that could have made it better would have been some testosterone to balance out all this gayness. Just then an old punk named Eric appeared. He owned a bar called 6’s and 8’s that New York magazine described as, “Picture Blondie in bed with the Strokes,” and he’s about as balls-out as bros get. I met him through Terry Richardson and we bonded over Montreal because he and his buddies used to drive up there just to fuck French chicks.
Eric and I screamed at each other like excited frat boys and he handed me one of the three beers in his hands. Car headlights lit the streets and one or two generators provided the rest of the lights. It was like a post-nuclear New York where everyone had taken MDMA and we were all going to die soon from radiation anyway. Guys were double-fisting beers and the street was packed with scantily clad women dancing and making out with strangers. Bar owners seemed to think alcohol was milk and were furiously giving out free booze so it wouldn’t curdle in the heat.
We left Spring Street and headed up Mercer, where a fire hydrant was shooting a ten-foot torrent of water across the street. People were competing for outrageous water dances and after a guy did the robot right through the blast, everybody cheered. He was followed by a guy carrying a busted boom box on his shoulder, which was ripped away from him when he hit the water. Again, cheers. I turned to Eric like a World War II soldier on D-day: “You know what we have to do, don’t you?”
Eric closed his eyes knowingly and said, “Get naked.”
I nodded my head. We went over to a less populated part of the street and undressed. I told Blobs to guard our clothes and she laughed in my face. Eric and I emerged from the crowd and put our hands in the air as everyone sort of cheered reluctantly. My adrenaline was pumping too hard to notice Eric and instead of dancing I got into the center of the jet and started a mime shower act. The crowd was now chanting, “No more nude guys! No more nude guys!” I washed my armpits and pretended to shampoo my hair and then, nothing. The water stopped. I was left there totally nude, dripping and wondering what happened as maybe a hundred eyeballs frowned at my heavily tattooed Grover body. I looked over at the fire hydrant and Eric was mooning it but unable to move. His face was devoid of color and had a grave expression. He looked like someone was taking a huge shit inside him. Then he wrenched himself up and moved out of the way as the water shot back at me so hard, I was catapulted into the screaming crowd. As a cacophony of laughter continued behind us, Eric and I walked back to our clothes to get dressed. I was giddy but he looked morose. “Are you OK?” I asked, rolling underwear up my wet legs.
“No, man, I’m not,” he said, crouching down naked. “I thought it would be funny to put my ass on it,” he groaned, “but the water hit me in the nuts like a fist.” I started laughing so hard I couldn’t get my pants on. “It was like being punched by a boxer,” he said without smiling. “I’m not kidding.” I was still having one of those silent laughs that drains your body of oxygen and incapacitates you. It took a while but I was eventually able to explain that his bagging denied me any water and left me standing there like a naked fool. He hadn’t noticed and this got a bit of a smile but being punched in the nuts by sixty pounds per square inch is no laughing matter.
As I pulled on my T-shirt and headed back to our friends, I was blinded by a spotlight. I was worried it was the police coming to bust up the place but noticed a peacock logo after sheltering my eyes with my hand. “We’re with NBC News,” a silhouette with a microphone yelled out over the commotion. “What made you guys get naked in the street like that?”
In a bid to amuse my friends back home I yelled, “Because if we didn’t, THE TERRORISTS WIN!” This was way too esoteric of a joke and ended up on the cutting-room floor. What I should have done is flexed my right arm for the camera and said, “‘New York Muscle,’ baby!” It was a great song by A.R.E. Weapons that we all loved and it surely would have become the motto for the whole blackout. To this day I lie in bed and kick myself for not saying “New York Muscle.” It would have been on T-shirts and bumper stickers and giant banners at tailgate parties. I could have summed up post-9/11 New York in a life- changing phrase that may have even ended the war in Afghanistan, but I went for some sarcastic quip. Shit!
As I started to regret my NBC quote, we all heard the Bwoop! Bwooop! of real police sirens. The police drove past the fire-hydrant blast, which soaked their car, and stopped just in front of it. “Stand back,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. Everyone got off the street and the music was cut dead.
The car just sat there with the loudspeaker pointed at us. Everyone stood motionless and dripping wet in the summer heat. It seemed the party was over. We were doing about a hundred illegal things and knew it was only a matter of time before it was all shut down. Then, just when we were all about to go home with our tails between our legs, the silence was broken by the cop’s loudspeaker. “Sta-a-a-a-a-rt sprea-a-a-a- ading the n-ee-e-e-e-ews,” he sang, building up to, “I’m leavin’ today,” and then an earsplitting, “I want to be a part of it, New York, NEW YO-O-O-RK!”
Everyone went completely fucking berserk. The fact that those genius cops let us doubt the party and then TKO’d us with that fuck- ing song made our heads explode. As the cop drove off to hysteri- cal applause, the music kicked back in ten times louder than before and the dancing and yelling was so delirious, we were acting more like deranged savages than partiers. I looked over at Blobs and we both shook our heads in awe of what we had just witnessed. I grabbed her wet hair and started kissing her, and it became very clear she would one day be my wife and this would always be my city.