By JIM DWYER
About New York
The New York Times
July 14, 2007
For a 20-year-old, the end of the world can often be annoying. The evening of July 13, 1977, I stood in the vestibule of an apartment building on the East Side of Manhattan, ready to swing open the doors, to accept deliveries of dry cleaning, to announce guests: a college student working as a fill-in doorman.
The woman from the sixth floor got off the elevator — always friendly, and tonight, for the first time, dazzling, snugly wrapped in a black cocktail dress and cantilevered fore and aft on high heels. As she was much older than me — probably 26 or 27 — she would have been thoroughly intimidating, had she not been so ready with a smile.
“Wow,” I said, very needlessly. “You look great.”
She winked, and slipped into the warm dusk.
That was the night the city went dark, then was lit with fires; that was the summer a shadow named Son of Sam, a serial killer who turned out to be David Berkowitz, stalked the young and killed them. And that was the era when responsible adults openly spoke of closing half-filled schools and shutting down subway lines, of shrinking the city to keep it from vanishing altogether.
Only the deranged or visionary could have imagined on that summer night in 1977 that New York in 2007 would be fat, happy and standing-room only; perched here in 2007, many would find it hard to believe that 2,000 stores were burned or looted inside of 24 hours.
Yet history throws its own light. It is possible now to see that the restoration of New York had already started, even 30 years ago. By the late 1970s, 75,000 immigrants a year were arriving in New York; twice as many people were moving out of the city, but by 1980, the surge of new people from foreign countries, and the birth of their children, had shifted ground. New York started to grow after the blackout. Not only was the city not dead, it was beginning to thrive.
But that night was scalding. People tied chains to cars and ripped away the pull-down gates on stores. On Fordham Road, the guards at the Crazy Eddie electronics store protected it by parking trucks on the sidewalk and climbing on top with rifles. Until a few years ago, the charred hulls of stores that were ruined that night could be seen along dead commercial strips in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
At a movie theater on Queens Boulevard, people screamed and thought of Son of Sam, who had killed not far away. In fact, he did not go out that night; the blackout was too scary for even a serial killer. Meanwhile, doctors performed emergency surgery in the parking lot of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital; 600 people ate dinner by candlelight at Windows on the World; a crew filming “Superman” outside the old Daily News building on 42nd Street lent their klieg lights to the editors so they could see the pages they were laying out.
Before the lights went out, I stood at my post in that East Side building. The woman in the black cocktail dress came back with her arm hooked in that of a man wearing a business suit. I pulled open the door, and she smiled, then whispered something in his ear.
He nodded, and immediately dug into his pocket and handed me $5.
She tugged down on his arm, shook her head, and whispered in his ear.
He gave me $5 more.
What was this for? I tried to refuse. She brushed me off, and led the man forward to the elevator.
Not long afterward, the street light flickered. Then it vanished. The lobby went dark. I climbed to the top floor — 15 or 20 stories — then walked down, calling at each floor to see if the elevators had trapped anyone. Luckily, no one was in them.
By the time I got back to the lobby, the man who had been visiting the woman on the sixth floor was leaving, alone and paying no more tolls. A few minutes later, the woman arrived in the lobby. She was back in a half-hour, with someone else, a half smile on her face. It slowly dawned on my 20-year-old brain what her line of work was. Life was going on.