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August 14, 2015

Blackout memories

Rob @ 2:26 PM

12 years ago today, the Northeastern United States had a massive blackout.

I was living on Long Island at the time, working for an arcade company with locations all around the tri-state area. That day I was in charge of a crew of technicians who'd been working in New Jersey, and we were on our way home when it happened. The next day I wrote up an account of the events on the 2003 incarnation of this blog, but I left out a major detail of my adventure because it involved an aspect of the job I really didn't want to make public at the time. Now enough water has passed under the George Washington Bridge where I'll come out with it, because I find it more amusing in retrospect.

So, I was stuck in the blackout with over $20,000 which was not mine.

Short version, for those not into reading my previous account of the day: I was on the road, in my old job as an arcade technician, and head of a crew of three. We were doing some work in several locations the company had in New Jersey, repairing machines, counting coins, replenishing the stores' change, and bringing the stores' cash receipts for the week back to the main office on Long Island. At some point while we were on the road back to LI after doing the day's work, the power went out. We were on a long stretch of parkway with no traffic signals, and we were listening to a cassette on the car stereo rather than the radio, so we didn't notice anything was amiss until we hit New York City. As we proceeded through the city to the Bronx to drop one of our crew off at her place, we realized that the power had been out for some time; it was her cassette we'd been listening to, so we were then enlightened by the radio.

Our company-issued mobile phone had no signal, so we continued to Long Island where the other two of us, and the home office, lived. We found the traffic surprisingly light, but of course the whole thing was new to us while the rest of the Northeastern United States had already been dealing with the situation for two hours. Eventually, our phone caught some service, enabling us to check on our families and get in touch with our boss, who informed us that everyone in the company was being sent home. Good news for them, but bad news for us, who were still over an hour away from the office and had been planning to unload many thousands of the company's dollars from the company car's trunk into the company safe.

I no longer remember exactly how much cash it was, but on a typical Jersey run we generally came back with anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, more during Summer when the arcade trade was busiest. This was the peak of Summer, so we had at least $20,000, probably more like $25,000, mostly in single dollar bills, in a pile of canvas money bags. If you've ever seen stereotype bank robbers in movies or cartoons running away with canvas money bags emblazoned with big "$" signs, you know the bags I'm referring to; in reality they don't have the "$", but they often have the name and address of the bank they came from.

As ranking officer in that group, I was going to be expected to take responsibility for these bags of the company's cash, and keep them safe in my own house until things blew over. I was not at all pleased with the idea - I love blackouts, and would be damned if I was going to miss out on going out and enjoying one just to watch a pile of the bosses' money. Besides, everyone was freaking out. The Nazi Taliban from the Bad Part of Town could have shown up to loot my house, or my cats might have urinated on it, or worse. So I managed to get hold of my supervisor, and just before his phone battery died I called in pretty much every favor he owed me (and a few he didn't) and convinced him to make his way from his home, several towns over, in the blackout to meet me at my place, pick up the cash, and take it back to his.

(As a service to myself, you readers, and my potential burglars I must point out that I no longer have that type of job, in fact the company I was working for doesn't even exist anymore. I handle nobody's cash but my own meager scrapings, nowadays.)

The other tech and I arrived at my slowly darkening house just before sunset. We piled the money bags into a corner of my living room, and he left. It was weird - as most honest people who handle their employer's money at work will tell you, you stop really seeing it as currency after a while. You get used to the fact that it's not your money, and it just becomes an abstract thing you deal with at work. However, staring at this pile of cash in my own increasingly dark living room while listening to increasingly unsure radio reports, and needing to keep all the doors and windows open in an attempt to vent a house with no fans or air conditioning on a hot Summer night, I was forcefully reminded what I had. The highest point of the pile was half as tall as me, and thanks to my lousy night vision and my overactive imagination, the pile seemed to slowly spread out toward the middle of the room. As time passed and passed, I cared less and less for the situation. There were no real lights, but my mind kept throwing a spotlight on the cash, and I couldn't see much else. Very film noir.

A couple of hours later my supervisor showed up, and we unloaded the cash into his trunk in the pitch dark night. I couldn't resist the urge to hum the Mission: Impossible theme while we did so. He left on a 45 minute drive over unlit highway to his place (which I believe ended up taking him about 3 hours,) I felt amazingly relieved, and my sister and I got some flashlights and left to do some nighttime blackout exploring.

3 Responses to “Blackout memories”

  1. c4bl3fl4m3 says:

    That's a fantastic story! Thanks for sharing it with us!

    Because of the way the North American power grid is set up, here in Washington DC, we weren't affected by it at all. It was weird to hear reports of everyone else in complete mass chaos, while life was as usual here. (BTW, it wasn't just the Northeastern US, it was Canada too. All of Toronto and the surrounding region was in the blackout, as well as other places I don't remember. My Canadian friends told me their stories form the blackout.)

  2. nite 0wl says:

    More power grid oddity: At the time of the black out I was in rural Vermont. Rural enough to not have cell service or much in the way of traffic lights or much else. We knew nothing of the blackout until we arrived at our host's home (at least 5 hours after the blackout began since it was well past dark). Our hosts quickly filled us in as they had been following the whole thing on CNN (on their TV). Somehow that little pocket of Vermont had seemingly been left out of the event and we sat in a well lit room watching those event unfolding just a few counties away most of the night.

  3. Ride Guy Ry says:

    I want to personally apologize for being to cause of your anxiety. I was training two new employees at the bumper cars. I don't know what came over me, but I started to press the on and off button multiple times. The last time I hit the off button, the power to the building went out. I said to myself, "I hope I didn't do that. I don't think I did that. I hope I didn't do that". I walked to the parking lot where a lady told me that the power went out across the northeast. Had I known that hitting the on and off button several times would have caused a blackout, I never would have done it. Especially knowing what you went through. I hope you can find in your heart to forgive me.

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