White Privilege, Human Decency, and the Blackout at Rockefeller Center

Yesterday I was at work when the power went out everywhere from 72 and 42, knocking out Broadway, Times Square, and of course Rockefeller Center where I give tours. I was on break between the tours and for a moment, my normally boisterous colleagues all fell silent. I knew we were all sharing the same thought, “Is the building going to fall on us?” I imagine a lot of people who live in New York had that same thought or some version of it.

When the silence broke, the first thing that was said wasn’t an expression of fear or a reassurance. It was a call to action. “We’ve got to get people out of the underground.”

As a tour guide, I know the concourse of Rock Center better than anyone (it connects everything from 5th Ave to 6th Ave under Rockefeller Center across four blocks), so I went down into complete darkness with my phone flashlight along with everyone else who was on break. At that moment, we didn’t know a fire in a manhole had overheated a transformer and knocked out the grid; we just knew that there was thousands of people in pitch darkness who didn’t know the way out.

After the concourse was eerily empty (you could hear the tap of security’s footsteps echoing across 22 acres of underground), I went out to the street level to try to keep the area outside of Top of the Rock entrance cleared. We had people stuck on top and in elevators between the 2nd and 66th floor and lots more trying to figure out what was going to happen with their tickets to the top. It was amazing to me 1) how money-minded people can be (“I know there’s a firetruck coming and you want the street clear, but you say you’ll honor my ticket tomorrow or give me a refund? Why don’t I get to go to the top for free?” is literally something I heard) and 2) how good people are at hiding inner turmoil.

The majority of my co-workers are POC and ‘black-out’ has a whole other level of meaning to their community that I was a white rural person was not familiar with. There’s a history of riot and race violence associated with power-outages in the summer in big cities and I saw the undercurrent of distrust from many tourists (the majority of whom were white). I didn’t understand why so many people approached me, though the only thing that marked me as an employee was a branded baseball cap and a dangling ID card (not a proper starched black shirt or red vest uniform). Not until I went back inside where my co-workers were dealing with the tension in their own way; making nervous jokes about riots, looting, and “black outs” (as in “oh, the blacks are out! Get indoors”). Suddenly, I understood the question ‘where are we safe?’ and their side-long glances at my co-workers.

These were the same co-workers whose immediate response to a power outage is “get the people underground out of the building, even if the building might be falling down.” The same co-workers who were calling parents, spouses, and children to leave “if this is my last moment” voice messages to loved ones. Many of them were in the city on September 11th and we didn’t know what caused the power outage (exactly 42 years after a major black-out in 1977 which seems almost too close to be coincidental), but they still returned to the street to smile and reassure customers their tickets would be honored at a later date.

When the elevators and all three decks were cleared (less than an hour after the outage!), we were all briefed about the extent of the outage and let go early. On the way to Port Authority, I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of people in Times Square which was dark for the first time in decades. Broadway was far from silent since most shows had closed, but the performers came into the streets to present unaccompanied opening numbers or improv riffs with the audiences. It was an inspiring and energizing experience in good-will and I’m glad I got to see that.

I started the walk with a big crowd of my co-workers and I got to see more of those distrusting side-long glances, occasionally from armed police officers. One of my friends, a tiny woman of mixed Puerto Rican and Haitian dissent, teasingly said she’d protect me when the looting started. I’m about twice her size and keenly aware that I was not the one in danger.

I’ve never been more aware of the strength of every-day people or of the incredible privilege of my skin color.

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