Small Business

All the Same in the Dark? Not in NYC


By Peter Elstrom I knew things were getting serious when Anthony started closing up early. It was about 5 p.m. on Aug. 14, and I had just walked home from BusinessWeek's offices in midtown Manhattan.

Sure, I had heard that the blackout of 2003 had put out the power as far west as Michigan and as far north as Ottawa. But I had never known Anthony Lee, the manager of the New Westside dry cleaner/laundromat on my West Side block, to be affected by the foibles of the outside world. Every morning -- Sundays included -- he opens the shop a couple of minutes before seven. The screech of the graffiti-covered metal gate rising over the glass windows and doors serves as my alarm clock, sounding many mornings well before I'm ready for it. So when Anthony said he was closing up three hours early, one of the things that makes New York truly New York, one of the things that demonstrated its invincibility seemed to fade with the light.

"No choice," said Michael Kim, the owner of New Westside, who stood outside the store with Anthony. Mr. Kim is 58 years old, with a quiet friendliness and weathered eyes. He emigrated from South Korea 24 years ago and bought New Westside in 2001. Anthony had worked at the location for several years before and Mr. Kim asked him to stay on as manager.

CANDLELIGHT DINNER. There was little point in staying open that night, Mr. Kim told me. The cash register wouldn't work without electricity, so he couldn't take in any dry cleaning. The self-serve washers and dryers can't be used, much to the disappointment of an eager few hoping to get their clothes clean, even as the largest-ever power outage robbed millions of people of electricity.

All things considered, my wife and I had it easy on Aug. 14. We work about two miles from our apartment, so it was just a short stroll home for each of us. There were thawing shrimp from the freezer that we were able to cook on the gas stove, and I took a bottle of white wine out of the lifeless refrigerator to go with it. Dinner was candlelit, quiet, romantic. Afterward, we walked over to Central Park to look at stars that haven't been visible from Manhattan for years. Mars was a deep red, hanging low in the eastern sky. A man with high-powered binoculars told us the planet is closer to the earth than it has been in 60,000 years.

As we headed back home, it was obvious that some of the neighborhood businesses were enjoying the blackout as much as my wife and I. Ray's Famous, a pizzeria at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 82nd St., had a line of some 30 people in front of its door. Mohammed Ali, a 34-year-old from Alexandria, Egypt, who manages the store and several others like it, could keep on cooking pizzas because his ovens run on gas. That night, he sold slices as fast as he could make them, charging $3 or $4, depending on the toppings. Some customers were upset at what they thought was price-gouging, but Mr. Ali explained that he couldn't make change because his cash register was out.

MULTIPLICATION LESSON. Mostly, though, people were grateful. One man gave him $50 for a whole pizza and told him to keep the change. How much business did Mr. Ali do that evening? "Double," he said. How much exactly is double, I asked? "If normally it's $100, then $200," he said. I told him I understand the concept, but how much money are we talking about? "Double," he repeated. I stopped pressing him. Clearly, it had been a good night.

Just across 82nd Street, at the corner grocer, there was a slow-moving line waiting in front of the closed door. Every few minutes, the door opened and one or two people were let in. With the lights out in the store, John Singh, a tall, 40-year-old from India who sports a pencil-thin moustache, didn't want people inside who could grab things and head out without paying.

Alas, Mr. Singh didn't have the same kind of night as Mr. Ali. True, Mr. Singh sold lots of soda, water, and beer, but he didn't do anywhere near the amount of business he normally does. It was simply too slow, letting people in one-by-one. He stayed open until 11 p.m. or so, then decided to close a couple hours earlier than normal.

KEG PARTY. Overall, the mood throughout the neighborhood was more festive than frustrated. Next door, two men and two women pulled out lawn chairs to sit on the sidewalk and drink beer by candlelight. Knots of people wandered up and down Amsterdam Avenue with flashlights, stopping to chat and occasionally duck into one of the street's many bars. Indeed, out of all the businesses that stayed open during the blackout, it looked like bars were doing the best.

One of the most crowded was The Dead Poet, a bowling-alley-shaped establishment with a long bar of wood and brass in the front and scattered tables and chairs in the back. A chalkboard on the sidewalk proclaimed that all beers -- bottles and draughts -- were $3 each. Ally, a striking blonde working the bar, explained that the owner wanted to sell what he could before the beer got warm.

It was sweltering inside, partly because of the heat and partly because of the crowd, which spilled out onto the sidewalk. Ally served up beer and her own recipe of rum and Chambord shots. From what I could see, the bar was making a pretty good dent in its inventory. No chance that the enterprising owner was going to be stuck with lots of warm beer.

BACK TO BUSINESS. Early the next morning, I woke up with the light on my nightstand shining into my eyes. My first thought: Rum and Chambord? That didn't sound like a good idea even last night. Then I realized that the electricity had come back on. I turned off the light and slept for what seemed like seconds before I heard it: the familiar screech as Anthony lifted up the metal grate in front of New Westside.

With the power back, Anthony, like many other business owners, was opening up right on time, eager to get back to work. Fifteen hours after the power went out, it was back -- at least in my neighborhood -- and life in New York began to return to normal. Elstrom is a Senior Editor for BusinessWeek in New York


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