Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements


By Barbara Sofer

August 2, 2019

It is 6:47 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, and I am in the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, about to speak at a pre-convention gathering of Hadassah leaders.

At first I expect the lights to come right back on. I figure this is a hotel problem on a hot and humid summer day with air conditioners chilling the inside air until it requires a sweater. Like many other hotels in New York, the Sheraton New Times Square is no youngster. The hotel facing Seventh Avenue was opened in 1962 in time for the 1964 World's Fair. It was built by Laurence and Preston Tisch, whose family name is best-known in our Jerusalem for supporting the marvelous zoological gardens best known as the Biblical Zoo.

When the hotel opened as The Americana, with its 51 floors reaching a height of 152.9 meters (501 feet), it had the reputation of being the tallest hotel in the world (although a Moscow hotel's spire was reputedly higher). Architect Morris Lapidus was already famous for his exuberant Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. The hotel had panache.

A false fire alarm rang Friday night, so when the electricity goes off on Saturday, it feels like more of the same.

I don't realize there are loud speakers in every guest room. But they soon begin crackling, bringing the deep, Hispanic voice of the hotel fire warden.
Where were you when... ? Every epoch asks some form of that question.
Ever since November 22, 1963, when a long crackling sound on our Connecticut elementary school classroom PA preceded the announcement that president John Kennedy was shot and we needed to go home, I've had a dread of long crackling preambles and grim announcements. The blackout isn't the hotel's fault, says the warden. The entire area around the hotel has lost electricity.

Not exactly calming news.

The Great White Way, the section of Broadway in Midtown first illuminated in 1880 by Brush Co. arc lamps, was among the first electrically lighted streets in the United States. Now it is now black, as are the giant neon and LED signs of Times Square.
Some 360,000 people visit Times Square every day. Soon it will be sunset and everything will be black.

Stay where you are. Don't panic, urges the warden. Everything is going to be fine. I can't help thinking "Isn't that the exact advice given to people in the South Tower on September 11, 2001, when an airplane crashed into the North Tower?"

On that September 11 morning, my cousin Marc Sokolow was already climbing down the 36 stories and didn't hear the announcement in the stairwell. By the time the second plane hit the South Tower, he was in the lobby and got away safely.

What to do? My hotel room is on a relatively low floor, the sixth, a courtesy for Shabbat observers. Worrying about 9/11 isn't the only cause of anxiety. Holocaust survivor Rena Quint, with whom I co-authored her story, A Daughter of Many Mothers: Her Horrific Childhood and Wonderful Life, often asks her speaking audiences what they would take if they had to suddenly leave their belongings behind. They inevitably answer "photographs" but she suggests that today they would take their cellphones. It's a power outage, not the Holocaust.

BECAUSE IT'S Shabbat, I don't take my phone. Instead, I put my American and Israeli passports into a bag and carry it down to the lobby.
I think of the great US Northeast blackout of 1965 that left 30 million people in the dark for 13 hours. I was a kid at home in Colchester, Connecticut, at the time, and terrorist attacks were not a part of my consciousness. I was most worried because I'd forgotten my task of turning on the electric oven when I came home from school. And though it turned out not to be my fault, dinner would now remain uncooked on the stove. We ate baloney.
I walk down steps as I've done several times before on Shabbat. Now they are crowded. People are carrying down baby strollers. Hundreds of people are milling around the lobby. It's hot. People have peeled off their sweaters. The courteous hotel staff is handing out bottles of water. Time for my speech. I can easily speak in the dark if necessary, particularly when my subject is storytelling.
In the 1965 blackout, certain areas – insurance-capital of the world Hartford, for instance – still had power. Oddly, the room I am about to speak in also has light, probably because it's on a lower floor set up for emergencies.
After Havdalah, the city lights are still out. I get my phone. I learn that the blackout runs from 72nd street to the West 40s, from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River. Some 73,000 Con Edison electric company customers, not counting the tourists, are still without electricity.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, away from the city in Ohio campaigning for the presidency, assures us that the blackout is a technical problem not a terrorist attack; a subterranean transformer has malfunctioned and will be fixed soon.
The timing still seems peculiar. As the news on my phone keeps pointing out, in 1977, 42 years to the day, New York was plunged into a blackout. Back then, the blackout lasted more than 24 hours.
I wonder if the convention I've come for will be canceled.
Cheerful stories begin to penetrate the tension. New York City residents are directing traffic like constables in their city without traffic lights. Twenty six Broadway plays close, but in several, the actors serenade the disappointed theater-goers. Outside the quickly evacuated Carnegie Hall, the musicians play an impromptu concert. Firefighters and paramedics respond to some 900 emergency calls, half of them from people stuck in elevators. An octogenarian widower later told me that a lady friend had whispered that she wouldn't mind being caught in an elevator with him.
Five hours after the lights go out the problem is fixed. Cheers rise from the lobby and the streets as the lights go back on.
No one has been injured. The fire warden was right. No need to panic. Everything is back to normal. I put away my passports and reprimand myself for the dire scenarios. I realize how fragile the border between "back to normal" and catastrophe is. It does seem odd when two weeks later, on a Saturday, the power goes out in Washington, DC. By then I'm back in Israel reading the news and discover that a terrorist has been arrested for planning to blow up my favorite seaside hotel in Ashdod. The plot is foiled by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). My whole family just celebrated my birthday there on the eve of Passover.
How fragile is the border of life as normal.



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