(Pictured: aftermath of the New York City blackout of July 14, 1977, and a metaphor for my own summer of 1977.)
I have written many times about how the summer and fall of 1976 are the two seasons in which I would live forever if I could. The winter and spring of 1977 were the happy hangover from those few golden months. But the summer of 1977 ended up having its way with me, and not the good way.
I had a job in town, thus freeing me from having to drive a tractor on the farm. I pumped gas, checked oil, and topped off wiper fluid at a station owned by a friend’s father. A significant percentage of our receipts came from selling smokes, chips, and candy. The job was OK when the place wasn’t busy, or on busy nights when two of us were scheduled to work. The job was at its worst when I was scheduled to work alone on a busy night. And many nights were busy.
As summer began, I got a job at a new grocery store in town, so now I had two jobs. One of my friends had been regaling me for months with stories about how great his grocery store job was. So I went into my job with visions of big fun and big money, only to find it involved big physical labor. I started before the store’s grand opening, and I spent my first weeks cleaning filthy display cases, swabbing filthy floors, and stocking miles of shelves. When the store finally opened, I bagged groceries, which meant hours of continuous motion and heavy lifting.
The worst part of the job, however, involved the people who worked there. Most of my co-workers treated me with undisguised scorn, for reasons I never understood. My boss was an awful man who seemed to take pleasure in making people feel two inches tall and miserable. Especially me.
On July 14, 1977, a little after 10:00, I was coming home from one of my jobs, behind the wheel of my AMC Hornet, getting up onto Highway 69. The radio was on— because the radio was always on—and as I drove, I heard about the New York City blackout. “Wow, that’s weird,” I thought, and then another song came on and I went back to thinking about my own life, the jobs I didn’t like, and about my girlfriend, who had left for Europe the weekend before. Because that’s what matters when you’re 17.
It wouldn’t be very many more nights before my summer fell apart, although not as spectacularly as New York City’s did. In early August, I quit the grocery store, so discouraged by the work and my co-workers that I didn’t even bother to pick up my last paycheck. Shortly thereafter, the gas station mysteriously stopped scheduling me; I wasn’t fired, but I never worked there again. And although the reunion with my girlfriend after her month in Europe was joyous, we were only a couple of months away from beginning a protracted period of splitting up and getting back together that confused and exhausted the both of us.
So: my specific memory of that July night is not much, but it has stuck with me for 38 years now, by whatever alchemy such a thing happens. The blackout is part of the mental furniture whenever I revisit that summer—a summer in which I learned that nothing lasts forever, that everything sweet and glorious eventually becomes sour and small. New York was learning that lesson in slow motion throughout its painful 1970s. My lesson didn’t take quite so long.
(If you’d like to read a better essay about the summer of 1977, Michele Catalano wrote a wonderful piece yesterday at Medium about growing up on Long Island during that summer, and how it affected her and her fellow teenagers.)