The Stygian Staircase

When I first encountered the word ‘pitch-black’, a long time ago, in a children’s adventure book, I was puzzled; I asked my mother what it meant and she said, (roughly), “That means it was really, really dark, so dark you couldn’t see anything, no matter how long you waited.” Even at that tender age, I was used to the idea of my vision improving after some exposure to the night or the interior of an unlit room; such darkness seemed impressively out of the ordinary.

I didn’t experience that kind of darkness till the Great Blackout of 2003. On the day of the blackout, once it had been confirmed the city’s subways were shut down, I walked back home to Fort Greene from Brooklyn College, and went a friend’s place to occupy his stoop, drink beer, and while away the evening. As night fell, rather than returning to my apartment, which I knew would still be overheated from the day’s sun, I went for a walk to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and joined hundreds of other somnambulists on its waterfront.

Finally, the time was at hand. I walked home, and entered my building. I stepped inside, into complete, total, utter darkness. The stairwell was, well, pitch-black. There was no light inside the building and none came in from the outside. I took a step backward through the door of the building. The blackness had felt like a slap in the face. I stood outside on the stairs leading down to the entrance, composing myself; the extent of the sensory deprivation was unprecedented.  I had no sources of illumination, no lighters or candles; the city around me was dark. Walking on the streets had been relatively easy; the interior of my building was perfectly Stygian.

But my apartment was not too far away; four flights in my walk-up building. The banisters that ran continuously along the stairs and the landings on the floor would guide me; once I had placed my right hand on them, I would not let go till I had come to the end. My apartment was the last one in the building; the banister ended there. But the darkness was so complete that I could not afford to let go of the banister or take any steps in any direction other than upward and onward. If I did so, and lost my bearings, the disorientation would be complete.

I think it’s fair to say I have not ever experienced anything like that four-flight ascent. The darkness was close, warm and impervious. There were no sounds in the building; everyone was either asleep or elsewhere. I ran my hand along the banister as I moved up, and when the flight ended, turned slightly right to walk along the landing, not taking my hand off the rail. Then the stairs began again, and I climbed. On my floor, the landing terminated in a wall; on reaching the landing I kept my left hand out in front of me so as to not walk into its bricks. When my fingers made contact with the wall, my walk was over; the door to my apartment lay directly on the left. I fished out my keys, making sure I didn’t drop them, and opened the door. My living room was dark, but it wasn’t pitch-dark; the windows were open.

I lay down in my bedroom, bathed in sweat, a window open directly behind my head. I didn’t think I would fall asleep with no fan to cool me, but miraculously, the day’s exertions and the evening’s beers lulled me into slumberland.

I’ve never experienced that sort of darkness since. I’m not sure I want to.