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NEW YORK - Cell phones inoperative, people gathered on street corners, waiting in line for pay phones or listening to the radio for news. Crowds were trapped in subways. Masses of commuters in business suits and high heels walked uptown, out of town and over the Brooklyn Bridge in the summer heat.

And everybody wondered what the heck was going on.

The last time the city was anything like this, well, no one needs to say when that was.

"The feeling is obviously September 11th-esque," said Stephanie Rapaport, 34, who was taking in the scene while pushing her 14-month-old son's stroller along Broadway during the first hour of yesterday's power outage.

"Is something horrible happening," she said, "or have we just been using our air conditioners too much?"

Most bets seemed to be on the latter. So, this time, New Yorkers seemed a little nervous but were taking things in stride.

If there is such a thing as a not so mad, mad rush, Manhattan exemplified it during the first hours of the blackout of '03.

Maybe because they've seen much worse, maybe because everyone was forced to share the same anxieties and inconveniences, New York's walk home yesterday may have been long but not so terrible.

"We're New Yorkers, it's not a problem," said Peg Tarnowsky, 53, walking uptown in search of an uncrowded bus home to the Bronx. "After September 11, what's this? It's OK, just keep walking."

People stopped in the middle of their sidewalk commutes to line up 20-deep for hot dogs or sizzling slices of New York pizza, prompting a good number of "how they doing that?" questions from passers-by about the pie makers. The answer? Gas ovens.

With the stoplights out, drivers waited politely at intersections for cars and people to go by, policing themselves until the traffic cops and volunteers, including some homeless people, stepped in to help direct folks on their trips home.

At 5 p.m., though, so many cars were stuck downtown that, for the first rush hour since Sept. 11, 2001, the Upper Manhattan avenues heading out of town were eerily empty for long stretches of time.

Among the few unaffected commuters was Peter Rinaldi, 29, who was riding his mountain bike from work to his cat-sitting appointment in Upper Manhattan. En route, he hoped to stop off at a friend's shop, where he was expecting to eat some homemade ice cream that would otherwise go to waste.

"I ride my bike every day, rain or shine, just waiting for a brownout or blackout," said Rinaldi, who noted dryly that he was working as coordinator of volunteers for the blind when the lights went out.

"I feel like the mayor when I'm riding right now," he said. "Everybody's looking at me when I'm riding like I'm the king. Finally."

His one disappointment, he said, was that his all-time favorite movie - a foreign film called My Friend Ivan Lapshin - was supposed to get a screening last night. But there was no showing. "It's absolute tragedy," he said. "They better replay it."

Convenience stores and drugstores were packed with people stocking up on water, batteries, flashlights and candles. "Back to the Stone Age in matter of two hours," said Darko Latic, 18, as he waited in line for a radio and batteries.

The buying frenzy was essentially an advertisement for the Department of Homeland Security and its secretary, Tom Ridge, once widely mocked for suggesting people stock up on Armageddon goodies such as duct tape.

"We had prestocked, thanks to Tom Ridge, so who's laughing now," said a chuckling Ben Prager, 27, a filmmaker who was shopping with his wife, law student Dahlia Jacobs Prager, for non-necessities such as peanut butter while others cleared the shelves of bottled water.

The Pragers already have their 6 gallons. "Well-placed paranoia," Ben Prager said.

His wife said she was more than 50 percent "sure" that the blackout was due to terrorism.

So, people were a little concerned about terrorists, but some were more worried about lots of other things.

How was 58-year-old Noelia Cruz, who uses a motorized wheelchair, going to get to her high-rise apartment on the Upper West Side, where she had her blood pressure pills?

After wandering aimlessly for a while, she parked her chair in front of a Red Cross building, where she hoped to find help.

A van of Red Cross workers was already busy giving cups of water to thirsty pedestrians.

How was the heavyset man, a construction worker perhaps, going to escape from a motorized platform high above the city north of Midtown?

Word of mouth was that he might be stuck for a while.

How would people cope if they had to go without running water or electricity for days?

"I'm filling everything in my apartment with water," said Joan Hitzenmaier, 58, a physical therapist who had just purchased 3 gallons of water to go with the nearly 7 gallons already at her apartment. "Waste baskets, empty water pans, pots, anything."

Was Don Maxwell's 8-year-old stepson freaking out on a crowded subway car headed home from a day camp in Coney Island? Maxwell hoped not but

had no idea.

Would Maxwell have to appear tonight for his job as a stagehand for a performance? Absolutely not.

"You can't be dancing in the dark," he said. "Well, you could. It depends on which nightclub you go to."

There were even more immediate questions on many people's minds as they watched the sun go down over Broadway last night.

As night fell, people wandered the streets in search of food and beer in a sort of impromptu party and were left to wonder what else would happen in the dark.

Would New York go crazy? Worse, would terrorists strike?

"We don't know what's going to happen tonight," said Jerold Solomon, 23, a waiter walking with co-workers from a Midtown restaurant more than 100 blocks home to Washington Heights.

Their goal was to get home before nightfall, and they had other issues on their minds. Like dinner.

"I'm hoping the Chinese place is open around the corner from my crib," Solomon said.

But on this night, they decided to make a stop on Amsterdam on the Upper West Side.

The Time Out sports bar was already almost completely dark inside but was crowded with people sitting at the tables and against the wall, including one guy holding what would seem to be a rather useless pool cue.

These customers had good reason to be there, though. Half-priced drinks. A blackout special.

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