Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Refugees of Lower Manhattan

On satellite maps of the Korean peninsula at night, you can see a clear line. The place where the lights stop, and the world is plunged into darkness. A split caused by the madness of a reclusive dictatorship. 

Now that line exists somewhere else. The island of manhattan. Not caused by a madman but a mad storm. North of the line people dress as vampires and goblins like its any other Halloween. But its south of the line where everything resembles haunted houses. 

Ishaan Tharoor on wrote an excellent essay describing the eerie scene: 

"Each morning since the hurricane, I’ve woken up in Lower Manhattan not to an alarm or car horns on the street, but to the overwhelmingly weird silence of this alternate reality. I scrub myself clean after heating water atop a gas stove, sip from a lukewarm bottle of orange juice, and then trudge down pitch-black flights of stairs with the lantern that is my dying iPhone. By the time I’ve emerged into the sunlight, I’m ready, almost, to start running away from zombies. Yet, 20 minutes and a shared cab later—this new tradition, itself, a kind of surreal act of post-cataclysm New Yorker bonhomie—I’m in Midtown, where Sandy has become, like every other horrible natural disaster in the world, just something that happened somewhere else."

Monday night, my wife and I were watching Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while the storm raged outside. We had just reached the point of the movie when the child hears his father's last message from the Twin Towers on 9/11 when the power flickered. In the brief moment of darkness, the sky outside our window, visible just above the buildings across the street, lit up with a bright blue-green burst. We knew from the news reports we'd been watching for the past few hours that the flash wasn't lightning, but a transformer exploding. This flash was bright and massive. Which meant it was close. A few minutes later the power went out for good. 

We were prepared, to a degree. One benefit to the Hurricane Irene hype was that we had purchased two 2-gallon containers for water, dozens of candles and several flashlights. Years ago, my Uncle Moe shipped me a battery-operated radio, "just in case," and it soon became our only link to the outside world. 

My wife and I, curious to see the extent of the outage, went up to our rooftop. The wind blew so fiercely up there I thought we'd fly off. The city immediately around us was pitch black, save for a few emergency stairwells with battery power. The Empire State building and the city beyond tantalized with its luminescence, seeming even brighter contrasted with the ghostly foreground. To the south, the lights of the freedom tower still shined. In the distance, across the river in Jersey, more transformer explosions lit up the sky like firecrackers. 

We returned to our apartment and played cards by candlelight, drinking 2 buck chuck and listening to the ever-worsening news until we couldn't take it anymore, then turning to Z100 and 95.5 for some lighthearted pop music. I was never so thankful for Katy Perry. We went to bed to the sounds of kids screaming outside and police sirens. An occasional flash of red and blue from the cruisers patrolling the streets was the only thing illuminating our room after we snuffed the candles out.

We woke up to a different world. No electricity, still. Even more alarmingly, no cell service. Desperate for an outside world that didn't come through an AM/FM antenna, we mustered up our courage and descended the lightless stairwell to traverse the post-apocalyptic streets of a powerless East Village. 

It wasn't quite that bad. Not apocalyptic, but... Surreal. The bodega on the corner of 4th st. and 2nd avenue was open, even though its aisles were lit by flashlights. Two girls begged for a discount on Ben and Jerry's ice cream. "but it's going to melt!" they whined. 

The great recession of these past three years didn't bring back the bread lines of the 1920's, but Hurricane Sandy brought something much weirder: Pay phone lines, as everybody's precious iPhones had become little more than fancy paperweights. Lines also stretched down the block at the MUD coffee truck parked on 9th street. 

Northern Spy Food Co. was handing out free food, as much out of charity as emptying out their soon to be warm freezers. Other restaurants set up ramshackle operations, heating up food with portable stoves in front of their doors or using the gas in their dark kitchens. Pizza was the most popular... Hungry eyes following people carrying pizza boxes and long lines at Mozzerella Pizza on Avenue A spoke to that. 

The streets reminded me of the way they looked shortly after 9/11, with people gathered outside sharing stories of what they experienced during the storm. One guy we met worked at a clothing store on Bond Street. He told us his boss called him to make sure the store was okay... The store, not his employee, mind you. 

We stopped at the Con Ed plant on 14th street, where a large utility truck had broken down in the floodwaters. Driftwood was piled up in the street. A sharp line, a foot high on the side of a building showed how high the water had risen. A few people were wringing out what they could salvage from the sopping wet interiors of their parked vehicles. 

I asked one of the utilities guys outside the plant what the status was. "Man, I haven't even been inside yet," the guy said. I took that to mean they hadn't quite started repairs. 

Returning to our apartment, we packed a bag with our things and headed uptown to my sister's apartment, which thankfully had power. Leaving the darkness of the East Village and lower manhattan behind, I wondered, what about people not as fortunate as us? What about the people with no place else to go?

I have no doubt in the resiliency and resourcefulness of my fellow New Yorkers. The very fact that the first thing some people did was open up their doors and go about business as usual, even if it was in the dark, is a testament to that never say die attitude city-dwellers here share. 

Right now though, I know all us refugees of lower manhattan--and those throughout the northeast sitting in the dark--desire the same thing. 

For the lights to come back. For things to go back to normal. 

It'll be a harder road back for those outside the city. But I know we'll get there. We always do. 

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