A dispatch from silhouette city

A New Yorker's message of darkness and light two days after the storm

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[As life returns to “normal” for most New Yorkers, we are gathering mate­ri­als from the city’s darkest days. Here, an email to a friend in Los Ange­les writ­ten while down­town was still without power]

So, here’s the deal with lower Manhattan. If it wasn’t for the suffering that many people are going through in terms of not having water, food, heat, etc., I’d say this was something very special. For me, with the benefit of warm water and only lacking electricity, the city is absolutely absorbing. I have been walking day after day just looking and listening – first off, it’s a revelation just how walkable NYC is; I’ve gotten so used to subways or taxis that I forget the distances are more than manageable. Yesterday I walked from Soho to Prospect Heights to visit a friend, where I got some much-needed bread and candles while managing to relax in the Halloween spirit for a little while.

My friend made a good point while I was at his place – there’s something that doesn’t quite fit about walking a few miles to pick up candles for the night only to then be waiting an hour for my iPhone to charge. Different definitions of “basics” were at play – both equally important to me just now. The trip across town took me less than 1.5 hours one-way. Walking back over the Manhattan Bridge at 8:00 PM was a moment I’ll never forget – the lights die out in the middle of the bridge, so there I was walking up with the light from Brooklyn before suddenly seeing a last lamp and then darkness stretching far ahead of me where I knew a city to be. To look to my left at the Brooklyn Bridge completely black, to see the outlines of lower Manhattan against a dim red sky – backlit by uptown – was to step into a New York no one planned for.

The first day after the lights went out downtown was packed – people were crowding the streets trying to hear news or find signal. It was strange – we were all asking one another whether a particular corner was good for a signal from a particular carrier (AT&T – the useless bastards), roving with our hands shaking in the air trying to catch an elusive bar. There would be the feeling of relief when the little 4G icon would crop up, following by the inevitable defeat when whatever text or email we were sending never got sent. And the sinking feeling of losing time as the battery on each phone shrank. With no idea how far the blackout extended, or what the prospects were there was a jittery sense of being perched on the brink of something serious. It reminded me of September 11th in a way – though I wasn’t in the city that day, I was at high school (a few days into freshman year) not far away in NJ and remember vividly the sense of life verging on lawlessness; like the natural order had been tilted on its head. One of the many major differences this time around is that I did not feel imminent threat or fear of more – the same seems to go for most people I’ve spoken with.

Imagine these scenes – the Bowery, Lafayette, 6th Ave, St Marks, all peopled by silhouettes with straps fixing flashlights to their heads, or flashlights in their hands, or no lights at all, silently making their rounds as a few bars and restaurants stayed open in candlelight. I watched what may have been the smallest Halloween parade in 6th Ave’s history wend its way past Houston at 8:30 PM, and a guy in the bar I was in said it felt like 1a.m. – he was right. For all the potential for disaster – looting, car crashes, muggings, violence – I have seen none after going through Chinatown, the East Village, parts of the Lower East Side, and the West Village in the nighttime hours.

People are developing customs: when crossing the street at night they flash their lights toward cars in the distance to alert them to their presence; it is rude to shine one’s flashlight toward oncoming pedestrians, because the effect is blinding (the same goes for cars with their high beams on, but the drivers don’t seem to mind – it makes walking a trip between two kinds of blindness); people ask whoever they might be next to for news as to open bodegas and general updates with a casualness that goes against the studied separation that usually exists in NYC and most cities I have been to. There is a sense of camaraderie, and I don’t think I am exaggerating that.

Some people are also losing their patience – many have been without showers or functioning toilets for days; many have had to hike past the blackout zone, which is either somewhere around 29th or almost 40th Street depending on how east or west one is, to get food for themselves and their family or friends.

Things are easier today than they were two days ago because buses are running again – free of charge. I’ve stayed away from that option – each bus seems too packed, I’d rather walk. But I have the luxury of time – many are trying to get to work; they can’t afford multi-hour treks. Seeing long lines of brightly-lit buses snake their way down 2nd Ave – their grim blue lights sweeping over shuttered stores and dirty streets – is bracing. The big avenues haven’t lost their sense of liveliness – even if drastically pared down. It is the streets that can be more startling. I’ve found myself losing track of where I am and having to retrace, through memory, my mental New York to reorient myself. Navigation isn’t the hardest thing because of the “Freedom Tower” to the south and the Empire State Building to the north. They make me think of pole stars; but then, I think I have seen the stars in Manhattan more clearly now than ever before. That’s not saying much – everything surrounding lower Manhattan is still sending up enough light to blur the sharpness of the night sky; but still, what I see from Thompson and Spring I know I will not see again once Con Ed gets back on its feet.

Much has gone to waste: cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, bodegas – all are throwing out large bags of rotten food. Chinatown yesterday smelled putrid; the deals on fish were down to $1 for massive fillets; in my opinion, that deal translated to $1 for epic regrets in 6 hours. Limitations wear on people – some are able to bear more than others. Two days ago I remember walking down 5th Ave, nearing Washington Square, and seeing a woman decked out in expensive furs, curtly waving down a cab. A taxi pulled up – she told the man the address – he told her he wouldn’t take her there. She slammed her hand against the hood, her permed head shaking with what I took to be frustration.

Tonight, though I ought to be finishing off my tomatoes and peppers before they go bad, I had a little pizza at Motorino – a decent place on 12th and 1st that’s open by candlelight. I arrived as twilight set in; some guy was playing a guitar at the front while I was quickly seated next to two old folks waiting on their margarita pizza. Old friends – it turned out he was 82; I never found out how old she was. They talked about Marlon Brando and Lauren Bacall; love affairs in 1952, when he was 22; the wayward children of friends whose own children turned out more straight-laced than any generation they had known or hoped to see; all while turning over some debate they had had forty years before and couldn’t remember enough to place. There were stretches of silence between them lasting for long minutes – comfortable silences it seemed to me.

Which is what remains – people talk, they tell stories, they get on with it. It’s no catastrophe here – the disaster is in what’s not being done to make sure that this will not happen again, both here and in places where more people will be hurt, displaced, killed. It wasn’t enough for one American city to be ravaged – Katrina and New Orleans haven’t been mentioned in the 2012 debate except peripherally. And while many of us carelessly ignore the past, there is enough to fear in our future. Thanks to NYU, I have ready access to the internet (I’m writing to you from NYU’s new “inter-faith center”: the only good idea in this place is the wifi); this morning I read a report, which I found courtesy of the New York Review of Books, that listed NYC as ranking 17th on a list of cities most at risk of serious flooding brought on by superstorms in the coming century. Kolkata and Mumbai lead the pack, which includes Bangkok, Dhaka, Shanghai, and Manila (Tokyo is at no. 19; Miami no. 9). I want to see the phrase “once-in-a-century” retired. Higher population densities, more frequent storms – each more crippling than the last, aging infrastructures, growing gaps between the wealthiest and the poor: what could possibly go wrong?


Photo: Sascha Mombartz; more photos here.