04 November 2012


I've made several attempts to write about my experience of Hurricane Sandy. Each time, I lost interest, failing to see the point. Many New Yorkers suffered terribly - and continue to suffer - because of the storm. I was not one of them. I did nothing notable, and nothing notable happened to me. And yet I had the urge to write. I wanted to preserve, if only for myself, what the past week or so has felt like. Because eventually, competitive nostalgia will take over - Hey, you couldn't shower for a few days? Let me tell you about trying to take the bus! We'll remember the thrill and excitement, not the underlying fear.

That was how I felt on Sunday the 28th, the day before it hit. Running around to prepare, the sky already overcast, the wind picking up. The storm was still a ways off, but the weather cues set off instinctive alarms. "Hurry! Find shelter! Head for the hills!" They charged the unextraordinary. Meeting a friend for brunch felt mildly dangerous. "Are you crazy? You need to buy an armful of candles and put plywood over your windows!" A voice easy to ignore; without it, though, there wouldn't be that stupid excitement, that energy I didn't know what to do with.

I had everything at my apartment settled by 4:00 or so. Monday's work was cancelled, and I assumed Tuesday would follow suit. I wondered if the two rescue cats who live in the office had enough food and water. The subways shut down at 7:00, leaving me enough time to go from my apartment in Queens to the office in Manhattan. The subway car was mostly empty when I boarded, filling up along the way. Every person became fascinating just because of the time and place: Where are you going? Why are you here? Are you prepared? The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

At the office, I fed the cats, looked over paperwork, made sure there weren't any emergencies that couldn't wait. I got back on the subway. The car happened to have more trash than usual on the floor, including an open styrofoam container of chicken wing bones. "So this is what the last days of Rome were like, eh?" We spent five or ten minutes delayed beneath Queens, waiting in a tunnel for congestion to clear up. I thought back to the 1935 Key West Death Train and pictured us drowning amidst ugly 70s decor.

When the storm arrived on Monday, I spent the whole day inside, waiting for the power to go out. It never did, not for us. The lights flickered, the wind roared. I passed the time obsessively looking at Twitter, watching Netflix, drinking rum, and catching my roommate's cold. On my computer and cell phone, I read, watched, and saw outages, surges, flooding, cranes, and emergency services personnel protecting our asses. At one point I took a shower, wondering if I should be doing that. The water pressure was unusually strong.

The next day, I woke up and ventured outside. It was still overcast and drizzling. Leaves everywhere. Branches piled up on the sidewalks. A few young trees sheared off at the trunk and lying in the street. Most businesses were open. I got a flu shot and had a coffee. That night, I ate pizza.

Wednesday: Returning to work. I woke up earlier than usual because I had to take a bus and traffic would be bad. It was worse than I thought, of course. I caught a bus without much problem, except that walking proved faster. "It could take us thirty or forty minutes to get over the bridge," the guy next to me complained, optimistically. As we approached the Queensboro, most of the passengers got off and headed into Manhattan on foot. We were all comrades in this unusual endeavor, all out to help and support each other and FUCKING BICYCLISTS WHY DON'T YOU FUCKING SLOW DOWN? It was cold and windy and crowded. My shoe came untied. I sweated, shivered, took bad pictures. The Roosevelt Island Tram was operating. Traffic next to us stopped and started. A photographer climbed over the railing for a better shot at the jam. It seemed unsafe, but wasn't actually. When I reached Manhattan, I hopped a railing myself, took cover at a corner to call home and write a smart ass tweet, then headed for Fifth Avenue. Infuriatingly, there were still tourists everywhere, freed from their hotels to block sidewalks and stop suddenly for no damn reason.

Work was low key. We followed which subway lines would open the next day and figured out how to get home. I left with two co-workers who live in the same neighborhood. It took us at least twenty minutes to snag a cab, and when we finally did the driver explained several times that he would charge us the regular fare for the first drop-off, then $10 for each additional drop-off. Except he didn't explain it that clearly, and we were in no condition to listen, so we just said "Okay" and climbed in.

The cab drove along 34th Street, toward the East River. We could look south down the avenues and see block after block without light. It was surreal and apocalyptic. Part of me wanted to jump out and explore; the adult in me said to shut up and stay put. A few blocks were without power immediately to our right. They felt haunted, with the pedestrians passing by them in no mood to linger. There were still quite a few people out and about, and once in a while we'd see one in costume and it would remind us, "Oh yeah, it's Halloween." Then we turned north and traffic became hell. We watched the same terrible bits on the television over and over. We reached the Queensboro and the traffic cleared. As we drove over, Astoria and LIC were ahead of us, ablaze in light; lower Manhattan stretched along the river behind and to our right, dark and quiet, a mass of building silhouettes with the odd light on here and there. "I hope this never happens again." I didn't think that, but I should have.

My usual subway route was open and free of charge the next two days, with red plastic tape barring the turnstiles and holding open the emergency doors. The cold I caught turned bad. NyQuil zombified me. I went only to home and work. It wasn't until Saturday that I had the chance to explore lower Manhattan, after many of the lights had come back on, and the 4, 5, and 6 trains offered an easy way down. Like most times I go into town, I went shopping - the store had signs apologizing for the lack of Internet and the resulting delay in credit card transactions - and then to the movies. I saw one knocked over tree, on Houston and Wooster at the NYU dorms; the roots exposed, the branches blocking the sidewalk, police tape around it. The movie was at the IFC Center, newly reopened. My 5:25 screening of The Loneliest Planet had only a few scattered people, most of whom kept their coats on because the room was freezing.

I tried to grab a train at Union Square to take back uptown. Numerous vans and trucks from out-of-state power companies ringed the park. For some reason the station was closed again. I couldn't find an open entrance. My gratitude toward the MTA quickly turned into my usual grumbling. Normality was on its way back.

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