Just got back from a last foray into Lower Manhattan. It’s so otherworldly down there, a classic case of “life imitating art.” I think it would be the more beautiful if it weren’t so tragic, or at least so emblematic of tragedy.
I’ve been down there the last three nights, taking a different route each time. Never, have I seen so many stars in the New York sky. Each time the dead traffic signals begin around 33rd Street or so, until you realize the Avenues are still lit but the cross streets are wholly dark, both street and building. At first it’s odd to find yourself among others who automatically stop at crossing signals (if anyone in NY ever actually stops for them) that are cold dead. Down to 23rd Street there is intermittent light, but below that the whole area is dark, dark, dark. Yet everywhere – everywhere, without exception – there are people. Sometimes it’s an individual approaching and passing you by, other times it’s a group of people at a dark corner.
The first night after the hurricane, Tuesday night, cars were still allowed on the road unqualified, and the cars combined with the taxis and the squad cars made for ridiculous road traffic, the headlights the only source of light. Restaurants and delis had their doors and windows open and were selling their food on the street, for reduced prices or for free, trying to get rid of it that first 24 hours before it started to go bad. As I sank below 14th Street, two separate groups approached me and asked me if I was “from the light,” which added to the sci-fi movie feeling. “When does the light begin,” asked another, people floating up to where they’d heard there was still power. I was repeatedly struck by the feeling that I was sinking underwater, in a sense, the further down Manhattan I walked. The light from “above” faded quickly, and there was no moon that first night. People were illuminated either by their cell phones or by little LED flashlights, which appeared for all the world like those impossibly deep and invisible sea creatures who carry their own small, eerie light source with them, surrounded by black.I had stopped to help as a volunteer in Union Square at first, but after the first hour I broke away and explored the dark on my own. Here traffic thinned on the Avenues, and on the cross streets there were blocks with no street traffic at all, each with the occasional quiet pedestrian or group, making their way some place or another. Each night – even last night, Halloween – I noticed how quiet it was. No reveling, no screaming punks, no shouting across the streets. It was just the entire of Lower Manhattan, walking slowly and talking quietly among themselves.The smell was continual, and it wasn’t bad, at least not at that point. There was the smell of the earth and of earthworms, of boxwood and of the occasional fireplace fire from some of the older buildings and restaurants, and the almost out-of-place smell of freshly-split wood, coming from fallen limbs and downed branches everywhere. I had the sense that I had really moved back in time, trite as it sounds, and that I was standing on the very streets of Manhattan in 1912, or in 1882, or such. There was the utter nighttime darkness, the quiet foot traffic in front of brownstones on the street, and the flickering of candlelight, be it directly in the windows or deep inside the rooms, emanating orange and dim. All that was really missing was the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone and the illusion would have been complete. Floating on my lips was the quiet phrase that I later heard coming from so many mouths, quietly: “So weird.”
I made my way over to the Lower East Side to check on the relative of a friend, and by then the loss of power must have been affecting cell tower or repeaters, because phone service was nonexistent. Also, normally anywhere in New York, when you browse for nearby Wi-Fi networks you get a long list, but now there were none at all. It was the same everywhere, east side and west. A few hours later I decided to head back up into the light, but I went back last night with a camera. I had no tripod, so I was reduced to using the pointed tips of wrought-iron fence posts, parked cars, bicycles or garbage cans, or sometimes trying to stand impossibly still for the exposure, but I was never really able to get a proper nighttime shot of the dead landmarks normally blazing with light. One of my favorite buildings in New York is the Met Life tower, an enormous stone building with a huge clock on each face standing at 23rd and Lex, and is normally almost blinding in the night sky over Madison Square Park, shining bone-white in the night. It’s a ghost in the darkness now, lit last night at least by the waning moon above. I went back briefly again tonight, ostensibly my last night in New York, just to experience it again.
But I and so many others up here are so fortunate not to have lost more than some time to Sandy and her aftermath. I’ve met many people up here who have simply checked in to a hotel as a group, briefly, to shower and charge their phones, or to come to their Midtown offices to work before going home to the dark. They’re scared. The first night held an excitement and a relief that physical damage in Manhattan wasn’t any worse, and a sense that we had all experienced something historic together. Last night was Halloween, and the first break in the clouds. By tonight, the novelty is beginning to wear off. I’ll be glad finally to get on a plane tomorrow, and to wonder from the sky how long it’ll take before anything like normal returns here.