Autumn — Then & Now

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©Jeff Horner

 

Then:

It’s Autumn. The air cools down, especially at night, the cool dry air bringing with it memories of football games, sweatshirts, cold noses and the coming holidays. Blankets are pulled up close in the dark when everyone sleeps. The leaves on the trees turn beautiful colors, and then they fall to the ground.

It’s an annual ritual. Families gather outdoors in long pants and jackets, maybe gloves, each with a rake in hand. Everyone takes a section, and then they begin to rake the leaves into piles. Slow work at first, but eventually progress is made, the lawn is cleared, and the piles are packed into bags or — if you’re lucky! — piled into special chimneys for burning.

Everyone’s cheeks are rosy from the afternoon’s exercise, their posture erect, their muscles flush. They’re ready to head inside and make some dinner! The air is filled with the smell of sweet smoke from fireplaces, of earth uncovered and of grass still green, of leaves and of cool fresh air.

Now:

It’s Autumn. The air cools down, especially at night, the cool dry air bringing with it memories of football games, sweatshirts, cold noses, and the coming holidays. The heat is turned up using an App on a Smartphone, connected by WiFi to the thermostat on the wall three feet away. The leaves on the trees turn beautiful colors, and then they fall to the ground.

It’s an annual ritual. Families gather in front of their individual devices in different rooms of the house. Members of ethnic minorities employed by lawn services tumble out of old trucks, wearing matching logo’ed coats. They strap large gasoline-powered blowing machines to their backs, start them up with a jarring tug, and begin to walk slowly across the strangers’ lawn, shoulders round and sloped, backs stooped, their ears covered with plastic “hearing protection” mandated by years of crossfire litigation. Slowly the leaves are corralled into piles. The sounds of their machines reach for miles — literally for miles — and the mingling of one machine’s whine with another’s does nothing to soften their effect on the entire neighborhood.

The family, inside, oblivious to anything that’s going on outdoors, orders a pizza with cheese in the crust, cheese on the top, and then more crust with sauce as a “side.” To quench their unearned thirst, they drink liquified sugar. The air is filled with the smell of internal combustion engines burning gasoline.

Manhattan After Sandy — 10/31/12

NY1

© Jeff Horner

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.”

NY2

© Jeff Horner

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.

NY3

© Jeff Horner

Living in the Woods

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© Jeff Horner

 

He walked and walked and walked in the amniotic moonlight. Emerging from the woods, he came upon six houses, each with a television inside, each with an air conditioner screaming in the night.

So he took the moonlight, and the fireflies, and the owlsounds, and the frognoise, and went back into the woods where it was peaceful, and went home.

At the Gym

So I’m at the gym, doing my regular gym thing (gymitty-gym, gymitty-gym). Moving to the treadmill, I zoned out watching a baseball game. About 15 minutes later, a woman straight out of the Jane Fonda ’80s walked to a machine, wearing new shoes, tight peach-colored shorts, a blousy multi-colored shirt of sorts, and an actual matching headband. I expected her to sport a single long feather earring as well, so 1983 was she.

Eventually I turned my attention back to the game and my own cardio. But a few minutes later, all attention was drawn back to Sheena Easton, who was obviously unfamiliar with the machine, probably with treadmills in general. She had amped it up past walking speed, and was attempting to keep up with a sort of ungainly trot. Confused, she kept her thumb pressed on the “Increase Speed” button, and her trot turned into a desperate, flat-footed run. “Wam-wam-wam-wam-wam-wam-wam!” went her new tennies on the treadmill, until finally she volunteered a short of embarrassed “help”. No one responded, so she shouted “HELP!!”. A number of us began to move towards her, calling instructions as we approached. “Hit the BIG RED STOP BUTTON!!” I shouted, and someone else said “Just step off to the side!”. Not knowing what the heck either of us were talking about, though, she stumbled, and then she went DOWN.

I mean, her feet flew up behind her, she stared briefly at the ground from a horizontal position, and then hit the treadmill nearly face-first. Since the thing was running at full speed, it immediately threw her back and off, her feet hitting the padded wall behind her. Friends, she hit that wall so hard that it actually knocked her pants down. All the way down.

She ended up being fine, a little bruised and hugely embarrassed. The medics came, an assistant helped her with her shorts, the crowd dispersed. Since I knew she was fine after all, I have to confess I laughed long and hard all the way home. Let’s be careful out there.

Choose Something Like A Star by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Choose Something Like A Star
BY ROBERT FROST
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud-
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use Language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.