Thursday, November 15, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, pt. 3


From the window you can see buses coming up Avenue A. Knowing this, she decides it is worth the effort to get to her office: no matter what else needs be done, the chance to recharge our phones is a primary concern. (What you found out later is that the time it spends searching for signals is also what drains the batteries.) You think of the clusters of people you’d seen yesterday about the generator the Irish bar on 13th had set up for people to get some cellular power and the prospect of a similar vigil leads you to agree with her. And this will also afford a trip to the Whole Foods around the corner on 57th to restock supplies. This reminds you of the semi-prophetic song “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, with the verse that ends: “I’ve got groceries/Some peanut butter/Should last a couple of days/But ain’t got no TV/Ain’t got no headphones/Ain’t got no records to play.” If they were up for a rewrite, it might be more pointed to revise: “Ain’t got no smartphone/Ain’t got no signal/Power’s dead anyways”.

A rendezvous is set up for 1PM at “a Chase bank between 53rd and—no, between 54th and 55th…” as she can’t remember her office address just then. It is only later that you will realize she didn’t give you the cross street. Morning calls also confirm that there will be another business holiday and your Brooklynite friend expresses, for the first time in history, sympathy for your plight of living in Manhattan.

To make the scheduled appointment, you have set aside an hour-and-a-half, thinking that a prudent reserve. When you get to 1st and 14th, however, you realize there is nothing prudent in anything today. As two buses approach and a third stands stalled, you see you are one of dozens, probably closer to 40 or 50 people, all swarming in on the latest arrivals, most of which are so full they can’t even open their doors to more of the horde. The bus starter the MTA has placed here is one of those veterans who know how to appeal to the better instincts of mob scenes—via the now-trademarked, long-suffering Queens—with a combination of humor, gentle persuasion and simple repetition. “Room for one more? Ok. Another? Over here. Squeeze in. Please get a little closer so we can close up. Little more. Think ‘intimate’. Bit more. Ok, close ‘em!” The mass moves in gnat clouds, trailing the buses while they roll to a stop; it reminds you of nothing so much as a those pictures of 3rd world jitneys where frustrated commuters sit on top or hang off the sides rather than wait on possible space. You hear a mother apologizing to her son for missing their opportunity at a cram-in because she was out-of-place when the window presented itself. “So, you were following another guy with a backward-turned baseball cap—LIKE I’M NOT WEARING?” Even when three arrive at once, the gaps of departures are filled before they can clear the portals by the fast and unencumbered. The helplessness on faces are as eloquent as the dispatcher’s sighs.

You drift down to 8th Street, thinking that you might upstage the later streets but find that all buses are now express and don’t even stop there. You briefly debate whether you might have better luck going down to Houston but that’s no guarantee either. You weigh the cost: you could walk down and try for a better position, or simply start now and walk up, but in the eventuality that you’d have to walk home with a full backpack... While these factors are spinning around in your head, you notice a taxi stopping about a block away to answer a hail. Words are exchanged with the driver and you can see others already inside moving over.

This was a YELLOW taxi, a fact in comparison that triggers the instant comprehension that the local economic model has changed. Today rides are a Seller’s market. The 20-something has stepped in front of you and flagged the next, and asks: “Can you take me to 73rd and Broadway?” The Indo-accented driver says: “I’m only going up to 83rd and 1st and no place else.” I hold out a twenty. “55th is fine with me,” which gets me the front jump seat. The backseat is already occupied by a waifish blonde who smiles and nods. Once we get above 23rd we pick up a guy with a Northern Euro accent—maybe scandian, who’ll settle for 59th Street—and the jam begins. But the driver is adept enough to do a bit of weaving and when he sees other driver’s taking the bus-reserved lanes, he follows suit. Pointing at the dead traffic lights, “If the lights don’t work, neither do the cameras.” Of his license plate, of course. Another part of the new economy. He says it is like this all over; it took him 3 and a half hours to just get to his garage from Queens, most of that walking. He got lucky and saw another cab from his fleet and got a lift just before he hit the TriBoro Bridge.

As is often the case, emergency situations makes everyone more liable to talk to one another. “What news?” “I heard six days.” “I was told a week.” “Well, you should probably split the difference on that one. Its like when Kirk would ask Scotty how long it would take to repair the engines this time, he gets told one number and then asks again later and its done. So he says: Chief Engineer, why is it you always tell me twice the time it will take to do the job? And Scotty says: How else will I maintain my reputation as a miracle worker?” This gets a chuckle from the backseat and even a smile from the driver, but probably more out of nervousness than recognition: none of them was born when this first aired.

Just below the UN, the snarl doubles as the driver has to make a choice between underpass and over, like it matters. But the one thing to be said about the over: you get a choice of lanes NOT to be moving in. The Euro guy can’t wait any long and asks what he owes him. He gestures vaguely at the running meter and says “Whatever.” He forks over two singles and a five, and you wish you’d waited on that twenty.

As it is, by 50th Street the clotting has become thick enough for curds and the driver says he’s going to take the FDR at the next opportunity so you can hoof it at any time. Crossing the avenue is no different than a parking lot. You wonder where anything is moving. Which is also the subject of a couple of stroller moms and a matron, and some German tourists you pass in you line of march.

When you finally figure out that the cross-street is missing, you have to say: How many Chase outlets could there be on the East side, between 54th and 55th? Well, she originally said 53rd, but made you cross that out on the envelope with the grocery list, which might be a factor. Then you have to double your immediate possible choices as it could be either side of the street. This process requires drifting into the center of every avenue to scan the storefronts for any sign of the bank logo. And there are a LOT of banks. When you find one on Park Avenue that fits the description you are certain…except that after ten minutes, the obsessive-compulsive significant other is nowhere to be seen on HER schedule. Taking a risk, you ascend from the ATM lobby to the second floor. The place is practically deserted: one or two tellers, and a couple of guys that look like desk clerks at a Marriot stand at the help island. Surprising as anything these days, they not only check the listing of branches between the specified zones but offer to call her as well! “…beep beep beep beep…” “We get a lot of line failures in this area.” Lacking anything better to do, you go back to the lobby and wait another ten minutes before trying again. This time is works. And she insists you weren’t listening when she gave you the cross street of Third Avenue. You point out to her that, according to your new best buddies at this branch, there IS NO Chase on Third between 54th and 55th. “56th” she says, as if this will explain YOUR mistake.

While waiting in the ATM lobby of 56th and Third, you notice all of the people who sit on the floor to use the outlets to recharge their phones, and the steady stream of a new person coming in every minute or so to use the branch facilities only to jerk on the door handle and read the sign about being closed due to the emergency. All that is offered is money and power: the latter being, if only for this moment, of equal worth…and free.

Your only quick study of shopping at Whole Foods on 57th is that, among the perishables,, you get one of the last three romaine lettuce heads. And that they have no more dinner candles. It comes as no surprise but only induces that buy of a small superlumens hand flash at the Duane Reade. Along with extra batteries.

The singular delight of getting on the M-15 and beating the mad scramble is to find seats still open. Catching an older fellow’s eye, neither can resist silently congratulating the other for such a coup. On the ride down—much quicker now, which you also realize applies to anything further from the river—you make phone calls and try to avoid the envious stars of the SRO crowd, none of whom appear pregnant, wounded, infirm or otherwise unable to handle their burdens which are no more than yours. Exiting at 14th you become more and more aware of the solos and couples all heading in the opposite direction. As you pass by the Stuyvesant residential police you can hear them ordering up additional security details to watch over the vacated buildings.

At home you realize it is time to abandon all hope that the fridge will do anything but keep stuff warm and transfer every item within, along with today’s purchases, out to a large metal-lined tea-box you’ve maneuvered out to the fire escape. The daytime temperature is listed in the paper as 56 degrees, but the night will be 39—no different than the deli case at the grocer’s. Enough to keep the water cool, the veggies crisp and the dairy from spoiling too fast. As you stow the precious commodities out in the air, 30 feet above the street, you look to see if anyone else has thought of this simple solution. No other fire escape appears to be used as a cooler. And still the rolling stock of caddy-people head west.

“The Hunger Games” has begun to become something of a disappointment. The text o the second book, “Catching Fire”, spends so much of its time recapitulating the events, emotional relationships and attendant histories, peak experiences, descriptions of outfits, meals, etc., of the first book that the actual range of activities is limited to a very few scenes of brief passion, snap judgments, split decisions and sudden revelations that have been so thoroughly telegraphed in advance you’d think it coded for transmission by Western Union. You can’t be sure whether the author used a template, a cookie cutter or a Chinese menu (one from column A, one from column b, one from column C, etc.) as her structure, unless this is some new form of app that creates genre novels for the historically uninformed.

Your first nightfall without her is when it hits you: there are dramatically less windows candlelit than even yesterday. The East Village is becoming depopulated as Stuyvesant. Then there is the choice to be made whether to light one candle  or just prepare dinner by flashlight. Not for the first time in days have you thought about your lifestyle” Amish, by all intents and appearances. You think of the strange attraction of the illuminated Vermeer-like scenes of the farmhouse in “Witness”; how even someone as cosmopolitan as John Book could feel drawn to the simple acts of uncomplicated labor—carpentry to milking. You feel it even more as you notice how quiet and immediate the conversation over meals has become. Very little opinion offered about the upcoming elections, or abstract thoughts about anything, except doing chores, tasks, maintenance of facilities. This is what they called “plain”—not with any form of pride but acknowledgment of accomplishment. This is what it means to reduce media down to a few hours of mp3’s drain on the iPods and even less of mp4’s on the iPads.

No comments: