Friday, November 9, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, pt. 1


The problem with symbolism is that the more you read into something, the more of it shows up begging for your attention.

I wanted something to take my mind off the election, and, for my sins, I got. It was served up on a silver platter, complete with garnish, trimmings and even a dipping sauce—one of confusion, growing dread and moody references to an apocalypse, and one, if not already now then pretty close to here.

To express the strange, ominous approach of Sandy is to reference less of Rod Serling and more of David Lynch. Like “Blue Velvet”, the mask of normalcy hid beneath it a disaster of epic proportion, yet, from outward appearances, you’d have to wonder what all the fuss was about. The Sunday shutdown of the subway for a storm that wouldn’t be arriving until Monday? Even Irene didn’t go that far. Of course, the obligatory panic-buying spree at the Associated didn’t help, nor the constant features showing lines outside of Trader Joe’s outlets, carts full of bottled water crates, still done up in shrinkwrap. But this was all old hat. Every time a big blizzard or nor’easter comes along people do the same things. What then had us joining the milling throngs at the supermarket queues? Presentment, or merely wanting to participate in the fearfest? Whichever, one is always thankful for the innate politeness of fellow shoppers at such times. No one descended into the base instinct until the last loaf left the shelf; no one cuts the checkout line…at least not until it comes to something more important than food—like gasoline. The paranoia then comes upon entering the streets and recognizing that you share the exact same attitude as everyone else, all out on the exact same mission: either traveling to it, increasing the pace of steps from deliberate to hasty, or strolling back from, now with micropore plastic sacks dangling from fists. Then, every slight dapple of wet on the wind, every breeze that rises up enough to rustle the dead leaves, send a cold chill down the spine, and—even with some hours to go before the scheduled shut-down of the transportation system—contributes to her shrill warnings that has you cancel a planned attendance at a housewarming party up top at Inwood. “That’s fine for a Sunday excursion but what if you can’t get back?” is the summary argument.

Still, the inescapable logic of your position can’t counter the dire predictions on every channel which crawls up her intuition in tendrils of dread, wrapping around every impulse, fed by every report. When, by Monday afternoon, there is nothing on any of the major networks but ‘Eyewitnesses’, ‘Trackers’, or ‘Our Channel __ Storm Team’, etc. This is when the details begin to emerge from the background noise of babble from these mike-wielding cassandras in weatherproof logos: high tide…full moon…backend surge simultaneous… This becomes less a matter of sensationalist storymongering and more one of Arithmetic: one plus one plus one, subtract nothing. That’s also when the anchors—who yesterday were teasing their co-chairs with labels like “Hurri-ween”, “Hallo-cane” and such variants—cease all banter and stick to the service advisories and weather bulletins, noting such obscuranta as the millibars of pressure being at the lowest recorded for an eye.

The beaches of Virginia and South Carolina we’ve seen churned up countless times before; you could almost run a loop of library footage and it would be the same. New Jersey, is another matter. Now even the AC casinos are closed—first time in…who knows? since 9/11?—and this is the upper Atlantic seaboard, an area abandoned after Labor Day. This may be from the tropical waters of the blue-green Caribbean but you couldn’t tell from the footage. Its surf, never more than a clear brown in sunny June, is the same dirty grey as the sky; and roiling—nothing to suggest its preternaturally calm demeanor.

And New York? It can’t happen here…

And for so long, it doesn’t. We seal up the sidewalk vent to the basement, set out cardboard and duct tape in the hall in case of broken windows, make sure the stairwell is cleared in the event of a quick evacuation—all the things good coop owners are supposed to do. And then…

Stay tuned for further updates.

And that is all you get. One shows the water at Battery Park, already up to the railings, railings you have stood at so often to watch the sunset over Lady Liberty and Hoboken, railings that you have never seen nearer to the harbor than six feet below, now getting a dribble of bay through their gratings.

You wait for the rising wind to howl and shriek with banshee terror wails. You wait for the droplets to become splatters to transform into sheeting rain, to arrive sideways with debris clouds picked up from street litter. You wait. And then, the curiosity gets the better of you, and you go out. It still feels like any other October evening, more September, despite the fallen leaves. Inexorably, it seems, you, like many other Apostles of Doom, you Doubting Thomases are drawn to the source of all their dire predictions: the East River.

To one who knows it intimately, it is a tranquil, even placid body, rippling only when a tanker, speedboat or sail craft comes along. Most of the time, you can judge it best by how much of the tiny spit of sand and concrete and wooden posts—the remains of a pier and ancient water main about six feet down, extending out 15 feet or so—is covered by the waves, and how much is covered by gulls, pigeons and the occasional cormorant. That the redevelopment of the area, from the Con Ed plant at 15th to the south to the ritzy Water Club up at 24th north, into the new park kept this tiny bit of unreconstructed nature adds an endless charm to the whole; a diamond in the rough. You always call it “the beach”.

And it is gone. No, there is still just the barest top of a slab showing, looking more like something seen off Newfoundland or the Norway maelstrom than anything you’d recognize. Where did this raging torrent come from? This is New York Harbor chop on a very bad day, but a half mile north and six feet higher than you’d ever seen before. Having spent the previous weekend in Easton, PA on the campaign canvass, you’d talk to Dave, your driver, and had exchanges with the locals who answer your knock on College Hill, and each and all confirm that the lazy-looking Delaware, snaking along some 40 feet below your march, will certainly rise up like one of Poseidon’s chariot-shell sea monsters, and inundate all the environs you cross before heading into your district walk. It becomes easy then to envision the ancient’s myth of Leviathan. And the Christians too: once Doubting Thomas was offered a chance to put his fingers into the stigmata, and his hand in the spear wound, he too believed Jesus had risen.

Once you have seen the river like this—four hours before high tide—you know that whatever happens, it WILL happen. When you get home, there is no more talk about ignoring the warnings. When the word comes that Zone 1 is to be evacuated, you have the mild relief of knowing it stops one block away at Avenue B. This probably defines “cold comfort” for the families living in the projects on D and C. No one wants to become a displaced person (“DP” in WWII-speak), or worse—a refugee. So you count yourself lucky.

So it is the most awful cliché you can think of that comes to mind. The windows are open with screen in for an almost balmy evening. The bar-hopper-murmur as they sashay up and down Avenue A. The way the sky is dark, but threatening neither torrent nor tornado. This is the way is should be for the Wednesday parade or ghosts, goblins, ghouls and anything conceived in the imagination of costume designers up to and including plastic injection molding. But the only thing that comes to mind is: “Yes, It’s Quiet…Too Quiet.”

She has a sudden desire to make a crock of rice, reason being that the yield is near 6-to-8 balls which make hand-dandy microwavable meals out of the freezer. Now you realize that the self-induced panic of yesterday has come full circle; this is practical planning-she has entered the stage of a siege mentality. She then orders all the cooking pots to be filled as she does the same with the bath (from memories of the Fukushima tsunami). You dig up an old pocket flashlight and find that it still works with new batteries as she pulls out the few remaining table candles as you put the votary—purchased at a bodega on the walk back from Leviathan—right at the corner of the bathroom sink with a box of matches inside: easy to find and light by knowing an exact location in advance.

She’s cooking when the call comes in from your lesbian friends, ex-Manhattanites—in Florida, asking if we’re prepared. “You know what I miss most? (Shirl says, about losing power) I can’t have my morning coffee.” That’s when you call her in to take the phone while you stir the beef-&-squash combo in the wok. And grind some coffee beans.

At this point there is nothing else to do so you get on with whatever you were doing, most of which involves computer, DVD burners, TiVO lists, etc. Where choice is a matter, one does other things. Dinner would normally be at eight, but the rice delays the schedule. What you’ve been told is that high tide is between 8 and 9 PM, and that’s when you catch the eyewitness report of NY1 reporter Dean Meminger watching waves go past his front porch in Far Rockaways, much more subdued than the confident, assured newscaster doing stand-ups at fairs to crime scenes and the general gamut of any on-air personality. His normally unctuous tones are now unmodulated and candid. “No one here has ever seen anything like this.” You stare at what he stares at and wonder when you’re going to receive a piece of that action. You’ve done everything to prepare for it. Which way is it going to come?

And that’s when the lights dim for the first time. You recognize this from the blackout of 2003, and a few more recent summer brownouts. The voltage drops so precipitiously you can only stare at the bulb and try to will it back to brightness again. And it does! It is 8:30PM, more or less.

Then you hear the first explosions, to the east. “What was that?” “Transformers, I think.” More of a bang, really. And then some pops. The MSNBC guy is now saying the three steps from the Battery Plaza War memorial have been lapped. Then comes a few fireworks: roman candles, ladyfingers and whistlers. “What was that?” “New Yorkers.” Then comes another bang, one that is more of an explosion.

And the lights dim again. And then glow brighter.

Then black.

It is about 8:45PM, you guess, but since you can’t see the battery-powered travel alarm you use—and every other LED readout device is dead—you don’t know. But you have other things on your mind.

You head straight for the votary candle and the briefest funny flits across your brainpan: Oh, so who are you praying for? And… “Did you move the candle in the bathroom?” “Yes. I put it so it wouldn’t fall.” Marvelous. And no time for an argument. The flash finds it soon enough.

“Let’s have dinner.” A couple of espresso saucers from the never-used set make excellent set-ups with a few drops of wax as an anchor. But, before you sup, like all Doubting Thomases, you have to look out the window. We all do. The first flickerings of light dance on panes and ceilings across the street, people hanging off of eaves wave flashes. All the streetlights are out; now is the time for good manners and courtesy in all traffic situations. Dinner by candlelight isn’t romantic, under these conditions, but it is alright to pretend it was her idea.. Afterwards, you wash up as fast as you can before the hotwater goes. Nothing saps morale as fast as possible as floor clutter and dirty dishes in the dark: you’ll never know where the smells are coming from and if any little visitors might now be enjoying the atmosphere’s natural concealment assets.

Still, the night is still. The bar downstairs is rolling down its metal shutters. The Avenue A strollers thin to a trickle and evaporate. Only headlights show up and pass by. No rain, no wind. Only the dark. And now the quiet. No booming cars stereos. No sirens, yet. Just as black and peaceful as a country home in the woods. Curiosity overcomes you and what you see as a chance to get a perspective on history she sees as an opportunity to get blown off the roof” “Do what you want, I’m not coming with you.” Rather than advise that THERE IS NO WIND, you go the two flights up and find things even eerier. The odd gust, but nothing looks like it does on TV. The major observations: the white sky of Manhattan to the north; the roseate blush of Brooklyn to the east…and a high-rise on the Hudson with a white belt around its middle. And everything else as much as nature made it. And made it again.

She does consent to walk east, however, and as you exit, the neighbor across the hall evinces an interest in the same. While you two have thrown on windbreakers, he is still in t-shirt. It is that kind of air. Some people are still on the sidewalks but just as many join you in the center –of-the-street march towards Avenue C. And everyone is in silhouette.

Past B, you can already see the light shining from the headlamps of this SUV-type vehicle attempting to probe the depths. As soon as you arrive at water’s-edge, the car begins backing out. Storm drains never back up like this and you know the power plant is flooded.

Home to evening tea and cookies, she starts making shadow puppets, as if discovering something in a single candle not often found in an incandescent bulb. Pictures on a wall. In bed, the iPad options are offered: the 1960s Astroboy cartoons, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire d’Cinema or the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure. She opts for recent history, the hit show set around a Jewish Columbia med grad, forced by special student loans, into indentured servitude for 4 years to the town of Cicely, Alaska. This episode is “Northern Hospitality” wherein the local psuedo-ditz bombshell, Shelly, now a new mother to the daughter with her common-law hubbie Hollings—proprietor of the Brick, the only diner/bar in town—has had vague stirrings of national pride in her Canadian identity and becomes annoyed at the prospect of American Exceptionalism (more or less). The second version of the title involves Joel, the doctor, being shamed as a “schnorer” and, attempting to and failing to give a decent dinner party due to his standard niggling, fressing and overall schlemiel attitude.

Neither of you make it to the end of the 43 minutes. Darkness prevails.

1 comment:

Eddie Marianukroh said...


I'm happy to read that you and your wife are safe. Reading this post, it allows me a better understanding of another person's perspective during the time span of the hurricane slowly making its entrance up to the point where its power fully hits. I hope that everyone in the office, as well as the people in the area, are safe and made it through okay.

An interesting topic in this day and age though is the idea of how people adapt once they lose electricity for an extended period of time. I feel that a vast majority of people that lose power due whatever kind of reason almost have a tough time finding ways to fulfill certain necessities, as well as to occupy themselves due to the fact that we have become so dependent on electricity. In a way, I feel like it snaps an individual back to reality and makes them say to themselves:

"Jeez... what do I do now? Whoa... what is this weird thing filled with... uhh... paper? I think it's... it's called a book?"

There is one aspect I do find inspiring though after mother nature has its outbursts: the response and global support. So many people coming together to help out in this time of need really gives a sense of hope.

Take care.

- EM