Saturday, November 3, 2012

Life with Sandy Frankenstorm

Eight days ago I got stuck for a few minutes on the Charles river at sunset. The "T," as the subway is known in Boston, had to stop on its way from Harvard to the station where I'd be meeting a cousin for the first time in years. Apparently there was a sick passenger ahead. Not so great for the sick passenger, pretty nice for me as I watched the view.

I didn't realize it then, but this was going to be a theme for the next few days.

I hadn't really known anything about Hurricane Sandy, or Frankenstorm as people were calling it, until I was on my way back to New York Sunday morning. I figured it was going to be another Irene-- all bark and no bite. But the I found out that they were closing the subway that night at 7pm. So I started making arrangements from my bus back to Chinatown. By the time I had crossed from Massachusetts into Connecticut, I had preliminary arrangements with my students to arrange their sessions as conditions developed, and a plan with my girlfriend to camp out at her place in Park Slope for the storm. I made sure I could bring my bicycle, just in case.

After I got home, I rushed to unpack one bag to pack my big backpack (same one I use as my only bag on international travel), meet with a neighbor for a quick GRE study session, pick up a couple gallons of water, then ride my bike to the subway. I got into a position where I could hold the bag, the bike and myself upright for about an hour and rode it out to Brooklyn. Then I hauled everything to street level, got some cash from an ATM, and pedaled to Kendra's.

I'd be misleading you if I described the next few days in terms of a young couple huddled in a small space in a hurricane. Picture and guy with his girlfriend who don't see each other enough finally getting some quality time, stocked up with lots of good food, DVDs and a Netflix account. If it were still raining and we still didn't have to go to work. we might still be there now. All we saw out the window was some wind and rain. The lights flickered a few times. That was it. We starting joking to each other that it was the "best hurricane ever."

We stopped making those jokes on Tuesday. Not because of us; the internet had cut out, but we were still having a great time. It was when we started looking at the news headlines and pictures on my phone. Staten Island, Red Hook, the Lower East Side, flooded. A Rockaway town called Breezy Point in smoldering ruins. The lower third of Manhattan without power. All seven subway tunnels under the East River out of commission, at least one filled with water from track to ceiling.

We spent another couple days in Brooklyn, me waiting as each of my students canceled their appointments, one by one. They didn't have school. One was without power in Tribeca. Another was without power in New Jersey and with a tree fallen across their driveway.

So I stayed in Brooklyn through Halloween. Went to Barnes and Noble where I studied for the GRE, and Kendra edited one of her author's manuscripts. We stopped by a cell phone store to check something for her, and then and checked out the biggest fallen tree in the neighborhood (apparently some teen there stepped out of her house with a friend, looked at the small crowd of onlookers taking pictures, rolled her eyes and told her friend "It's been like this all day.")

Halloween night we picked our way among sugar-loaded, three-foot, creatures rocketing around the streets to eat homemade apple caramels and cake, and watch Hocus Pocus with a half dozen of gay male friends (the token straight couple has to be there somewhere, right?).

So it was Thursday that I finally decided to head home. Friday was my GRE, and I had a couple students in Manhattan who wanted to meet up. So I got my stuff, said goodbye to my girlfriend, and brought my bike and somewhat lightened bag to the newly running, fare-free subway line.

It got me as far as the Brooklyn side of Brooklyn Bridge. I had no idea what I was going to find on the other side. What was flooded? What had power? Would it be gridlocked, or empty of cars entirely? I biked towards the bridge's bike path and saw bikes coming over in the other direction. I hailed a group of them and asked what things were like on the other side. It became clear quickly that they were French tourists and didn't understand what I was asking. A good sign-- if tourists are biking around, it can't be that bad on the other side.

Sure enough, when I hit downtown Manhattan for the first time in a week, everything was dry, and the traffic was light. It was also a bit confused. No electricity anywhere, and therefore no traffic lights. Police in neon vests were directing traffic at almost every intersection.

It was like being on a fairground after it had closed. You're so used to seeing everything in operation that the absence of any people and open shops feels eerie. I could hear generators and cars around, but I've never seen Chinatown or SoHo that quiet. I rode up to Bleecker and Houston and the only traffic was a dude in the middle of the street dragging a shopping cart.

At Union Square I saw a line of about forty people near a small truck. On the back of the truck was a cardboard sign advertising a place to recharge your cell phone. I biked up Park avenue and started seeing military vehicles parked along the streets.

I took a picture at 39th st, the line where power was and was not working. In the foreground, traffic lights that weren't working. In the background, traffic lights that were, and traffic to go with them.

By 50th street, it was completely gridlocked. by 59th it was back to a normal day in New York.

My apartment had power and internet. Several things in my fridge had gone bad. Everything else was fine. I saw two of my students, one a little earlier than usual. He lives somewhere with what normally has a view of the whole island south of 50th st. But in the dark that night, it looked like the city stopped existing about twenty blocks away. Everything was black except the freedom tower construction in the distance.

After taking the GREs yesterday and recovering with some friends in a postage stamp sized Hells Kitchen apartment, over wine, food, conversation and a little live music, I've come back and started figuring out what to do next. I'm listening to a lot of local public radio, hearing stories about what happened, what's happening, and what will happen here. I've signed up to volunteer with relief efforts with the city and with the organization New York Cares. There's essentially a waiting list for opportunities, that many people want to help out.

I don't have an ending to the story. Maybe I'll have one for you soon. We're still recovering.

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