The Saturday night before Irene

by Nicole Gelinas

Midtown Manhattan was quiet today. Tourist sites, including the Rockefeller Center observation deck and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), were closed. MoMA was gated up and looked pretty well secured. By mid-afternoon, Rockefeller Center had pulled out the tall summer palm trees in its Channel Gardens — apparently not rooted deeply enough to withstand a big storm — and stacked them horizontally. 

Tourists still milled about Rockefeller Center and walked Fifth Avenue early this afternoon (on the outside), although far fewer of them than on a usual late-summer weekend, even a gloomy one. Most, if not all, were European and Asian. Domestic tourists may have been paying more attention to our weather earlier this week, have had vacations of shorter duration (meaning the old batch went out, and the new batch has stayed away), and /or had an easier time getting out of town early. All flight departures from New York’s three airports stopped early this afternoon.

The international tourists who are left had little to do but look at buildings from the outside. Flagship Fifth Avenue retailers (including Saks) were closed. The Starbucks(es?) were closed all day (all of them), as were the retailers to which the Europeans flock to escape their VAT: Juicy Couture, H&M, Banana Republic, Hollister, the Gap, etc.

Most Duane Reades were closed. Godiva was closed.

Despite the popular notion that bars stay open during a hurricane, most Eighth Avenue bars looked closed for the weekend, as did the wine & spirits stores. The bars with outdoor tables have brought everything inside, like an early winter. 

The closures are not due to immediate weather. It was rainy today, and hot, but that’s about it. Rather, stores were closed because the subways and buses are closed. With no transit, most businesses have no work force. It feels like the transit strike of winter 2005, if about 45 degrees (F) warmer and wetter. 

Supermarkets were busy mid-morning and in the early afternoon. By 2pm or so, the Food Emporium at 49th Street and 8th Avenue was clear out of the stuff — water, crackers, baby formula, and canned goods — that people would want to have around in a storm. Customers — mostly the European tourists, probably staying at the Hilton across the street — were stuck buying potato chips and beer. (Maybe that’s what they had had in mind in the first place.) Lines were backed up to the end of the aisles, with a skeleton workforce having to serve more customers. The big stores, including the Food Emporium, closed up for the rest of the weekend starting around 4pm or so.

And it’s getting a little bit windy! Few people are walking the streets right now — more like 3am on a rainy Saturday into Sunday, rather than 9pm on Saturday.