New York City — It is the best of towns. It is the worst of towns.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers are living a tale of two cities. Above 40th Street, the 21st century marches on. The sidewalks teem with tourists, writers, and financiers as usual. ATMs dispense cash, just as they should. And restaurants are packed, even though interruptions in produce deliveries led the Capital Grille on East 42nd Street to serve steaks on Wednesday night with few vegetables to accompany them — lettuce was scarce, and even baked potatoes ran out. Apart from that, life seems largely normal in the upper two-thirds of Manhattan.
But walk south just three blocks from 42nd Street at night, and a veritable black curtain descends. From 39th Street to the Battery at Manhattan’s southern tip, this metropolis recalls the 19th century. For block after block after block, stores are shuttered. ATMs won’t accept customers’ plastic cards, their touch screens blank like disabled TV sets. From town houses to high-rise apartments, residential buildings are pitch-black, save for the occasional candle or flashlight beam that escapes onto the inky streets below.
Diligent members of the NYPD, some wearing white gloves, direct what little traffic there is. In some intersections, they have placed highway hazard flares. While those illuminate the scene, they also heighten the sense of emergency and add an eerie reddish glow that lasts for a few hundred yards. And then, once again, the blackness swallows everything in every direction.
Without the usual lumens from streetlights, window displays, and billboards, it’s impossible to make out the faces of strangers as they walk by. Are they friendly? Hostile? Criminal? There is no way to know, which turns a simple evening walk into something truly frightful. After about eight blocks along Third Avenue, I finally stop wondering when someone might lunge out at me from a shadowy doorway. Instead, I hop in a cab and head home.
On Park Avenue South, it looks like the end of the world. Virtually no one walks along this street, which normally stays busy around the clock. One block after another is pitch black, and looks as if a yellow-fever epidemic had evacuated America’s largest city.
“I picked up a passenger who said he had a knife,” my cabbie, a native of Nepal, tells me. “He said he wanted to make sure he stayed safe.”
Arriving at home, a couple of people pace briskly through my part of the East Village, a neighborhood constantly traversed by young people, revelers, tattooed eccentrics, and others who mutter to themselves. The 24-hour Best Buy, Walgreens, and Duane Reade on 14th Street — always busy — now are empty and dark.
Up a black staircase, my small key-chain flashlight finally helps bring me to my apartment. No lights. No phone. No Fox News Channel. No Internet.
I do have a refrigerator full of food that grows warmer by the day. The water runs, although with low pressure.
And it’s cold. Both the steam and electricity that power my building’s collective heat are knocked out. My electric space heater, of course, is useless, too. The gas does work, so it helps a bit to fill pots of water, crank the burners, and fill the place with hot-water vapor. Beyond that, sleeping in a cold apartment means lots of blankets, sweaters, sweat pants, and the comfort of knowing that I have a bed when other people have lost their homes — or worse — to Sandy.
On Monday night, the darkness began as abruptly as thi
I was tapping away on my computer at about 8:35 p.m. The lights dimmed a little, no surprise. The wind was whipping outside — about half an hour after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Jersey Shore. While there was surprisingly little rain outside, the trees swayed like mad, and metal fixtures from the nearby Hyatt Union Square, still under construction, occasionally blew off of the building and crashed loudly onto the street below.
About 8:40, everything went dark all at once. Until my eyes adjusted, it was as if someone had put a black bag over my head. Also startling was the sudden silence — the TV had died, along with the riveting news reports on the storm’s progress.
I looked outside and saw that all the other buildings in the area were black, too. Within seconds, I could see my neighbors clicking on their flashlights in apartments across the street.
Evidently, flood water soaked a Consolidated Edison plant on 14th Street and the East River. Its equipment exploded, plunging this entire area into darkness.
About 15 minutes later, with winds gusting in truly disturbing fashion, I heard a massive crash. It sounded as if a tree limb smashed through a window, or perhaps a car ran out of control and smacked into a store front. I later saw that the wind blew down the awning at the always comfortable Think Coffee. Along with it came the shop’s metal gate, along with its mechanism and housing. The next morning, all of this was on the sidewalk below.
Throughout the night, the NYPD assigned police cars to stand guard every few intersections. They remained stationery and turned on their emergency displays. These veritable night lights offered reassurance on a very scary evening. The police officers who remained in those vehicles deserve massive credit and gratitude. Flying debris could have injured or killed any one of these among New York’s Finest.
The next morning, with the winds still whipping briskly, I walked around to find tree branches down, a few trees totally knocked over, and — oddly — something that appeared to be the large, conical cover of a water tank. A little wider and taller than a patio umbrella, it rested a few inches away from the gutter.
“It’s a teepee,” one man suggested.
Almost every store was out of commission. A high-end deli called Bread and Butter in Gramercy Park was open. Consequently, a Soviet-style line of people patiently waited to enter.
Two days later, the picture had not improved very much.
Pie by the Pound — where patrons buy excellent pizza by weight, in rectangular slices of whatever size they want — is open on Fourth Avenue, but only so its usually cheerful owner can discard his stocks of now-spoiled cheese, dough, drinks, and other supplies. Unfortunately, his latest delivery of ingredients arrived just before the storm.
Most places in the East Village remain closed, as I stroll through my community at about noon on Thursday.
The Cooper Station Post Office is locked, as it had been since Monday. One postal worker is in a truck just outside.
“All the post offices above 40th street are open and delivering mail,” the postman says. “But down here, until power returns, we’re staying shut.”
Bars, restaurants, and stores that normally overflow with patrons instead have their doors closed. A few are braced with sandbags (never needed, as it did not flood here). Many use notes in their doors to apologize for being closed and promise to reopen as soon as the juice flows.
St. Mark’s Place, arguably Manhattan’s liveliest street and the undisputed tattoo and piercing capital of the Western Hemisphere, is dead. One newsstand on the corner of Third Avenue is open and operates by candle light. A pizzeria across the street is up and running, too. Otherwise, the Japanese and Thai restaurants, souvenir stands, and places that stick decorative metal into flesh all stand idle.
Around the corner on East 7th Street, the doors are closed at McSorley’s Old Ale House, which has operated continually since 1854. For the first time, my favorite bar on Earth — which serves only its own light beer and dark beer — has its steel gate shut across its Franklin Pierce–era entrance. This is the first time in my 25 years in New York City that I have seen my No. 1 watering hole padlocked. What a disturbing sight.
As Gotham slowly recovers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has deployed a brigade of buses. Some now run regular routes. Other “Subway Shuttles” run up Third Avenue, for instances, stopping in express fashion only at the major thoroughfares normally called upon by the subway system, which remains kaput south of 42nd Street.
No further apart than floats in the Rose Parade, one bus after another speeds northward. In huge letters, one bus’s display reads: “COASTAL STORM.”
The inconveniences and discomforts that some Manhattanites are enduring are less than zero compared to the death and devastation that have befallen Americans in nearby communities closer to the water’s edge. Nonetheless, these conditions are inconvenient and uncomfortable.
This becomes crystal-clear when a middle-aged woman steps onto a bus heading up Third Avenue. Astonished, she says loudly, “There’s a seat! There’s a seat!” even though the bus was surprisingly uncrowded. She suddenly starts to cry openly, and clearly undergoes some sort of meltdown. After struggling a bit to navigate the steps that lead to the rear of the bus, she sits down next to me, still in tears.
“I don’t care where he’s going,” she bawls, referring to the driver. “I don’t care where he’s going. Just get me out of downtown.”