Magazine | December 17, 2012, Issue

Stormy Monday

Old maps show what the city was like before man got to work on it. The islands on which it rests were ringed with coves, marshes, beaches, and the mouths of meandering streams. Then we made it a port; then cars displaced ships. Highways lined the shore, buildings blocked the view, landfill made space for new buildings. It takes a ride on a ferry or a day trip to one of the last few retro-nautical holdouts to remember where we are.

The hurricane was preceded by a lot of talk, but talk had been cheapened by past hurricanes that fizzled and by the so-what attitude that ubiquitous weather reporting perversely fosters. People’s attitude on the Monday the storm was to arrive was insouciance, tinged with anxiety, as if waiting for a party (will it be a good one?). Nature’s harbinger was long and steady gusts of wind, not heavy yet but much more sustained than normal, as if a vocalist had switched from jingles to lieder.

By nightfall it began to blow in earnest. We have three window-unit air conditioners in our apartment; their outside vents took up a monotonous banshee wail. From time to time the windows would buckle, despite newish metal frames. Outside on the streets you could see curious or foolhardy souls stumbling about under umbrellas; there were occasional downpours, but on the whole it did not rain much. There was simply a continual suspension of water in the air, heavier than a mist.

We had done, we thought, the prudent things: found our flashlights, collected candles and tealights, filled every big pot with water, cooked all the food in the freezer (something told me not to stick dishes in the dishwasher but to wash and dry them as soon as they were done with). I read my wife Sherlock Holmes, and researched past hurricanes online — the Long Island Express of 1938, the Great Hurricane of 1780 — pitying the poor souls who lived through those, or didn’t.

I happened to be looking southeast when the East Side power station blew. I saw what looked like a lightning flash at ground level, half a dozen blocks away. I did not understand what had happened, nor would I for hours yet, but immediately everything in our apartment and almost everything within view went dark. There is a hospital a few blocks away with a bluish sign on its roof, visible from the bedroom window. It was unsightly when it first went up, then invisible. Now, thanks to the hospital’s generator, it was the only light in the world.

We lit our candles. They were not bright enough to read by comfortably — how did Jefferson do it? — but happily the lack of stimulation brought on sleepiness. Children of mid-century, we had kept our landlines, which still worked, but whom could we call? So many of our friends have gone cell or i, and they were all knocked out. In the night we heard clanging metal — a store awning across the street blowing down.

#page#Tuesday morning I went out to explore. We live on the 14th floor; the good thing about that and any higher floor is that they are above the non-existent 13th floor, so I could remind myself that my treks down and up were shorter than they seemed. They had to be made with the help of a flashlight, since the stairwells were dark (commercial buildings and new residential buildings must have lights in their stairwells, but my darkness is grandfathered in). The sidewalks were papered with torn-down leaves. There was little traffic, since all businesses were closed as well as all tunnels and most bridges. Good thing, since there were no traffic lights. Lonely wayfarers slowed down at each corner, then pressed on. Only the middle-aged were up and about; old people were shut in, kids given a school holiday tried to occupy themselves in their rooms.

The news blackout was as complete as the power blackout. You could not find a newspaper or a working laptop. The nearest park was a command center for the city’s utility, and if you caught a guy between shifts he gave you his version of events (that is how I found out about the power station) and his prognosis for recovery. A few dark delis had opened their doors, selling expiring sandwiches, boxed goods, and (bless them!) bottled water. “Don’t shop there,” a true blue-stater chided from the sidewalk, “they’re price gouging!” So you have cheaper water to sell, my friend? Dogs must have suffered worse than their masters; I met an acquaintance in the stairwell, manhandling a big setter in a dog coat with handgrips fore and aft.

On Wednesday we decided to visit friends on the Upper West Side. It took twice as long as normal to make the trip, and cost twice as much — there were no cabs and no subways, I flagged a limo — but the end was a heaven of light and plumbing. We showered, ate in a restaurant (surrounded by refugees from downtown), checked e-mail at an Apple store. Going back home was like crossing the Styx. And we experienced only inconvenience — not loss or damage or death. In days to come I would get bulletins from Rockaway and Long Beach; reviving media would show pictures of Staten Island and burned-out Breezy Point. And all this was accomplished by a Category 1 storm (the hurricane of 1938 was Category 3, with winds of 125 miles per hour). When the Atlantic shrugs, step back.

Thursday we fled by bus. New Jersey was a hell of gas lines. The rest stops on the thruway had lines, but shorter. At our almost-Catskills destination there were no lines at all. We had joined the rural 1 percent. Half a bifurcated ash tree had fallen across our driveway, but our friend Doug had cut a gap in the trunk and counted the rings back to 1891 — the year, he told us, of his grandfather’s birth.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Wife and Soldier

Over the course of 40 years, Natalia Solzhenitsyn worked hand in hand with her husband, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He died in 2008, at almost 90. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn continues to work. She ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Against Empathy

Just before the election, the Washington Post fluttered about what it described as “Barack Obama’s empathy edge.” The equally hardboiled reporters at Psychology Today pondered: “Is Obama empathetic to a ...
Politics & Policy

Fighting for Words

In September, a rather crude video titled “Innocence of Muslims” provoked riots across the Muslim world, resulting in several deaths, many more injuries, and considerable property damage. Almost seven years ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Political Man

Thomas Jefferson is not in vogue. His Democratic descendants long ago abandoned his philosophy of limited government, Republicans rarely invoke him, and scholars tend to focus on the gulf between ...
Politics & Policy

The Final Roar

Very many Americans came to admire Winston Churchill through the first two volumes of William Manchester’s The Last Lion series, namely Visions of Glory (1983) and Alone (1988). They were ...
Politics & Policy

Why Caravaggio?

The announcement this July of the discovery of nearly 100 hitherto unidentified paintings by Caravaggio caused an international stir. The paintings, stored for centuries in a castle in Milan, where ...
City Desk

Stormy Monday

Old maps show what the city was like before man got to work on it. The islands on which it rests were ringed with coves, marshes, beaches, and the mouths ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Winning the Middle Class I happened across “The Party’s Problem,” by Ramesh Ponnuru (December 3), while browsing online articles about the recent election. I am a lifelong liberal Democrat (68-year-old Caucasian male) ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The First Scold must be secretly pleased about the demise of Hostess: Wicked Witch, the Ding-Dong is dead. ‐ As the fiscal cliff draws nearer, with its automatic tax increases ...
Athwart

The Unisex Child

A Swedish toy catalogue has made a decision to go “gender neutral” for Christmas: boys with baby dolls, girls with guns. Possibly hermaphrodites with Magic 8 Balls that say only ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

LONG TRAIL You can spot the better hikers by the lightness of their steps, and how their packs seem much too small. They’ve learned they shouldn’t try to carry their whole lives upon their ...
Happy Warrior

Who Are We?

In my last column, I argued that culture trumps politics, since when many readers have demanded to know what exactly I meant. Well, look no further than the very first ...

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Religion

Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some and there are many "miracles around us today, including television and airplanes." Graham was no theologian. Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More