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.
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.