A Dark City: Powerless In Lower Manhattan

I am still in disbelief over this. It is not until something happens in your own backyard that the experiences of others begin to make sense. During the hurricane Con Edison said that they would be shutting off power to parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn to prevent overload on the grid. When I saw people tweeting that they had lost electricity, I assumed it was just the preemptive measures taken. Even though a transformer exploded and the new World Trade Center building lost power, I figured it would be back by the next day. Boy was I wrong. As I watched the news and saw all of the footage, photos and accounts of what people were going through, it began to sink it that something bigger than Irene of last year and the micro-tornado from two years ago had shaken up the city. I had to see with my own eyes what had happened. The experience of this is one I will not forget for as long as I live.

As I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge for perhaps the first time since I can remember, it felt odd to not see many bicycles or cars or trains riding past me. I wondered if I was crazy for being daring enough to go see for myself what was going on. It didn’t take long before I got to the top of the first incline and saw something that was a jarring sight of contrast. In the 8 pm sky midtown and everything above it looked normal, but it stood out even more as one could see the visible barrier where the lights ended and ominous shapes began. I looked for a moment and could not believe what I saw. The few people passing by would also stop and try to comprehend the sight in disbelief. It only became clearer as I walked over the bridge, crossing from the side lit by Brooklyn onto the one that lacked power with lower Manhattan, that I was walking into a different city. I thought to myself this is what the warriors must have felt like.

On some streets my flashlight was the only thing shining through the block onto the next one. Silent corners were not unlike a ghost town in a horror film, seemingly abandoned by civilization as some put it in news stories. The evening sky hovered over, only being slightly brighter due to the full moon and the lights of giant skyscrapers in midtown casting a glow that could be seen if one looked in their direction. What was more eerie was when I realized that the streets were so quiet that any sound I made seemed to echo. Powering the lights, appliances, devices, alarms and such in every home that people live in generates noise in a way I had become so accustomed to. It create an ambiance of sorts that I guess you do not notice until you leave a urban area. Now all this talk about noise pollution makes sense.

The earlier contrast I mentioned before was never more apparent than when one stood on 34th street and could see where the lights ended and a different world began. In a way I was relieved that when I entered midtown that searching for things like a slice of pizza became much easier, but also wondered about my out of the norm experience. It even seemed like for most people with the exception of a damaged crane dangling over Carnegie Hall, many minded their own business like nothing ever happened. It was honestly a bit jarring, feeling like there may have been a slight disconnect with what was occurring only a mile away. Though one only had to step into a Duane Reed to see empty shelves or a McDonalds or Starbucks full of hungry customers looking to recharge their phones and get internet access to find many of the people who were missing from the Lower East Side.

Before I did not think much of food trucks and carts. Especially on a cold week like this one, one would prefer to sit indoors especially if they are with friends. But for those in lower Manhattan who could not commute to midtown or Brooklyn due to limited funds or worried about going far from their homes, they were a godsend. On some streets they were the only things shining lights in the dark blocks during the evenings. A few restaurants have generators or candles to heat up food, but those were few and far between. And I can imagine most folks did not stock up on enough non-perishable foods to last the whole week. The mobile food vendors must be doing well business-wise as many were open 24 hours; for the moment they were probably even kings of the village with their motors and inexpensive meals.

The side of New York City I have witnessed these past few days is nothing short of amazing. I have seen National Guardsmen rushing into Bellevue hospital to get fuel to the backup generators. A convoy of ambulances driving to where they are needed. People handing out snacks and drinks to workers at South Street. Stores offering people places to charge their phones. Residents pulling together to find information and directions. I even saw some funny things that would normally never happen such as a group of guys walking up the street drunk beyond belief, with beer bottles in their hands. In the unlit lower Manhattan, no one could spot you trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation. These and many other acts of kindness and perseverance were taking place in nearly every neighborhood around town. It is in these moments that ones gets a sense of what life is about and what it takes to disrupt the modern lifestyle. Among the disaster stories were ones that showed that New Yorkers were like any other human beings who cared about life. Like many residents I felt a sense of pride in where I came from.

To be honest it was something of an adventure for me as well, one that I would probably not like to repeat again. There were moments where I was a bit spooked, and even some creepy ones such as when I think a rat ran over my sneaker. But despite a bit of paranoia on my end and wondering if people were also somewhat on edge, I did not feel like my life was at risk. In many ways this could not compare to what happened in News Orleans, which became a bigger tragedy than it should have. But at the same time the grief of loss can never be quantified. Lives were taken away and affected in both places. It is going to be a while before the tri-state area fully bounces back, and perhaps will remain changed by this event. With records being broken and it impacting a country at the end of a election season, it will be talked about for years to come.

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