We had received email notifications from the city that they were shutting power downtown – but further downtown than where we were. So Smitty, her friend Joy visiting from San Francisco and I were halfway through ‘American Splendor’ when the apartment went black and we heard a big boom! outside the windows. That turned out to be the transformer at 14th Street and Avenue C exploding.
We’ve been living without power since. It’s been interesting and scary and wondrous in roughly equal proportion. Some highlights:
1) Old technology works. Smitty still has a real landline, not cable service, not FIOS VOIP, old style, where the cord carries just enough power to run the service in an outage. Like now. When the power went out, she pulled out a rotary phone with an iron chassis – the handset weighs as much as a small barbell. It’s a godsend, as is her old gas range with no electric pilot.
We’ve been able to make phone calls and to boil water and carry it to the bathtub for sponge baths. Smitty cooked any remaining food in the apartment that was threatening to go bad (unfortunately, without iceman service, the fridge is useless). Any food that might preserve went on the fire escape. It was the first time in my life I hoped for colder weather overnight, even though we had no heat.
There’s water because any building in Manhattan under six stories stands at a lower elevation than the reservoir a hundred or so miles upstate so the water keeps flowing downhill. Buildings above that height need a pump, which is electric and therefore doesn’t work at the moment.
The old ways are more hardy. They are relics of a time when the perils were more obvious, closer to the bone, so they weather troubles like these without a lot of drama.
2) Half Transportation is No Transportation: I tried to get back to Staten Island yesterday because my employer plans to open selectively today. However, although buses on Staten Island are running on a reduced schedule, the express buses from Manhattan to Staten Island aren’t and neither is the ferry. So I can’t get home, a chain being no stronger than its weakest link and all that…
3) Be Careful What You Wish For: And, as I write this, I just came upon an article detailing how hard-hit Staten Island was. Half the death toll in NY City was on SI. Thank goodness my landlord and landlady are safe, the house is okay, trees down but power on. Just as well that I was not home.
4) Information Addiction: You see clearly how addicted we all are to information when it’s taken away. No headlines, no polls (I’ve got Nate Silver mania the last few weeks), no clever YouTube videos, no cell service or WiFi. I’m writing new ‘Mindbenders’ stories by hand in a black-and-white speckled notebook. My handwriting is no longer fit for literature.
And every ten minutes on the radio, the anchor says “For more details on (traffic/restoration of power/subways/buses/you name it), go to our website, xxx.xxx” – which would be great if the radio wasn’t the only lifeline to the world you had.
Five of us from the building had tea yesterday around noon and the talk was of someone who’d hiked up to 34th Street, what they’d seen and heard. ‘Someone said power would be back on Friday’ ‘They’re working on the West Side first’ ‘Not only the 14th Street [Con Ed] substation blew but the one on 6th Street as well’. All hearsay, all absolutely riveting.
When you have the Internet and 500 channels of television, fascination lasts three seconds. There’s always something else, another story, another poll, another crucial issue you need to have an opinion about. Take it all away, you think about and endlessly discuss rumors, hopes and fears for days, the way humans did for centuries. They’re thrilling. They’re maybe even more thrilling because you’ve no idea if they’re true. Because that breathless speculation is all you have.
We spent several nights playing question games by candlelight. ‘Would you rather be a) George Clooney, b) Brad Pitt, c) Liam Neeson?’ ‘Would you rather be someone with immense power and no ethics or someone with great artistic talent in total obscurity?’
Of course, the fact that this last was a hard decision tells you plenty about who we are but that’s another story. We had fun and lots of laughs and we actually learned something more about ourselves and each other than we would have watching TMZ or ‘Big Bang Theory.’ We found ourselves ready to go to sleep around 1030 or 11 pm but not from boredom – without the usual electronic stimulants, we were ready way earlier than usual.
And then there’s the eerie factor. The other night, we went to a friend’s apartment in the upper 30’s on the West Side, where there’s power (I’m writing this from the same place). On the way home, we took the crosstown bus on 34th Street. In front of us, Seventh Avenue, Sixth, all lit up like normal…and then, approaching swiftly at Fifth, a curtain of darkness. Once through, there were a couple of police in shiny vests waving traffic around and headlights from oncoming cars but all the buildings black, the greengray sky glowing overhead and people finding their way hesitantly along pitchblack streets.
We make such a fuss about incremental changes in our lives. Here, in the middle of the city we’ve lived in all our lives, was a truly foreign, unfamiliar landscape. All the little differences had been manageable but suddenly, the magnitude of what had happened was all around us. There were those people right over there, a few blocks back, right where we’d just been, people whose lives were normal. And then, here in the dark for no reason but arbitrary fate, were the rest of us.
Overheard on the downtown bus:
Driver: ’23rd Street next’
Passenger: ‘You skipped 25th?’
Driver: ‘Lady, I’m just trying to see the road!’