“I hope this hurricane doesn’t force me to eat carbs,” I sotto voce’d at the Whole Foods (24th and 7th Avenue) salad counter, where I was scooping up the last four pre-boiled eggs, to a CUNY junior professor jostling behind me in a line that stretched past prepared foods. He referenced some disaster movie that was after my time. I referenced one that was before his time (Escape from New York). My partner Paul showed up with a package of whole wheat pasta. “Out of swordfish,” he said. We were all being clever. That was Sunday night.
All day Monday I was the Nate Silver of natural disaster. When I wasn’t actually checking presidential polls, I made smart-mouth predictions: “There’s as much chance of this storm impacting lower Manhattan as Romney winning the election.” About 3:00 P.M., Paul returned with news from our Chelsea Gardens super. “Eddie says there’s a good chance Con Ed will cut off our power tonight.” “Oh,” I said. “Do we have things?” We did not have things. I made my way past the Chelsea David Barton Gym (which had just sent out an email promising to open at 8 a.m. on Tuesday) to the still-open Home Depot. No lines. Bought the last flashlight and a package of D batteries for the radio. They were the wrong size.
I’d made the carbs and we were sitting down to eat them when the brown-out and flickering began. “That’s nothing,” I told Paul. “You never lived through the blackouts of the 70s.” Then, black. Then, silence. Then, siren sounds. “We have those beeswax candles I ordered online and the reindeer antler candleholders Shelley gave me.” “Where are matches? Did you buy matches?” “Why didn’t you make a list and put matches on the list?” I found the flashlight, screwed in the candles, and eventually found a little box of matches tucked in the straw packaging for the candles. Paul took an iPhone picture, posted it to his Facebook profile, and shared it to my timeline. Soon enough the world seemed almost social. “Take care, Brad.” “Nice candlesticks.” In true Facebook fashion, some of the these friends were harder to place than others.
No NY1. No 1010 Wins. We followed the bright string of dispatches on the Facebook News Feed as we looked out our picture window to no picture, just a group of dark, hunched skyscraper silhouettes to the north. The mood, Facebook and actual, strained to be festive. I was reminded of those moments in Flannery O’Connor stories when you’re laughing at what’s set up to be comic fun and all of a sudden someone drives up in a hearse and children are shot in the woods.
The News Feed informed us that a Con Ed plant had exploded on 14th Street East. The Feed showed us footage of the front of a building on 8th Avenue—9 blocks away—crumbling and falling, exposing floors of apartments like dolls’ house rooms: beds made, paintings on walls. We wondered about the elderly woman next door, and the baby crying downstairs. Someone on the Feed wondered what was happening with the homeless living inside the flooded subways.
“I’m depressed,” as I said first, waking up this morning. “Why?” “You said power was supposed to come on overnight.” I made my way down the steps from the sixth floor (another movie reference: Vertigo), passing residents and workers on the way. “No power, everything below 27th Street, river to river.” “No, my friend on Madison and 38th doesn’t have power.” I arrived at the bright new city that was 27th Street—the border between civilization and wilderness—but lines to the teeniest coffee or bagel shop were endless. So I went back to the dimmer Chinese deli. There I got in a shorter line, eyed the sunflowers, but stuck to two cigarette lighters and two coffees. On my way back into the building, I ran into an couple from the first floor, bundled with laptops and iPads. “What’s it like out there?” she peered at me. “We’re going uptown to try to get back online.”
My laptop just went into automatic hibernation. The David Barton Gym did not open at 8 and has no plans to open. Paul had the thought balloon that his cousin Anne, away in San Francisco working at a hedge fund, has an unused apartment at 27th east of 5th Avenue. He crutched over there to reconnoiter. (Recent knee surgery.) “Anne’s place has no power,” he texted back. Next text: “Flood of people walking uptown—memories of 9/11.” Next: “Not fun out here.” The vague and anxious fear I deduced from his text, from the faces I had seen in the deli, told me that this was no longer the smugly “high line” neighborhood it had been for the past couple of years. At least not today.
New Orleanians, we who live south of 27th Street are not. But we are not the Whole Foods citizens we were yesterday, either. Yesterday we felt entitled to power, in all the senses of that term. Today I keep reminding myself that I’m just three blocks from it.
Brad Gooch is the author of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (2009) and City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993).