Dispatch from the blacked-out anti-world of Manhattan

Dispatch from the blacked-out anti-world of Manhattan

Nov 1, 2012

Walking the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan is like trespassing from the realm of matter into anti-matter—this visible world into a hidden anti-world. I’ve not experienced anything quite like it in my life.

The Brooklyn half of the bridge is illuminated. The Manhattan half submerged in gloom, save for the automobile lights below. Across the bridge, the usually gleaming architecture of projects and other buildings now resemble three-dimensional silhouettes, faintly lit by moonlight and the aggregate glow of cars. Upper Manhattan’s lights, including the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building, are a glittering cloud—the bright frosting to Lower Manhattan’s dark layer cake. Freedom Tower bursts out of the Lower Manhattan shadow skyline, as if city leaders were desperate to provide something symbolic to New York City’s inhabitants—a totem to resurrection and re-electrification.

The impression of walking across the bridge seems normal, until one stands underneath the structure’s matrix of metal arches. People exist here as mere transient shadows. Flashlights and bike headlights bob and oscillate as they approach and recede, spreading small pools of quivering light across the bridge’s footpath. The silence only broken by the bicycles’ machinery, footsteps, car engines and honking. Otherwise there is a stillness to the experience that is as eery as it is enlivening.

Crossing the bridge’s threshold of light and darkness, I’m reminded of William Gibson’s Lo-Tek community in the Sprawl Trilogy, and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and every other cyberpunk and dystopian story I’ve encountered in my lifetime. None of it prepared me for the reality that is Lower Manhattan in all its dark density.

Sloping down now. Hundreds of people walking in and out of Manhattan. One girl wears a spiral of battery-powered LED lights. From a distance, she is just a constellation of tinkling lights. Up close her face is softly lit in blue. Looking up into one of the project buildings, a four foot beam of green light, approximating a light saber, criss-crosses as though the individual were trying to flag those making the journey across the bridge. No one seems to be paying attention. No one seems to notice the strange beauty of a tree’s shadow cast on the side of a building by a never-ending display of headlights.

As the bridge opens up onto the Manhattan streets, it seems more like an exodus from the island than a pilgrimage into its environs. I consider whether I should be coming into this shadow world at all. I walk along Avenue B into Alphabet City. Things could get dicey, but people abound, their shadows sliding down closed shop gates as a steady stream of car headlights ensures a modicum of safety.

Again, the silence is astounding. Manhattan has never been so quiet.

Alphabet City’s inhabitants walk around, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. Two Puerto Rican women keep proclaiming, “Everything will be down for 10 days.” I can’t tell if they are newly-appointed street prophets or speaking loudly to some person on the other end of the phone, if of course they even have cell service; which is another reality that Lower Manhattan endures. Like the city of Bellona in Samuel R. Delany’s classic novel Dhalgren, Lower Manhattan seems to exist outside of the world in a singularity or event horizon where all communication breaks down.

One can’t help but think of the supernatural in experiencing this Manhattan shadow world, especially with those Tesla or rather Tungaska-esque orbs of blue light that emerged out of the Con Edison building days ago. The progressive, enlightened mind becomes primitive. Long dormant genetic coding surfaces. My own shadow looks like the specter of another. The fight or flight impulse is at the ready.

At length I arrive at my destination, Black Bird bar, which is ornamented with small candles. The door is locked. The bartender wants to shut down the place because the few bar denizens, including my two friends, visible to any voyeur through large windows, might invite trouble, especially with cash the only currency. Allowed in, the bartender locks the door behind me. Commence drinking. Talk of climate change. Thoughts of a submerged Manhattan as seen in the final self-contained chapters of the highly underrated film A.I., in which the robot boy David plunges into the ocean surrounding New York City, sinking into the depths of underwater skyscrapers and Coney Island. Coming to rest at the new ocean floor, then trapped beneath a toppled ferris wheel, David’s battery drains, putting him into a robotic suspended animation for thousands of years until highly-advanced artificial intelligence unearths him from the frozen interior of a new Ice Age.

New York City’s fate seems to be one with the film. But for now Lower Manhattan’s current state is just a temporary annoyance. People expect a reversion to the normal.

We switch bars. Time for Bloody Marys. More candles. We break out an ukelele and play songs from my friends’ songbook. Slowly we are joined by others—a roving band of Halloween revelers resembling Burning Man participants, outfitted in improvised costumes outlined and otherwise embellished in neon lights. We sing. An accordion player arrives for musical accompaniment. The revelry crescendoes.

A bald-headed and bearded man named Gayland sits down to play both the ukelele and the accordion. His costume looks vaguely barbarian, like an ancient Teutonic or Viking warrior. When the songs diminish, he stands up and gnaws at my neck. Gayland says, “Don’t be afraid that I just gnawed your neck like a zombie.” I say, “Right” and laugh. He and his band of revelers storm out of the bar, spilling out into the street.

I debate staying well into the wee hours of the morning, but the impulse to get out of Lower Manhattan, as fun and surreal as it is for those in it, is overwhelming. There is the feeling that this anti-world could trap you if you’re not looking. That its state of being, its temporary freedom from work and deadlines, could suck you into its singularity, just like Dhalgren’s mysterious, labyrinthine city of Bellona.

Commerce is dead inside Lower Manhattan’s Zone. Or mostly dead. There is something of a free market, but such distinctions have largely collapsed. The illusion is broken and replaced by another hallucinatory daydream. This anti-world cannot last but one almost wishes that it could.

But perhaps decades or hundreds of years from now if Earth’s civilizations, with all their human-produced and sustained energy,  succumbs to entropy, then maybe there will be a return.

Having temporarily trespassed into this shadowy, anti-world, I do have a surprisingly high degree of hope in the event of a permanent collapse. Enough people will band together to make life fun and worth living.

And we just might be okay after all.

[Image: Jonathon Percy]

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