From the Brooklyn Bridge you can see the Manhattan skyline, half-dark, quiet and wounded. When you cross the midpoint of the bridge, the lights are cut out, and you enter what is without hyperbole a completely different world. Biking around Manhattan during the Hurricane Sandy blackout was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced.
The Financial District, which is normally dark and quiet at night, was now especially so. You don’t realize how noisy the city is until the power is cut and the traffic diminishes. The only noise was the lawnmower whirr of distant generators and the whistles from traffic cops, who stood at select busy intersections. One stood at Broadway and was waving through a line of flatbed trucks carrying various large pumps and generators. She was surrounded by red flares that cast the nearby buildings in a pale flickering red light. I talked to her as she directed traffic.
“Manhattan without light.”
She looked at me, bored.
“Nah, it’s fine.”
Further south, it was almost impossible to proceed without a flashlight. On Nassau Street I couldn’t see more than five feet ahead. The streets were empty. Around me were skyscrapers which cumulatively held about 300,000 people on an average work day; I now stood among them, alone.
Or almost alone. At one point I turned on my flashlight and found an old man napping on the stoop of a building. He woke up and we stared at each other for a moment. He waved at me and then fell back asleep. Further down the block I saw the two owners of a jewelry store huddled inside, surrounded by candles, guarding the store from potential looters.
On William Street I passed a food cart with blinding lights and a loud LCD screen that flashed “OPEN.” It was the only source of light on the block. A man was ordering a hot dog.
The South Street Seaport, normally bustling with tourists and those looking to profit from them, was deserted. I walked deeper into it and found a single security guard, asleep in a foldout chair.
In Chinatown there were more people, although they maintained an almost monastic quiet. They went about their routines. I passed a couple holding flashlights, walking their dog. A group of people stood in line, slowly boarding a Fung Wah bus. On one corner three people discussed how they charged their phones by leeching power from their unused laptops.
There was a flashlight etiquette. People would flick their lights on and off to say hello or to signal to let a car pass through an intersection. Those without flashlights were looked upon suspiciously.
I checked on a friend’s apartment in the East Village. Nearby, a few bodegas were open with the help of generators. People gathered in them to buy supplies (cash only) and trade storm stories. A few restaurants stayed open with limited menus. Inside, couples ate dinner; a utilitarian candlelit dinner.
On 14th street I passed the Con Ed plant that exploded during the storm. I had seen it from my apartment window in Brooklyn; the whole sky lit up in a massive sphere of blue and white. At the plant, it was difficult to tell that an explosion had even happened, other than the many workers hurrying around. Two walked by me and I overheard one of them talking about their dinner break. “They got some huge kind of fucking platter, all kindsa shit on it.” I wondered how many hours straight they’d been working in Manhattan, if their families were okay, and if their houses survived.
A few blocks south, trucks pumped water out of a flooded underground parking garage. Outside, it looked like all the cars on Avenue C had been underwater. Their windows were fogged and beaded with drops of evaporating water. A few windows were open, and the cars were filled with debris. It looked like a few were picked up by the water and haphazardly placed on the sidewalk.
I biked by Tompkins Square Park, which is normally filled with rats even on a nice day. It was now loud with furious squeaking. Apparently the storm had done them well. In the distance a few firecrackers went off. I passed a line of National Guard troops wearing lit-up belts. While looking at them, I accidentally ran over a dead rat. Its red guts shot up my bike wheel and onto my sneakers. While stopping to wipe them clean, I noticed a single apartment with working lights, its generator buzzing on its fire escape.
On my way home I passed Sophie’s, a bar I used to go to in college; it was closed. Out front a man worked under the hood of his pickup truck. As I waited at an intersection, a woman yelled at me to stop riding my bike. I stood confused as she ran up to me and shined her flashlight in my face. “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.” A block away, two teenagers lit firecrackers inside newspaper boxes and watched them explode. I headed towards the Williamsburg Bridge, to warmth and light.
Through the storm and its aftermath, New York held that juxtaposition so common in great apocalyptic sci-fi films: the utter desolation or destruction of familiar landmarks, say, the South Street Seaport or Wall Street, coupled with earnest human attempts to maintain normalcy, like selling hot dogs or dining out in a darkened restaurant. If there’s anything heartening to be found in all of this, it’s that despite terrible hardships, we press on.