Manhattan in the dark

Over the last five days, Sandy and her effects has filled my media, while I’ve sat safely in my Bed-Stuy apartment. I’ve not lost a minute of power or internet access, the stores around me have plenty of food and drink, and all of my outdoor plants survived the downpour without a fuss. In contrast to the havoc and destruction of shoreline within 10 km of my home, the hurricane’s most direct effect on my life has been the cancellation of the classes and meetings which drag me to Manhattan three days a week. This detachment from the drama is probably what prompted me to get out of bed at 1am, hop on my bike, and peddle to the Manhattan bridge. 

Making my way to the bridge, Brooklyn was quieter than some Thursday nights, though the cold could explain that as well as this week’s events. Half way across the bridge, the street lamp light ended. Looking at the city ahead, some buildings to the North were illuminated, such as the Empire State (like a boss, according to someone’s tweet) but the highways were sparsely lit, leaving most cars to work with their headlights. The first rows of high-rises off the Hudson shimmered from the cabs and other working vehicles zipping by; it took me a moment to realise they were not lit from within. On the bike path, my little front light did little more than warn oncoming traffic (yes there were other cyclists out at 1:30) and a slowed my descent to a creep going through the covered corners at the bridge exit. 

Under normal circumstances, I don’t like Manhattan. While it is filled with wonderful things, the omnipresent hype and hurry impose an ennerving whine and jangle to any time spent in the borough, not matter the time or place. There is no quiet, no space to be alone, no chance to get away from the lives of others. I go to Manhattan when the promised charms outweigh the dreaded stress or when it is really necessary, and leave fairly quickly when my tolerance is exceeded. Late Thursday night traffic jams on Bowery are usually miserable with glarring headlights, frsutrated honking, vehicles idling in the bike lane, and cab-hungry pedestrians popping out between parked cars without eyes or ears for the two wheeled.

In contrast to the usual distress, riding through Manhattan in the dark was pleasant rather than spooky, for all that it looked like the beginning of the enviro-apocalypse. A couple of big intersections had generator supported lighting, some others were marked by hissing flares, and many had nothing to help travelers without massive headlights. Without traffic lights, the cabs and trucks were polite for once, cautious around the smaller road users, all watched by many police cars (ratio around 1 out of 10 vehicles on the road, while I was riding).

On those stretches of blocks without other vehicles around, my eyes managed to navigate the bumpy streets from the glow reflected down from the clouds. Every intersection brought sounds of distant activity, city life reduced to the essentials, in hibernation rather than dead. To prove it, the few pedestrians crossed roads with their usual brashness, armed with flashlights to blind anyone who might challenge with their choice of crosswalk. 

I rode my usual route to NYU, to see which buildings had been given generators. To my surprise, my building was powered up and the card reader security system even let me in. Going around Washington Square park, there was still a lot of fallen branches; rats could be heard squeaking around them when they noticed my passing. 

I’d heard that power had been connected higher up, so I rode University and 6th Ave Northward. Around Penn Station, the streets were lit. With the number of cabs, food vendors, and people out up there, it looked like 3 am on a Tuesday. Turning around at Central Park, there were birds chirping in their typical city induced confusion around the hotel lights. But not all was normal between 40th and 58th; the Hilton looked to be running on a generator, some side streets were blockaded, sometimes with police on guard, and many buildings were all dark above the ground floor store fronts. 

The last time I rode down 5th avenue through midtown was at rush hour last December; it has been filled with impatient cars and drivers well practiced in traffic jam etiquette/survival, inclined to push me into the lane the buses had been trying to push me out of. This time, it was somewhat more calm; garbage trucks barreled along but nobody minded my un-cyclist habit of respecting traffic lights at unfamiliar intersections. 

To return to home, I hit Broadway on my way to the Brooklyn bridge. Below Houston, it was nearly deserted, only a few food vendors, some vans, and the inescapable cop cars with their night-sight ruining flashing lights. Turning left off of Broadway from the right hand lane has never been so easy. There had been reports of city hall and wallstreet being powered up, so I was curious to see how many had use of these emergency supplies. While a few places again had ground level lighting in buildings, and a couple of sky scrappers looked to be upen for regular business at 2-3 am, city hall was not illuminated as it had been for halloween and the courts were dark. 

From Brooklyn bridge, it was again clear that some buildings had generators, but most of the area was in the dark. Crossing over, there was a point at which the overhead lighting turned on and I was back to normal late night riding conditions. On my way home, I took some detours to look over the Hudson, trying to remember how the skyline had looked previously. The distributions of lights had to do with power and money, but on this fourth night without electricity, much of Manhattan was patiently waiting for this awkward interruption to end. Unlike those who lost homes, livelyhoods, and family members, this city has hope that life can go back to how it was before Sandy, once the infrastructure has healed. 

Amid the many loses, these large scale calamities can also do a lot of good for the people who survive them, brining community, kindness and fresh perspective on daily life. From my home patch of safety, I’m outside of the reach of most of those benefits. But at least by riding out tonight, I’ve experienced quiet in the middle of a great city, and that serenity will make it a little easier to stand in those same places when the usual hustle and bustle returns.

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