I never thought I’d say this, but God bless the MTA. I can’t believe how much of the system is already back and running, especially when you check out the pictures on their flickr stream. I was able to take my normal methods to the Staten Island campus today, which was a relief.
In the pre-dawn (though not as pre- as last time I made the trip, before the time change), the blocks of Lower Manhattan I walked through to get to the ferry could have almost passed for normal. The buildings were darker than usual, and a few had portable heaters parked outside, large tubes snaking into their lobbies. A number of businesses that usually have their lights on at that hour were dark, but that only seems strange at six a.m. if you have seen them open on other days. The cheerful newsstand man was there, his counter lit by a battery-powered clip lamp.
The ferry terminal itself had its overhead lights on, but not its electronic billboards and clocks. The delis were shuttered, and the escalators dead and barred off. I thought at first that was an effort to conserve scarce power, until I noticed that the panels at their feet had been removed, revealing square enclosures of trapped water.
On the water, the strangest sight was also subtle: the Statue of Liberty gone dark.
The bus I take to campus goes along high ground, so I saw little damage beyond a tree down here or there, a storefront boarded up with plywood, messages encouraging Sandy to go away painted over last year’s un-welcome for Irene. Gas lines. An NYPD van pulled up beside us to ask directions.
My students were mostly there. They’d lost power or had cars drown in salt water just after insurance expired. One announced he’d lost his job as a bar back on Coney Island but had put in 27 hours hauling muck out of the place. Maybe they will reopen after all and he’ll have a job again.
I heard people all over the island talking over the storm. A pair of teenage boys on the bus going over the details, one explaining to the other that the gas shortages were not a conspiracy, that ships couldn’t land and trucks couldn’t transfer the gas. The other had assumed there would be more than enough already at the stations, an assumption of safety and plenty that is easy to make in this town.
What struck me today was how out of their way people were going not to complain. “Oh, I lost power, but only for 24 hours; no big deal.” “We got power back after five days! So lucky!” Of course, worse fates are staring them right in the face, but even so, I admire them.
When I returned to Manhattan in the afternoon, it was no longer possible to ignore the change. The streets were growling and clanking with generators and pump trucks and more heaters. Tubes and wires ran everywhere like new spiderweb. It was obvious, and that hour, that the drug store and the post office and the cafe should have been open, that the streets should be crowded with tourists and brokers, not men in reflective vests and hardhats. Peering in the window of my usual coffee shop, I could see a knee-high watermark circling the walls.
There still were tourists, of course, and also people like me, going about our usual ways, picking the shallowest possible paths across wide puddles. In the plaza by the ferry terminal, a crowd gathered to watch a group of breakdancers spin and flip and start and stop, their orange camouflage pants reassuringly crisp and bright in the cold sun.