Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Storm

I stuffed plastic bags and duct tape into the cracks of my window frames, turned the fridge down as cold as it would go, packed my little blue suitcase, and left my apartment on Sunday afternoon at the same time as my upstairs neighbor S and her cat. It all felt very familiar. Didn't we just evacuate for a hurricane last year? S said that she was taking her cat to her sister's place in Brooklyn Heights, but that she might come back herself and weather the storm in our building because Irene hadn't been that bad. On the one hand, that is specious reasoning and I did not agree with her with her logic--on the other hand, I left my laptop computer and all my jewelry in my own apartment, so I guess the specious was going around. 

I stood at the bus stop and watched the restaurant put tarps and sandbags down over their cellar doors. Two bulldozers were parked on top of the giant pile of salt across the street. The East River is right on the other side of that pile. Clearly the dock workers thought that shit was about to get real.

Won't the salt just dissolve in a flood?
A guy with a thick beard and horn-rimmed glasses came up next to me evacuating with nothing except a Scrabble box under his arm. He didn't even bother to pack a change of underoos. Hipsters and hurricanes, I thought. He's either the smartest or the dumbest person at this bus stop right now, but there's no way to tell until the storm actually hits. The bus pulled up and away we all went, leaving Flood Zone A and heading for the hills.

In hurricane preparedness, you learn that the most important aspect of surviving a hurricane (after you get to high ground, of course) is to keep yourself occupied. Panic is your biggest enemy. So for all of Sunday and Monday, while the BF and I were crammed into his little uptown studio, I read my books, did yoga, took baths, and groomed like a nervous cat until I'd shed my long hair in every corner of the apartment. And then it was time for a walk.

This was before the storm had made landfall. No one really knew what was coming, so attitudes ranged from the blase to the barely-sane. Vans full of police officers cruised the streets, looking very official and prepared. A crowd of them (what do you call a group of police officers? A pod? A pack? A pride?) came into a pizza place and the BF looked at me with his I-didn't-do-nuttin' face, but they were just getting their lunches. As if they'd be coming for him. They're coming for me if they're coming for anybody. I come from interesting stock. Parents have been warning their children not to play with my family for generations.

After lunch, we went to a grocery store thinking we might pick up a sack of clementines, but the lines were crazy-long and the shelves were almost cleaned out. Almost. Apparently when the end is nigh and civilization totters to the brink, people look at turnips, pineapples and cranberries and say, "Fuck that noise, leave it for the looters."

We got our first hint that this whole storm thing was serious business when the crane blew over backwards in midtown and the BF's family had to evacuate their building.

That was Monday afternoon. On Monday night, the tide came in, the hurricane hit, and our troubles began. We didn't know it at the time, though. The BF closed the curtains, turned on the white noise machine, and we had a quiet evening at home ignoring each other while we read our respective books. The lights flickered once or twice and he filled up the bathtub just in case, but we woke the next morning to heat, power, and Internet as if nothing had happened. Our biggest concern was if we'd get the day off or not.

Then we turned on the television.

Breezy Point, Queens. Anyone who makes a Call of Duty or a Mad Max joke is going to hell.
And checked the New York Times online.
Subway station in the Financial District.
 And Googled images of my area of Brooklyn.
Red Hook, the neighborhood just south of my own.
I tried to adhere to my Girl Scout training. We turned off the news and read our books some more. We watched Golden Girls and a re-run of Beetlejuice on television. We even went outside for a walk. Damage was minimal on the Upper West Side, a few downed trees and a lot of untidy leaves in the gutters. But the air pressure was still all weird from the storm and it felt like someone was jamming chopsticks into my eardrums. We went back inside and tried to stay busy, but I was starting to worry about what had happened to my building.

I live in a funny little neighborhood that no one really knows about. Google searches for my street just kept pulling up images of flooded Red Hook, the neighborhood immediately south of my own, and with all public transit shut down and all the bridges and tunnels closed, there was no way for me to get home and check my apartment. Important lessons were learned that day about getting my neighbor's phone numbers and not being so anti-social.

Wednesday was worse. My office was open, but there was no way I could get off the island of Manhattan. The BF got to go back to his normal life because he can walk to his school, but I was stuck in his apartment watching re-runs of X-Files and another round of Beetlejuice when I wasn't watching the news. It was Halloween and I had my costume with me, but I knew there was no way I was going to celebrate. My heart wasn't in it. I couldn't read, do yoga, or even groom. I just sat on the bed and wailed to no one in particular that I wanted to go home.

Fortunately, that was when R called me. "Are you coming over?" Fuck and yes, I was coming over. She lives across the park from the BF, and buses were running again, so I peeled myself off the mattress and hit the road. Traffic was Independence Day gridlock. I hopped a crosstown to the east side, but around Frederick Douglass Blvd my patience ran out and I just decided to walk. I got as far as 96th and 5th Ave. before my patience for walking ran out and I decided to get back on a bus. And it was the exact same bus I'd gotten off of half an hour before. (I recognized the driver and the Halloween costumes.)

When R heard my wailing about not knowing what was happening at my building, she stuffed me full of cookies and tea and we played Scrabble for a few hours. I think that hipster at the bus stop was on to something, because I felt a lot better afterwards. The BF joined us, we ordered take-out, and watched Spirited Away with her neighbor's cats, which is almost like Halloween.
He's dressed as Charlie Chaplin!
Thursday. My fourth day of evacuation. I was determined to make it my last. The night before I'd called the restaurant in my building and asked them what had happened on my street, and the hostess said they were dry, powered, and open for business. That was as much information as I was going to get without being there in person, and public transit was slowly coming back to life, so I put my books and teddy bear back in my little blue suitcase, kissed my BF good-bye, and started off across Manhattan.

I figured I could take the subway south, take a cross-town bus east, another bus south again, and catch one of the shuttle buses that was taking people between Brooklyn and the blacked-out parts of Manhattan. Even in daylight, it was eerie to go below 34th Street and see block after block of dark traffic lights and shuttered stores. It felt like a movie set before the director yells "Action!"
A city divided.

The bus spit me out at Jay Street and I began my walk home because I have never been able to find the start of my bus route in Downtown Brooklyn and the aftermath of a hurricane was a bad time to fight that battle again. Atlantic Avenue looked all right, streets clear, no windows broken or awnings down. I decided to be optimistic and stopped at the grocery store, and then I got pessimistic and stopped at the liquor store.

The bulldozers were still parked on the giant pile of salt, just where I'd left them on Sunday. The bookstore and the restaurant were both open for business, and the super of my building had put away the sandbags. The front door pushed away drifts of leaves when I opened it, but I didn't smell any sewage or mold and there was no mud on the floor. Apparently--impossibly, miraculously--my neighborhood hadn't flooded at all.

My own apartment was toasty as a hippie at Burning Man and everything in my fridge was frozen solid. The bonsai had shed some leaves but was otherwise fine. Every light turned on and the Internet fired right up when I plugged my router back in. I can't be certain, but I think that the heat and power and water was on the whole time I was gone. Would you believe I had more clean-up to do after Irene than I did after Sandy? I had nothing worse to deal with on Thursday than a carton of half-and-half that froze while I was gone and got all grainy when it thawed.

Considering the devastation in other parts of the city--and the lack of power, water, and heat to tens of thousands of people across the state--and the billions of dollars of damage we'll need to repair the damage--and considering that I live a block away from the East River and less than a mile away from a neighborhood that was under 6 feet of water on Monday night--I am one absurdly lucky Big Island Rachel. 

I made my triumphant return to work on Friday and immediately got in a fight with a customer over the phone. It felt good to be back to normal.

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