meditations in an emergency

This Halloween, parts of New Jersey are enforcing a 7pm curfew because those who smash pumpkins in peacetime might yet smash storefront windows in Emergency Mode – Chris Christie logic. Not too many kiddies out on the streets here in Sunnyside, come to think of it. I saw a fair share of Little Red Riding Hoods and Supermans when I ventured outside to hunt down a newspaper around 3pm, but in the darkness there’s only a handful of lame-costumed teenyboppers bullying local businesses for candy. Something to do with fallen trees along Skillman Avenue. I can’t report from Manhattan because I can’t get to Manhattan; overcrowded Q32’s have been shuttling what look like refugees across the Queensboro Bridge since early this AM, riders grim-faced and weary. No trains. A Facebook friend brags that he has walked from Spanish Harlem to Prospect Heights today, and the mayor says yellow cabs can make multiple stops. My job is sans power. Most of the city below 14th street is still sans power. My phone is filled with little messages from and for dear ones: are you okay, did it hit you, make it through alright?

Yet my hurricane was – and I know how this sounds – almost fun. My roommate’s best friend Ned spent the weekend with us, as opposed to his home in (formerly) coastal Jersey. Ned and roommate came in the door Sunday night laden with eight bottles of cava and the ingredients for Bananas Foster and mushroom risotto; we watched Mean Girls and Pulp Fiction while slightly higher-than-average winds flayed our neighbor’s window-boxes. Tuesday I read the paper on my phone and discovered most of lower Manhattan was dark. I saw pictures of the subway – my subway! – waterlogged, recalling crucial scenes in Titanic. Still my trio stumbled into grey afternoon light and went to an Irish pub on Greenpoint Avenue, where we saw more and serious pictures and a deeply concerned Diane Sawyer. These pictures made us anxious, so we drank beer. Ended the evening double-fisting Irish coffees and Lemon Drops as a sad-ish crowd of Tuesday night trivia players fumbled into the bar around us. I made friends with one gentleman in a Superman t-shirt and another proudly clutching Michael Crichton’s “most obscure novel” when I correctly shrieked “What is James Tiberius Kirk!” during the sci-fi round. The bartender kept saying – like someone had asked – “Luckily we’re on the Sunnyside of the street!”

It’s weird, the kind of fun you have when you know people close by are in extreme pain or discomfort. It’s a stolen, kid-glee. It’s highly guilty. I remember sitting through a Code Red in my seventh grade French class during the DC sniper’s brief reign of terror; at this point, someone had already been shot at a middle school a mile away from mine. In a dark room, where we were supposed to keep away from windows and remain silent as a supposed intruder patrolled the hallways, a (rightly) fretful Monsieur Letourneau kept having to tell me and Colleen Danus to stop giggling over in the corner. And you know what that brouhaha was all about? We were writing our wills.

That’s about coping, of course. So were all those Grease puns everyone made on Facebook this weekend, and the half-assed food photography. My roommate – a real gourmet snob, it turns out – joked that everyone who was anyone would be posting pictures of whatever crappy recipe soup or Betty Crocker cookies they’d made during the storm (I, recall, had risotto and bellinis). It’s also no accident, I’m sure, that most of my friends on the internet made a big to-do of all the whiskey and candy they needed to get for “disaster preparedness” purposes. Some of these people don’t drink wine on the reg. And me? My first and guttural reaction to the subway shut-down was to flee work and hunt for DVDs on the Lower East Side – with a vital relief I scored the Sex and the City movie and Blazing Saddles before even considering where to find batteries. Sloane Crosley wrote a Townies piece this week in the Times owning up to what I’ll classify as this particularly New York blasé: we are a city in a country in a time period that always seems teetering on the edge of destruction, the brink of any number of disasters. We’ve seen what can happen to New Orleans and we’ve also seen The Day After Tomorrow. We’ve seen the tallest towers crumble. So, the saying goes, we keep calm and carry on. No way to get through anything without a sense of humor and very little is gained in the manic panic. This is one of those rare situations where it’s much harder to be serious than funny. What’s become powerful in a crisis is your hilarious – and oddly comforting in its confidence – Tweet.

But now, reporting live from Queens Quarantine, where some of the relief/wryness/joy has gone out of the now three days I’ve been away from work…work, where I make my money on tips and hourly, double whammy. And three days away from the city, which for all my outer-borough attitude I now see I depend on. And mostly three days away from my friends and the people who color my life, everyone who sees me in a day and in so doing confirms I exist. Plus sirens and darkness and water I swear tastes funny, impending bedsores from a lack of proper exercise (ha). It’s just cabin fever. I pick up the newspaper and then must contend with what seems quite far from here: destruction, death, ruin is existing while I’m, in comparison, only mildly inconvenienced. On the one page where there isn’t a mounting death count or pictures of bureaucrats with bags below their eyes there’s the somehow even grimmer Maureen Dowd, soullessly commenting on how the hurricane is a political cherry-on-the-sundae for next Tuesday’s elections, a coup for the incumbent. For once I agree with Chris Christie, who it seems will have none of the politics that suddenly seem quite petty. (Unless you subscribe to the darker idea that CC is hunkering in for a long-form presidential campaign and just beginning to sow his roots.) Whatever. I shut the paper. All of it is gross.

Susan Sontag seems appropriate (I blazed through White Noise yesterday, now I want something shorter but equally dark): she has a book on my shelf called Regarding the Pain of Others. This is a book on war photography, or perhaps more accurately our collective inability to cope with the shocking image. The limits of human empathy, and whatnot. I’m thinking of how we all receive news of disaster in these modern times. It comes to us in pictures, right? War and famine and disease leave their imprint on the unscathed in pictures. Sontag asks, “What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” What’s the responsibility in being made to witness, when witnessing a tragedy is what definitively makes it real? There’s also the gruesome shock factor, in which pain becomes sport-like, “the satisfaction of being able to look at an image without flinching. [Then] there is the pleasure of flinching.” I wonder what this moral complex means for those of us who were touched this week, if only peripherally, by disaster. What is it, do we suppose, to live through something as a collective, a city – even if my house isn’t the wrecked one on the cover of the paper today? And what is it to encounter, to face, to actively acknowledge – the newspaper person’s suffering? As very real and very different from mine?

I’ve watched – we’ve all watched – September 11th become the modern horror around which every American can congregate. We’re all supposed to know where we were as the towers fell, and usually this bleak conversation prompts that darkest kind of one-upmanship: how close were you, which friend of a friend’s parent, you were supposed to be on what plane when? I was just a kid when that day happened, and what I remember about it is this: a dark, eerie feeling as the sixth grade staff struggled to keep their cool. Mr. Seidman the gym teacher making a vague announcement to an inflated “gym class,” one of those “gym classes” in which you play boardgames and are merely being contained for some purpose. Mr. Seidman mentioning Virginia, and the Pentagon, and me doing daffy sixth grade head-cartography to mentally place my dad’s job far enough away from the NSA headquarters so he was safe; the attendant wailing at and clutching of Janice Kuo. But then my father picked me up at the bus stop and I learned my little unit was safe, and it seemed obvious, because that’s how it goes for the peripherally lucky, the destiny dodgers. Really awful things skirt you to the extent that worry seems anecdotal in the aftermath, because of course one of the thirty-eight victims wasn’t one of your friends or acquaintances, of course no one I love could perish like this. Don’t tell me you’ve not done these moral gymnastics, or at least didn’t when you were small. Once you really believe you and those you care about are immediately safe, big tragedies become but situational history, practically dark myth, storytelling material. Even now that I’m old enough to read the paper and take in facts, even now that I’m old enough to be marginally affected by modern hassles like the subway closing for X amount of days, I say I have lived through things I have not lived through. Things I can scarcely fathom. And I feel I was there; I wasn’t there. I was drinking a bellini, and being horrified by pictures the day after the fact. In times of widespread distress and unease, it’s important to flex that muscle of really trying to feel for the people who were really there. To do this honestly you’ve gotta separate yourself, here on the bonny, barely-damaged Sunnyside of the street, from them. Remember the only ones who really own a disaster – even one that is purported to be metro-wide, national, uniting in some way – are the people who had to suffer for it.

Of course no one you love could perish like this until, of course, they do; I also know a few victims of freakish, horrible tragedy, nightmares that spin far beyond the semi-predictability of natural disasters. I’ve known unexpected and early death. A work friend survived the Colorado Joker shooting earlier this year. He was grazed by a bullet. A very important high school friend was the victim of a completely random, unprovoked stabbing by a mentally ill woman in metro DC a few years ago; my friend has spent the past few years re-learning how to walk and run. The amazing thing is these people –incredibly, on both counts – look to have resumed a normal life, at least to the distant and surface-sufficient eye. But I’m sure my friends have had to deal with all you can’t explain about the sheer terror of something that seems so unlikely, statistics-wise. I’m close by and full of feelings; still I’ll never know what they went through. Because the odds of random, freak violence happening to you is small, small, small in the long-run. Yet.

That’s another facet of coping, somehow. Shaking that relief like dust from your shoulders and moving up and away. Going to museum exhibits or benefits for the victims and bandying about tales of your personal hardship during the ____ that rocked the ____. It isn’t wrong. It’s not even bad. It’s kind of the only thing to do, unless you’re willing to strap on a Life Preserver and go sign up to volunteer with the Red Cross. That would be the real way to contend with those in pain. Are you willing? Am I? It’s like war photographers. It’s like war. Look at this. REALLY look at this. Are you willing to move (those in a position to lobby for Climate Change legislation, war-makers, residents of New York City)? Am I?

Of course, Hurricane Sandy is a bit of a prop for the point here. I know a lot of us lost power – even water – for many days; that’s truly rough. It’s just something that occurs to me when I go on Facebook in the aftermath of almost any well-publicized disaster. Opinions are formed and territory claimed so lickety-split that the real messages – like, good vibes to the firemen and the National Guard and the MTA and those with permanent home or auto damage – get lost within the personal: I’m fine, here’s this joke, here’s this other joke, I’m bored, such and such is my cross to bear…Not that anxiety or deep sobriety are the proper notes to stroke, either, and not that I’m above or not a part of the congratulations-we’re-okay-culture, but when bad things happen it does behoove us all to count certain stars. Don’t you think? Really count certain stars and really try to feel for those who were not, are not, so lucky. Know how to separate your relief from their present pain. The law of averages says that sometimes the one in peril will be you, or a person you know, or a person you love. Believe it or not. Maybe let’s let big scary winds remind us of this, of the brevity and breakability of the whole shebang. Hurricanes happen to cities, death and property loss happens to people.

I write to you now, wary of appearing preachy, from the 46th Street Bliss Station Stop. An Irish bar. Everyone in here is having a variant of the same conversation, a lot of it unintelligible to me as I’m not from is-it-the-Moors? So and so’s from New Jersey, hasn’t seen his home yet. We’re all refugees. Also the Giants swept the World Series. We congregate and continue and take a kind of heart because you know? It does feel different today, even if snippets of blue sky kept tumbling out of the grey sky and the buses were running into the city. It feels different for me while the shockingly real seems confined to Diane Sawyer’s hyper-reactions on ABC. Some people make jokes, and I do feel affected, and a part of something – though I speak to no one and there’s a distinct melancholy sitting at the bottom of this Sierra Nevada. And this, everybody, is luck. Don’t forget.

*NOTE: Writing to you now from Friday night, which marks the first day in which I hoofed it into the city across the Queensboro Bridge (the Cold War between bikers and pedestrians is alive and well). In this piece I neglected to mention a lot of the incredible kindness I’ve seen in the past few days – exchanges between strangers, friends volunteering… look at Gemma, racing around dropping off dry goods at shelters! Or any number of people who have donated time or energy to the Red Cross Relief effort! There isn’t a lesson in any of this. I’m proud to be a New Yorker, maybe. Only connect, a la EM Forster?

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