The last time I was in New York the talk was of tanks on the street post 9/11. M. was 8 months pregnant and I’d come to interview Joan Didion for the Observer. Political Fictions, her book on the political process, was just out. We drank sherry as it blizzarded outside and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took a call from his cardiologist to discuss his heart fibrillations.
While I’ve been away, cab fares have gone up. Sixty bucks to get into the city from the decidedly shabby JFK (No change there, then) In between meetings with publishers, I walk the High Line beneath an overcast sky. Its unseasonably warm. I drink June Brides with a journalist friend who hosted literary salons in her East Village walk-up, back in the 90’s. We’ve grown up and so has the city, stuffed full of designer stores and bankers, able to afford Manhattan’s rates.
I go uptown. At the Barnes & Noble on Fifth, I pick up a copy of Just Kids, Patti Smith’s love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, and retreat into 70’s New York when Sam Shepherd and Susan Sontag might show up at a poetry reading and you could get a room at the Chelsea Hotel with a couple of drawings.
We go to Fire Island to close up M.’s house. A sandbar that serves as a buffer between Long Island and the Atlantic, Fire Island is a summer refuge for anxious New Yorkers. Forty-eight hours after we leave, the jetty where the ferry docks will be under ten feet of water. Right now there’s time for the kids to go trick or treating. Hermiones, aliens and a dead Katy Perry run along the sandy paths as the sea shimmers with deceptive calm. We eat a pot luck dinner at the fire house and discuss whether to take the last ferry out the next day, scheduled for 2pm. By 11am waves are lapping at the steps of the fire house. Mandatory evacuation of the island has been ordered by Suffolk County. Hurricane Sandy, renamed Candy to mark Halloween, is due to make landfall within twenty four hours – the day my flight home is scheduled to leave.
The airports shut down, so do the schools, subways and stations. Now I’m stuck. We’re instructed to go home and wait indoors for Sandy to hit. We watch Mayor Bloomberg on TV preparing the city for the worst; I’m reminded of the sheriff before the gunfight at O.K. Corral. Everyone loves Bloomberg. Even the liberals. He’s non-partisan and gets stuff done. Of course, he’s a billionaire which helps. We follow the progress of the rising tides on Twitter. Photos of dark oily waters making their way up past Battery Park are accompanied by an eery silence, pierced by the occasional wail of sirens. At 8pm the lights blink once, twice and we’re plunged into darkness. We lose internet access; the phone lines die.
We revert to the radio. Water is surging just as Mitt Romney was surging in the polls last week. The Harvest Moon is effecting the tides; the Hudson River has burst its banks and reached 23rd and 10th. We’re on 21st and 8th. We light candles. I catch up on widespread corruption in China and Paul Ryan’s bid for power, reading a stack of old New Yorkers. We go outside to talk to the doorman. “Everything is okay,” he says. I peer down the street in search of a tsunami. Nothing but black. We decide to go to bed.
In the light of day, it becomes clear that no one was prepared for superstorm Sandy, not even the Storm Team on NBC. We stand in the kitchen, debating how long the food in the refrigerator will last, and listen to the radio. The tunnels are full of water. The threat of structural damage is ‘very present’ and there’s no way off Manhattan.
“We can repair the bridges and tunnels, but 3.5 million people have no power,” says Governor Cuomo on WNBC.
A neighbour stops by, complaining she can’t make coffee.
“Have you lost your gas?”
“I can’t get a flame.”
“Try using a match.”
M.’s mother recounts living at One Fifth Avenue in the 80’s when Robert Mapplethorpe was dying of AIDS. M.’s best friend was allergic to cats; their apartment made her sneeze so they would meet in the elevator, joined by Patti Smith staggering in and pressing P for Penthouse.
We head uptown. Queues have formed outside every diner and restaurant above 27th where the lights are still on. Upper West Siders pose in front of Central Park’s ancient oaks, blown over, now blocking the pavement. People are walking dogs in Halloween costumes. The big tent in Central Park, used to host the spaghetti dinner the night before the New York marathon, is going up. For now, it seems the show must go on (On Friday, Bloomberg will bow to public pressure and cancel the marathon)
We ‘juice up’ at a friend’s place on 86th and watch the news on TV. Obama looks exhausted. The talk is of whether he really is a friend of Israel. Traditional democrat voters, creative types, are considering voting for Romney, Netanyahuy’s new best friend. We pay a small ransom to get back downtown. Cab drivers, the winners in Sandy’s free market, have been given permission by the Mayor to switch off their meters.
I call British Airways to discover that my flight has, once again, been cancelled.