Friday, November 2, 2012

Darkness Falls

Gotham is dark

North on Church St.

Broadway and Houston

Looking south from SoHo

East Village. Down the street there was a man screaming himself hoarse about how he couldn't take the darkness anymore.

Downed tree w/ flares on Houston

Haves and Have-Nots. Two buildings in the same complex.

Last night around midnight I was sitting watching a basketball game and feeling disgusted with myself for being so removed from the situation affecting so many of my fellow New Yorkers. Feeling cagey, I decided I would go and see the dark city for myself. Fifteen minutes later I drove over the Brooklyn Bridge into a world I can only describe as intensely surreal. Gripped by a strange blend of excitement and terror, I worked my way all across the blacked-out areas of lower Manhattan. Despite the relative calm and quiet, or perhaps because of it, it truly felt post-apocalyptic.

Driving with no signals is a matter of personal style. Some just hit the gas and honk. Others stop at every intersection and flash their beams. Others just steadily and cautiously creep along. With the streets nearly deserted, I began very cautiously but soon I was weaving and back and forth across the avenues, making wild turns, circling Astor Place totally ignoring the one-way signs, and driving in reverse up the center of Broadway while desperately scanning for people trying to cross the street behind me.

There were very few pedestrians, most of them young and in groups of three or more. The few people out alone walked with a speed and gait that seemed practiced to project strength and avoid conflict. Flashlights would waggle at me from the dark and then vanish. People would appear suddenly in the high beams and then disappear without at trace. Strangely, despite the situation almost everyone was dressed head-to-toe in black. I cursed them for their low visibility. Then as I was walking across 5th avenue with headlights closing on me fast I realized that I too was blacked-out with the exception of my grey shoes. It is frighteningly easy to become invisible.

At one point I was strolling down a deserted, pitch-black street and I stopped to take a few photos. Only after a minute or so did I notice there was a man standing in the dark a few feet away from me, silently smoking. Later I heard someone peeing in a building alcove, the sound bouncing around in the quiet of the canyon walls. On a shockingly dark block of Broadway, three men spoke in shouted whispers as they moved something out of a store front and into their van, all of them dressed in black and with no flashlights. Everyone seemed suspicious and everyone seemed to size each other up, scanning for some sign of intentions.

The few lights there were felt almost as unnerving as the darkness. Walking past a building and seeing flashlight beams dance around in an apartment your gut reaction is that there must be an intruder. Empty cop cars were positioned outside banks, their searchlights fixed on the doors. Elsewhere police vans sat with their flashers on, silently streaking a frenetic red and blue across everything. The generator-powered carts of street vendors blinked furiously-bright led "HOT DOGS HOT DOGS HOT DOGS" to empty, inky streets. Unattended flares lit some hazards while others were just hastily tangled in yellow tape and left in the road. The insanely powerful work lights of the repair crews blinded my straining eyes as I drove from black to bright to black. But mostly there was the impossible darkness, spotted with red taillights.

Driving back over the bridge into Brooklyn felt like driving from the dark desert to the Vegas strip. You don't realize just how bright the city is at 2 am until you see it the other way. Now stopping at the brilliant red glow of a traffic light guarding an empty intersection suddenly felt ridiculous, and I actually missed the anarchy of the darkened streets. I'm glad I experienced the city for myself but once home I was very grateful for my ability to sit in relative normalcy and care about the statistics of a basketball game. Much like how an icy dog walk can cure cabin fever in winter. I hope the lights are back on soon, and forever and ever.