In Union Square the chess players sit alone under the statue of George Washington waiting for a game. A Latino family, father, mother and son, sit on the sidewalk holding cardboard signs and singing. “I’ll be your friend, when you’re not strong.” The big chain stores are closed but the bodegas are open and Muslim and Chinese storekeepers charge up to ten dollars for a gallon of water. New York City in blackout, in short, is much like New York City as usual.
The electronics stores are closed and the wine stores are open. A chalk sign outside one darkened store reads, “Screw electricity.” NYU students crowd the bus stops and French tourists elbow their way through the crowd on the way to a cheaply expensive hotel. A massive ancient tree lies torn out of the earth in the old 16th Street park and residents crowd around sticking their iPhones through the 19th Century ironwork of the shuttered park to get a photo. A photo of devastation.
Recording disaster has become instinct. I saw dozens of people taking photos on September 11 and the number would have increased by a factor of x10 If the modern smartphone with its 8 megapixel camera had been present in 2001. A click of a touchscreen and the photo is uploaded to Facebook to be shared around the world with people who like gawking at broken things.
The departure of the internet accompanies the return of drive time news radio and the shocking reminder of what the media is really like. On WINS a cheerful male anchor runs through the list of catastrophes. “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” he says about a flooded town, almost chuckling at the joke. “The town of Little Ferry sure lived up to its name,” he says of another. The obscenities repeat themselves every 10 minutes intersecting with audio clips of survivors who only have a few seconds to mention the water or how much they lost before the whole things cut to a commercial.
With a million Con Edison customers out of power, the commercial is naturally for Con Edison, but it isn't one of those, “We’re working as hard as we can” ads that utilities run while their customers curse them in the dark, instead it’s an ad touting Con Edison’s Diversity Supplier Program which distributes supplier contracts based on race, instead of competence. Even liberals would not have been reassured by the timing.
Chris Christie is everywhere, flying around in the helicopter and landing just long enough to survey the destruction. A few minutes later he is launching into an anecdote about jet skiers rescuing 80 year old ladies on jet skis. “All they wanted was a photo with me and then they were off,” he says, reminding the audience that while the governor is trying to be the Rudy Guiliani of this news cycle, he isn’t Rudy.
While shopping for supplies, Senator Schumer comes on the radio and in his best oily voice, informs beleaguered shoppers that he has gotten calls from Republicans and Democrats and assures us that this issue will not be politicized. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, an unseen heckler supplies in the rugs and mops aisle.
An hour of this is enough to remind me of how unprofessional professional news is and how much better Sean Hannity was at this during the last blackout through the simple expedient of jettisoning the formula and supplying helpful information. There is no helpful information on AM news anymore, with the brief exceptions of traffic and weather, just ghoulish exploitation of tragedy in the same cheerful voice that is then used to sell Carbonite, computer backup for only 59.99 a year.
The NYPD is doing what it does best, cutting off streets and telling people where to go. A pile of ordure in the morning acts as evidence that the mounted police were deployed at some point during the night. But the amount of actual crime appears negligible. One store window is lightly broken, more likely a result of the storm than casual vandalism. But being cut off from collective news sources also acts as a reminder of how news shapes perceptions.
Without a news report, I have no idea if the blackout and storm were accompanied by a massive crime wave or hardly any crime at all. As people did a century ago and as many still do, I can only judge larger events by my perceptions. The status of crime in New York City is determined entirely by the number of unbroken store windows that I pass among the darkened stores selling handbags, artisanal cookies and neck massages on my quest to find working internet. But the moment I pass along that perception, then I am once again creating news and the entire cycle of collective perception repeats itself again.
Past 40th Street on the East Side and 26th Street on the West Side, there is power and I recognize the phenomenon first through the sight of distant red traffic lights. “Do Not Walk,” they say, and I walk on. On the radio a politician talks about revisiting the unity of September 11, but that’s a cheerful story to sandwich between commercials for motor oil and a reality show about Texas bachelorettes.
On September 11, we briefly came to the awareness of a common enemy, but now we remain in our old divisions, those who have and those who have not, those who define themselves by race and those who do not, the woman screaming loudly about how Bush did not find any Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq four years past the point when that kind of thing was fashionable and the young girl in duck boots saying, “Omigod,” over and over again into a cellphone until it becomes its own mantra.
We are on an island and we are islands. The prosperous smiling natives paying 10 dollars for a quart of sink water reprocessed in Michigan bottling plants and paying double to travel downtown in a taxi and the immigrants who take their money, but hardly ever smile. There are the gangs who plot looting sprees on Twitter and the Long Island cops who leave behind their families to drive around the streets telling them to go home. There are the people in flooded homes and the news anchors cheerfully asking them how it felt to lose everything they have.
The finance expert with a Lithuanian accent tells his broker over a shaky connection in an internet café to sell the dollar and a male model named Justice chats about San Francisco. They are all New York and they aren’t New York, because New York City is an idea and it can be hard to live inside an idea. New York is immigrant neighborhoods full of people who want to live just like they did back home while making more money and having access to free social services. New York is British brokers straight out of the City putting in their time before they go somewhere glamorous, like Dubai.
New York is the remnants of its working class, hiding out deep in Brooklyn or leaving city limits for Long Island or New Jersey. New York is the place that you see in movies which shoot on every block, tangling their cables like snakes around fire hydrants while their refreshment tables full of sliced avocados stretch on forever.
New York is the idea of the Everycity, the city that never stops because it is always busy doing things and being things. It is the idea that we can leave behind our roots and our histories to create a new glamorous history out of the fragments of everyone else trying to do the same thing at the same time. And when I look back, surrounded by the floor to sky video screens of Times Square as the darkness grows, all I see are the outlines of dark towers and the lights of the endless traffic of secretaries, brokers, cops and doctors, professors, porters, drug dealers, antiques appraisers, actors and drivers, prowling through the night.