Walking Through a Ghost Town
Most of the photos of downtown New York in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath show deserted streets.
My neighborhood is normally characterized by honking taxis, overflowing sidewalk restaurants, and partygoers who spill out of the hotel bars and onto the cobblestone streets of the Meatpacking district. On a typical Saturday night, I wake up once or twice to the sound of blaring horns or I crawl over to the window to watch drugged-out, drunken women screaming at their lovers.
But electricity in my neighborhood fizzled out on Monday night. After a few days without power, the crowded nightlife and commercial world of the Meatpacking district had given way to emptiness.
The neighborhood was dead. The only human forms I saw on Greenwich Street were the mannequins in the shop windows. I walked down West 13th Street. The Standard Hotel came into view. The street was empty. I saw no one. But then suddenly one man, dressed in a white kitchen uniform, emerged carrying a large black plastic bag of garbage. He stared at me and I stared at him.
The Standard Hotel rises above the High Line — New York’s new narrow, elevated park that borders the Hudson River. I wondered how the Standard’s guests were managing to enter and leave the building because the hotel looks like it was built on stilts. The building’s appeal is its height over the High Line. It did not seem to have a generator. The rooms were eerily dark and its revolving door was shut with a piece of rounded yellow metal. Yet, I could see a lit chandelier on the top floor.
On Monday, before the power went out, I stayed home and read and watched a movie. The light bulb above my bed died but I didn’t bother to change it. A friend who lived in an evacuation zone had come to stay with me and we started to realize that we might be stuck in my small apartment for longer than we had anticipated.
At some point I heard the sound of police radios and walkie-talkies in the hallway. I went to the window and saw an ambulance parked outside the front of the building. I opened the door and I saw a few cops congregating in the hall. A neighbor appeared suddenly at the top of the stairs. I asked him what had happened and he said that our elderly neighbor, who had been ill for a long time, had died. The hallway filled with a putrid smell. I felt awful — I had meant earlier in the day to check to see if my elderly neighbor had needed any food, but then I heard a woman banging on his door and shouting his name, so I figured that he had had someone looking after him. Now I realized that she was looking for him.
My friend and I went out for a walk. The hallway smell was powerful. I said “Let’s take the stairs,” but my friend pushed the button to call the elevator. I did not want to wait for another moment in that smell. A police officer was still standing outside the door. The cop warned us: “I wouldn’t take the elevator now. The power could go out any minute. You don’t want to end up stuck in there.” It was still sunny outside, and only slightly windy, but Con Edison had robo-called to announce that they might cut our power preemptively.
I started down the stairs. It’s my habit anyway to take the stairs. “See“, the cop said, pointing to me, “she knows what I am thinking…”
I came back later in the day and the police were still in the hallway. They placed a green sticker over my neighbor’s door to seal the premises.
The power went out that night. It died after dark, while I was cooking some pasta on the stove. I finished making the pasta in the dark. I lit a few candles, but realized I had no candlestick holders, so I kept them inside coffee cups. An espresso cup makes a funny candle holder. It looks like the portable, nighttime candle holders you see in period films about the 19th-century, usually being carried by a man in a white nightgown and pointed sleeping cap. I looked out the window and saw people walking down my street in spite of the punishing winds. I saw what looked like a family: A tall woman in a raincoat with two little girls in matching raincoats walking beside her. The woman carried a crate for their pet and they seemed to be walking toward the river.
The police drove around the neighborhood with large, flashing lights and they started to shout something over their loudspeaker. It was mostly unintelligible, but I believe that they were shouting at people to “get back in their homes!”
Even after the police left it wasn’t that dark. A pale white light filled Greenwich Street and illuminated the darkened buildings. I wondered if it was some kind of artificial light supplied by the police, or if it was simply the moon.
The next morning the weather was fine. It was a bit drippy, but there was not much wind. Power was off throughout my area but I saw people carrying paper coffee cups. On Washington Street, the deli had remained open without power. The deli owners had brewed enormous urns of watery coffee the night before and the coffee was still hot. People lined up outside the door to get a cup of it and add in some old milk. People grabbed food and toothbrushes (and cigarettes) off the shelves and paid cash.
Suddenly a huge downpour hit and then quickly disappeared. I stood under an awning to wait it out.
Over the next few days I walked around the powerless downtown. I spent my nights uptown, at my parents’ apartment, where there was food and hot water. But during the day I walked around Bleecker Street and saw the fallen trees:
The city looked almost normal at first, but after a few minutes’ observation everything seemed strange. The dead walk signs and the slow uninterrupted glide of cars, bikes and scooters through the intersections made the city look like a small, deserted town.
I went to Canal Street to visit a secure center that houses computer servers. The center was still running on a generator; when I entered the building I was hit by a powerful smell of diesel fuel. Only one elevator still worked. The rest were shut down and blocked by Wet Floor signs. On the floor housing various companies’ servers, the lights were still on and the loud, screaming sound of dozens of cooling fans filled the space.
Outside Canal Street was quiet. Two Con Edison trucks (decorated with happy advertisements) were parked on the corner of Canal and Sixth Avenue, blocking the way to an open hole in the ground.
Walking up through SoHo, I found the streets empty. I heard the hum of generators but I only saw a few men with black garbage bags tied around their shoes sweeping some kind of mud and rotted food and debris out of their building.
Later, I walked around Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, where there was more activity. A group clustered around the bus stop. I saw a congregation gathered in the middle of the sidewalk on the east side of the avenue. Many were looking upward and many more had their cameras out. I wondered what they were looking at and then I turned and saw the now-notorious building whose facade had collapsed during the storm. It was like looking into a dollhouse. I could see a framed picture on the wall, a bed, little white radiators, dangling lights, and what looked to be the open door to a closet.
I started to walk up Eighth Avenue. City life on Eighth seemed more normal than it had just a few blocks away in the Meatpacking district. Traffic guards in neon-yellow vests had taken the place of the traffic lights, and so the cars were moving smoothly. The shops were closed, and the lights were dead, but at least people filled the sidewalks. I started the slow walk uptown.