Dark City

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Tyler Magyar explores the blacked out neighborhoods of Manhattan and discovers a new fondness for New York City.

darkcity01

I watched the hurricane pass from a small bedroom with a large window. The glass seemed thin, its panes trembling as the winds intensified. My two housemates and I sat along a low table in the living room. We drank and ate as the wind howled. I traced the storm’s trajectory along my computer screen with a single finger. A thousand pixels away, maybe.

The hurricane spun quickly up the Atlantic. I closed the thick wooden shutters, fearful a strong gust would make an easy example of the old glass. Now the three of us sat together, awestruck in precautionary candlelight. In the distance, an electrical transformer exploded, bathing our apartment in an intense light, first green, then yellow. It rained, hard, and there seemed to be no air, only wind. Police roared by as a nearby fence blew away, one piece at a time. Then the storm disappeared, but not without fantastic resistance.

The truth runs thicker, murkier, far more dismal than my own experience. As Hurricane Sandy bounded north from the deep Caribbean until dissipating near Canada, a tragic many lost their lives. Others were left homeless, stranded, or otherwise in need. A hamlet in Queens was burnt to nothing. Homes and storefronts were brutalized, roads and tunnels were flooded, and trees were obliterated. Infrastructure collapsed and still struggles a week later. Traces of this storm will exist for months, perhaps years.

It was an awful storm, a storm whose true wrath I can’t begin speak of.

I can speak of what I know, mostly from brief phone calls. The string of small towns which held host to my childhood, all along the New Jersey shoreline, were bullied and thrashed and mostly defeated. The boardwalk where my parents began their business — where I was born — was weathered into driftwood. A rollercoaster now sits in the Atlantic Ocean, a sad and useless skeleton. Across the shoreline, many homes have become shells, ideas, placeholders. Somewhere to sleep, in certain instances, though without much comfort.

Wounded, these people will recover.

darkcity02

Our city is a glorious orgy of things, most of all resilient. We’ve rebuilt, albeit expensively. We’ve rebounded slowly. On September 12, 2001, speeches were made atop rubble while I draped my suburban porch with an old American flag. We were strangers and neighbors, a chorus not of our choosing, and we were beautiful. I feel that now, again, a sense of calm and hope. New York City, in times of peril and strength, is an electric place.

My street in Brooklyn was left relatively unscathed. Two trees fell, one at each intersection, as if fencing us in. Such was the metaphor, feeling stranded without being so. I heard of people in dire situations, of neighborhoods underwater or at-risk. They were truly trapped, while I sat behind wood-shuttered windows and waited.

As Hurricane Sandy passed over our heaping metropolis, New Yorkers took to the internet to post offers of beds and couches, meals and safety. Many of my friends are among this improvised support system. I imagine these people didn’t have all that much: a few square feet, a bed, a bowl of soup, a handle of whiskey, an electrical outlet. I felt so close yet so far, in a little room with a big window.

Electric currents never stopped passing through the walls of that little room, a space on loan by two generous friends while I look for my own apartment. I had enough baked beans and peanut butter to last a few days. I was waiting for a paycheck, a critical document wasting away in a dark Midtown office. In waiting, I’d overdrafted my bank account $80 or so, but I was fine — fortunate, even. I had enough, a little bed and that window.

Which is why I wanted to see the dark city.

It was just after 7 p.m. I bundled up and headed west. I stopped at a little wine shop beneath a horrible condominium and wondered if my card would work. It did, so I packed away a bottle of Austrian wine, its screw-cap closure ideal for clandestine sipping. Fuel, of sorts. -$90. Onward.

Manhattan-bound, most people on the Brooklyn Bridge were walking toward me. I felt intrepid, perhaps a little stupid. Mostly, I just felt cold. My tweed blazer was the thickest coat I had, with big front pockets for a flashlight and my phone and, occasionally, that bottle. Slightly warmer. More confident.

Coming into Lower Manhattan was, at best, chilling. At worst, it was frightening. Everything disappears into darkness. City Hall was a grayed monolith, shadowed throughout. The only sound was a dull rumbling. Sometimes there was no sound. This, the financial capital of the world, was darkened beyond my most dire predictions. I loved and hated it. I took a piss on the steps to the courthouse. I kept my flashlight off and continued to walk north.

Chinatown was feat of pitch-black, a ghost town. The only signs of life buzzed across Canal Street, lit by frenzied headlights. I wagged my flashlight back and forth and ran across the street. Two cars barely paused for me. Old Police Headquarters loomed in the distance like an elegant yet gloomy silhouette. A man and woman stumbled across the sidewalk in Halloween attire, a burlesque singer and a clown. Drunk and laughing, they seemed horribly sordid given their surroundings. I smiled but quickened my pace.

darkcity03

A darkened patch lit up suddenly, exposing someone who had been walking ahead of me unnoticed. Come the next corner, they disappeared. I had been alone until then, save for the clown and some cops and the homeless, now more anonymous than ever before. Others began to emerge, whispering along the silent streets. Broadway was like Canal Street, only more dangerous and urgent. Walking up towards SoHo and through Nolita, those on the sidewalks kept a hurried pace. We were all strangers somehow allied, though free to appear and disappear with the simple flick of a switch.

In the city of shadows, it was hard to gauge someone’s purpose, intent, or destination. Some were home-bound. Others must have been like me, merely curious. The rest, I thought, could be looters or otherwise ill-intended. Exaggerated as it seemed, there was no way of knowing. I’ve heard stories. I was alone. I flicked my light back off, disappearing.

The bars along the Bowery and its side-street estuaries all seemed closed. The vast majority were. A handful remained open, lit modestly by tea lights. I presumed these places only accepted cash. If I had ten bucks, I would have indulged myself. Instead, I took a sip of my wine and trekked onward. A doorman nodded, as if to approve, from a dark lobby.

The trek had taken over two hours by the time I hit Union Square, or at least the dark open patch were Union Square is supposed to be. It was brighter there than elsewhere, sure, but only because the struggling electric company was down the block and each corner boasted a stainless steel trailer serving kebabs and lamb sandwiches. In lieu of skateboarders and drunks and commuters, Union Square was a hub of halal trucks. Unpredictably, they set up shop all across Lower Manhattan. Five bucks could get you a warm dinner until late along Prince Street, Duane, Hester, and at the base of each bridge.

darkcity04

Walking up Lexington, each street was slightly less empty than the last. More and more places were open, though not many. Some places — people, even — seemed unaware of the blackout. Again, not many. In the distance, there was light. Behind me, only shadows. Uptown wasn’t an oasis, just somewhere different. I continued through the 20s, just shy of the border. It felt foreign. I had become acquainted with the dark, with the huddled masses and the candles, the thrill, the simplicity. I took a photograph, then retreating back towards the darkened city I’d grown familiar with. I was out of town when those earlier blackouts hit, and was bizarrely jealous that everyone else got to experience it. Blacked-out New York seemed exciting because it was different, an adventure. Now I was there, drinking some wine on Astor Place and pissing where I pleased, invisible. I looked up at a candlelit window, wondering what the people inside were doing. It was almost midnight. Just like when I stepped foot into the dark of Manhattan, I didn’t know how I felt. I loved it. I hated it.

I left the new New York and came home, closed my shutters, and slept. Like everyone else, I woke to sunlight. Eight million people, alive with light. At least we have that in common.

We have one more thing in common here: the city itself. New York City is, to begin with, confused. It’s expensive and abrasive, harsh and fast. It is a city of the glamorous, geniuses, motherfuckers, and delinquents. It is unique, beautiful, and it is suffering.

But New York recovers as it suffers.

Soon, the water will recede and power will return. Homes will be rebuilt and trees replanted, our hurried pace restored. We will take the subway and complain; we’ll pay bills and get drunk and forget, a little bit, because forgetting is a part of moving on. But there will always be a reminder, through things new and repaired, through photographs shared and stories told.

The truth is, I love New York no more or less than I did last week. I won’t feel any different next week, either. Nothing has changed here but everything, and we’re accustomed to that. I don’t write this because I feel different. I write this because I feel the same.

I love this city.

darkcity05

Tyler Magyar worries too much and lives in the Northeastern United States. He hopes to one day archive his entire memory in ornate, fragrant boxes. He is a good dinner guest, a satisfying cuddler, and a terrible liar. A post-rock band will play at his wedding, where there will be a lot of speeches. Tyler's projects can be found on his website.