There Are 3 New Yorks Today: My Last 24 Hours in Manhattan

One is underwater. One is dark, but dry. And one is basically normal.

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NEW YORK -- This city is proudly kaleidoscopic. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there are three New Yorks. The first is underwater. The second is dry and dark. And the third is, rather miraculously, as close to normal as anybody could possibly expect after what might be the worst storm to touch Manhattan in recorded history.

And that is the single most surprising thing about being a New Yorker in the wake of Sandy. In the span of a 20 minute bike ride from Lower Manhattan to the 50s, you can pass one city floating underwater, one city dark and abandoned, and, finally, one city with lights and coffee lines and frantic people pushing through throngs of pedestrians -- in other words, typical New York.

MONDAY

For most of last night, before the lights went out in terrifying fashion, my roommates and I were firmly and snugly in the latter New York.

The streets of Battery Park, where I had wandered around in a Halloween costume no more than 48 hours earlier, now resembled an aquarium in the photos coming over Twitter and the local news. On the other side of Manhattan's southern tip, the Lower East Side was a pool of bobbing car hoods. But in our apartment, eleven stories up in Union Square, buffeted from both rising rivers by six avenue blocks, there was, simply, boredom. We were hungry. We were antsy. We were sick of protein bars and bananas, which, devastatingly, made up about 90% of our food supply. Every few seconds, the windows looking over 17th Street throbbed and flexed. But so far, the weather reaching the middle of the island wasn't hideous. It was barely even inclement.

And so, with the sky darkening, we went hunting for booze. A block and a half away, the only lighted window in sight, was Lillies Victorian Establishment. For all we knew, it was the southern-most bar open on Manhattan.

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Two hours and a few stiff drinks later, we left from the bar. The street loomed in spooky stillness. A short walk from Lillies, 13-foot storm surges were swallowing cars whole and breaching the fortress of the subway system. But our two-block walk down 17th St was characterized mostly by drizzle. On occasion, an awning trembled lightly. It seemed the storm had missed us, completely.

In 60 seconds, the Con Edison plant on 14th Street would suffer a explosion taking out power for tens of thousands of customers in Lower Manhattan -- including our apartment.

We opened glass door of our apartment building and walked toward the elevator -- 30 seconds.

"We're not supposed to take the elevator," Matt said, walking to the stairs.

"We live 11 floors up. It's not even windy. We're talking the elevator," Dave said.

"I don't think we should."

We got in the elevator -- 15 seconds.

Somebody knocked the glass door behind me.  I had never seen him before. I opened the door and turned back toward the elevator where Dave stood. The lights flickered. A brilliant blue plume lit up the sky. Somebody behind me screamed "Oh my God!" Suddenly, Dave was standing in the dark. A transformer had exploded spectacularly, blackening everything in sight -- including our elevator.

We took the stairs.

TUESDAY

The streets of New York had never been so easy to navigate as they were this morning. For once, every family, couple, and group of friends were walking in the same direction: uptown and toward the lights. In Lower Manhattan, there are two New Yorks -- underwater or dark and dry. This morning, both were in mass exodus toward their friends above the 40s, past of the outer rim of the power outage.

Once you pass 40th St, and the lights return, and the lines to coffee shops spill out halfway down the block, it's hard to imagine that we share an island with the images from Lower Manhattan -- like this dramatic photo from Battery Park, by my roommate, taken just this morning:

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For now, there's nothing to do but find outlets and be patient. The power will be down for four days. The subway will be down for four days. I'm squeezed between eleven people from Union Square, West Village, East Village, and the Lower East Side crammed on a couch on the Upper East Side. Half of us is drinking beers and playing Trivial Pursuit. The other half is catching up on work and whispering the answers to our friends when other people aren't looking. Predictably, inevitably, the three New Yorks came together.


Michael Diamond

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.


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