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NYC Ghost Town

7 Nov

November 7, 2012

Forgive me if this post is more serious than usual but it is just a week since Hurricane Sandy struck NYC and the city has still not recovered.

I first began to realize the extent of the damage on Halloween. Although I had walked around my neighborhood the day before and took pictures of the downed trees on my block and the shattered seawall, the extent of the psychological damage was not yet clear. That day, the people I saw who, like me, came out to see for themselves what the storm had wrought, all uniformly wore the same facial expression- disbelief, and a little awe. But that was expected. We had gone out to see wreck and ruin. We wanted to see trees on cars and broken street lamps. It was like going to a carnival freak show. We went home and told our friends and family about the amazing sights and how they should have seen it for themselves and posted out pictures on Facebook with some accordingly somber status and gawked and gossiped about who had seen the worst wreckage.

Halloween was different. In some ways it was the only truly scary Halloween I have ever had.

As I have almost every year on Halloween, I drove out to see the houses decorated with the gaudy spectral spectacles and ghostly glamour that, accompanied by spooky music from the car radio, made up the Halloween backdrop of my life.

But I didn’t see any. The famous house in Bay Ridge that always decorates for Christmas and Halloween to such an extent that it makes the news, was unadorned. I drove out to Long Island to see some of the fancier and more expensive houses, maybe even some by the water where the very rich pay expensive designers to do up their homes. I didn’t get far. Much of Long Island was in total darkness. It was a dark night and there were no streetlights, no house lights, and no traffic lights. On the busy main thoroughfare of Sunrise Highway it was simply too dangerous to drive and I, like the majority of cars on the road, turned back. We left Long Island unexplored that night.

I changed the station to the all-news station to hear traffic updates.

My path next took me through Queens. I live in Brooklyn and normally don’t drive the streets of Queens, just pass through on the Belt Parkway, but this night we were hungry and we decided to go to a restaurant there. Nothing fancy, just an IHOP. I drove down Lefferts Boulevard, which I had never driven before, and was struck by two things: First, the traffic, which was very, very thick and slow-moving. The other thing was the hundreds of trick-or-treaters. It seemed really strange to see so many kids and their parents prowling around this stretch, Lefferts was mainly full of closed stores. The houses and residential streets were a block or two over. That’s where I’d expect to see the costumed kids.

Eventually the congestion got to be too much for me and I turned off and immediately realized why there were so many cars and kids (a bad combination in anyone’s book) on Lefferts: the surrounding area was blacked out. Lefferts was the only stretch of lighted street. For blocks and blocks on either side it was, just like on Long Island, pitch black.

Normally a pitch black night on Halloween would be just what you wanted, but this night the radio was full of news of people without power, food, or shelter. The kids in their plastic masks and orange goodie bags didn’t seem so spooky anymore.

We made to the IHOP and it was packed. That was no surprise, the neighborhood had no lights or power so the residents turned up there. Oh, the pancakes were good and the eggs were fluffy but most people were there just to be somewhere. It wasn’t so much a pancake house as it was a community house.

I made my home through the streets, some lit, some not, and wondered if things were getting better.

The next day I realized there was a gas shortage.

As I type, there is very little gas in Brooklyn. Ignore what you see on the news, the gas is not getting to the people and when it does it sells out, quick. I left my car parked all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I heard stories on the news about long lines and read updates from Facebook friends who waited online for up to three hours for gas. I had ¾ of a tank and figured I’d be good until near the end of the week when, hopefully, it would calm down and I could fill up normally.

I am typing this on Monday night and I am still hoping.

I took the car out this morning for the first time and drove the Belt Parkway in the daylight for the first time since before the storm. I saw what the blackness of Halloween had hidden.

I have what is usually a scenic, if crowded and construction-filled, commute to work. I take the Belt Parkway, which wraps around the southern, water-bordered edge of Brooklyn like a belt (which is honestly where the name comes from) to the Sunrise Highway which drives more of less straight through Long Island. The Belt is bordered by downed trees, huge, broken branches, and wind-borne garbage. In one stretch I saw a boat which had been blown out of the water and overland to keel over on the edge of the road. The Sunrise was no better, and so many trees were knocked over that I saw houses through the woods that I could never glimpse before.

The morning commute wasn’t too bad. Going home was worse. Being winter, and since we just set the clocks back an hour, it gets dark early this time of year. I left work a few minutes early, 4:45, and it was already getting dark. That’s when I discovered that most of the highway lights were out. Riding along with an early winter wind, through dark roads with skeletal trees encroaching, dead lamps, and flashing lights from road crews was eerie. This was my Halloween, just a few days late.

I also passed, in both directions, many convoys of army vehicles carrying, I assume and hope, relief supplies.

Long Island gas lines were bad. I passed one closed station and one whose line was much too long to consider getting on.

Brooklyn gas lines were a horror show.

I passed no stations that were pumping gas. Most were closed and all the lights were off. But there were lines, long lines. I am not exaggerating; one closed station on Bay Parkway had a line of cars eight blocks long. There was no gas. The cars were on line and parked- engines off- in the middle of the street in the expectation that at some point there would be gas. In effect there was a line of double parked cars eight blocks long with the drivers asleep, eating, doing anything but driving. And in the gas station proper were scores, maybe almost 100 people, milling around with jugs. They looked like zombies, just standing there and swaying, not even talking to each other.

I passed three other stations and the story was the same.

The impact of Hurricane Sandy is not just felt in dollars. It is not just felt in ruined homes and torn up streets, It is in the eyes of everyone who looks around and wonders when things will get back to normal. It is in the face of everyone who has no idea if they have enough gas to get to work. It is in the discomfort you can see on the people when the sun goes down and not all the lights go back on.

Things will get better. We all know that. But the haunted shell-shocked feelings will take a little while to ease.

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