Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
From the passenger seat of a car heading northeast on the BQE, I saw the bottom of Manhattan without light. The buildings closest to the water and extending back for miles were dark. After a certain point, electricity returned, making the island look like a foot with a blackened toe. This was on Halloween.
Photos on Instagram and news reports I read on my phone had showed better, more artistically angled shots of the same thing, but from the car it became real. Of course, I only had unreal points of reference: 28 Days Later, The Stand. Since the hurricane had trapped me in an apartment in Clinton Hill, I had seen no real destruction, just a handful of smashed trees and a broken White Castle sign. Hurricane Sandy was a cinematic phenomenon for much of Brooklyn's interior, so when I saw the skyline without lights, I only had cinema as reference. Art’s only useful to a point, especially in moments like this, so when my girlfriend suggested we bike into Chinatown to deliver water and food I agreed.
We had forgotten the batteries; they sat on the top shelf of a closet in our apartment. They wouldn’t power any flashlights when the sun went down.
Two days after Halloween we biked across a far quieter Manhattan Bridge than I’m accustomed to: no trains screeched alongside the dozen or so people we passed pedaling. In my backpack I had cans of soup and fruit, peanut butter, vitamins, and cookies. My girlfriend carried a case of water, more soup, and more fruit. We had forgotten the batteries; they sat on the top shelf of a closet in our apartment. They wouldn’t power any flashlights when the sun went down.
Halfway across the bridge, I remembered that the traffic signs would be out. I imagined a car hitting my bike and killing me. I should’ve imagined a bus. City buses and charter buses ran the streets, were a much heavier presence than cabs and non-commercial vehicles. Some stopped before intersections. Most only slowed. People carried rolling luggage down Canal Street. Turning onto Allen, I heard a the crashing sound of a generator. I would only hear four, maybe five more during the course of the afternoon.
One generator powered a small shop where seafood sat outside on ice, the prices illegible to me. People seemed to be buying the food.
Another sat humming and rattling next to a card table, the kind with folding legs that never lock quite right, covered with power strips and crisscrossed with cords from cell phones and chargers. People clustered around the pile, waiting.
At Hester and Essex, where the CAAAV, a community-based organization that helps low-income Asian immigrants and refugees in New York, had set up shop, your cell phone couldn’t help you. Verizon wasn’t providing anything, neither was AT&T. After we unloaded the food and water, one of the CAAAV volunteer organizers asked for help from people with bikes. We shouted out, Yes, we would help, and were told to travel to different FEMA outposts to find out which ones, if any, were distributing food. With the phones down, the CAAAV couldn’t contact any of the outposts, but they needed to know if they could send people in need to them.
Heading north, we went to Houston, then rode east till we hit Pitt. A camouflaged vehicle reversed slowly down the street while NYPD officers watched. It parked alongside two other camo vehicles that stood out against the buildings helplessly. A cop with a serious handlebar mustache said they weren’t distributing yet, that they were waiting for the National Guard to deliver the food. It should be around 1:30, he said. It was a little after 12 p.m. We biked on.