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.
It was the same at all but one FEMA station: still waiting. The lines snaked around for hundreds of people and the soldiers spoke with the cops, but the food hadn’t arrived yet. The station at Clinton and Grand had water, but it wasn’t being distributed yet.
You never get to do this, bike these streets without negotiating severe traffic. If I had biked the way I did then two weeks ago, I would’ve been killed 15 times; I kept my head everywhere but the road, needing to not miss anything, but also trying to keep my mind on my assigned task. I wrote each scene in my head as it occurred, for safe keeping, and that made focusing difficult, but since no food was happening anywhere, it meant the information I needed to retain could be easily accounted for: nothing doing.
They were paying for food across the street from where food was being distributed to families by volunteers in orange vests.
Two men stood talking on a corner about how the shop owners shouldn’t be selling that food, how, no way, it couldn’t be good. They’d been there. They saw what was going on, and it didn’t have anything to do with refrigeration. They laughed.
A woman rinsed a wok in a dribbling black fire hydrant.
Children ran in zigzag formation in the path of my bike but I didn’t yell at them. Everything was quiet by the standards of midday Manhattan. Human voices were almost as loud as the sounds of distant traffic on some streets. The hands of cops were traffic signals. I disregarded them at relatively busy intersections and nothing happened, not even so much as a sharp look.
At Catherine and Monroe, we found a FEMA station with food. Members of the Guard handed relief packets to the hundreds in line. It was the last place we needed to stop before reporting back to the CAAAV. There were elderly people in line with canes and walkers. Insouciant kids made wide semi-circles running out of the line and then falling back into the clutches of their worried families. Food made it into their hands and maybe they took it back to eat in a dark apartment, by candlelight.
There were thick white candles lit in a small café across from the CAAAV headquarters on Hester. I hadn’t noticed the café before, when we first arrived, but upon returning I hardly saw anything else. People sat at tables and left paper money for the servers, along with half-eaten croissants on cream-colored plates. They were paying for food across the street from where food was being distributed to families by volunteers, some wearing orange vests, others with just the word “volunteer” written in black marker on masking tape stuck to their coats. People that had come to help. Good people, I think.
There are enough volunteers, they told us after we relayed the information about the FEMA outposts. Thank you. And from the way the woman looked around quickly at those assembled, it seemed to be true—the system would become too byzantine if we stuck around. We went home.
Back in Clinton Hill, not much had changed (aside from Road Warrior-esque lines for gasoline). It would've been nice change if I'd looked into my wallet to find blood where my money had been. But no. I went to a coffee shop and ate a complicated grilled cheese sandwich that contained Brie, rosemary, walnuts, and chocolate on a multi-grain bread. It was bullshit.
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