A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 150

New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo: David Shankbone.

Sunday, September 20

Nothing says Crisis like the obviously empty apartments across New York City. Looking at One Union Square South—the much-hated building that has both a giant, spinning digital clock and a smoking hole gracing one outside wall (The New York Observer said it was “a site … where the death of aesthetics can be contemplated”)—I can see a dispiriting number of vacancies. That’s the building that also contains the mega movie theater known as Regal Union Square, and it is topped by at least 16 floors of apartments, each floor with at least a dozen units. There are empty apartments on every floor—in some cases, at least four empty units.

On another corner, the mega development known as Zeckendorf Towers also has an eye-popping number of vacancies.

But it’s always hard to know what’s happening in New York big buildings. There are likely several vacancies on our own floor. I seldom see anyone, including neighbors with whom we are friendly—such as those right next door.

I haven’t been out yet today, but it seems windy and coolish as compared with last week: Temps are now in the 60s and the 40s at night. I can see that people outside are wearing coats and heavier clothes. The weatherman says everyone should beware of dangerous rip currents and stay out of the ocean, as I intend to do.

The Times has an article on altercations over mask-wearing. There are reports of such conflicts taking place in various public places—restaurants, stores—but the most vicious ones seem to be happening on New York buses. Although “mask compliance has been generally high in most indoor settings” in the city, “dozens of drivers have been attacked after trying to enforce the rules.”

This is the anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the weatherman says.  In that year “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England.” The peak storm surge (in Rhode Island) was 17 feet higher than normal, and a reported two billion trees and 8,900 homes were destroyed. 700 people died. Ten new inlets were formed between Fire Island and East Hampton including Shinecock Inlet. Montauk temporarily became an island.

I mean, we could use another disaster. As October approaches, the traumatic memory of Hurricane Sandy returns. We were in Manhattan for the unlikely 2012 event, when a hurricane came up from the Caribbean to smash New Jersey and New York City. A nearby Con Edison power plant exploded, and lower Manhattan was without power (and consequently in our building, without water) for many days. The gas stove still worked, so we could sort-of cook whatever grub we had on hand, but we lived in the dark. Emily reminded me that, looking out into a building across the way from us, we could see a weird, inexplicable light moving around in one unit—jetting about like a tiny, aimless UFO.  It turned out that a guy was wearing a hat with a light on the top—the kind that you see some miners wearing. As he moved his head, the light zoomed around. He was the UFO.

It turned very cold as the storm moved away, and there was no heat here. So for a few nights, we moved out, staying in spaces we were able to borrow. We were afraid of what we might find at our East Hampton house, so we only went out there some days later.

We have to keep our fingers crossed, but who could be surprised if a hurricane hit during this year of gobsmacking events: a Presidential impeachment, an international pandemic that has killed over 900,000 around the planet, a severe economic recession, police killings and Black Lives Matter demonstrations/riots, hellish West Coast wildfires, the Beirut explosion, Justice Ruth Ginsberg’s death, and, very likely, a near civil war over the coming Presidential election results. Next!

Dinner: We’re emptying out the larder as we prepare to return to Long Island. Lentil soup with hotdogs and a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: The twisty and entertaining crime drama Ozark on Netflix, along with one episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 78

Hurricane Sandy in 2012. New York Daily News photo

Tuesday, May 26

Two more deliveries this morning, both for me: prescription drugs and a nonstick muffin tin. 

More and more, this East Hampton cottage seems like our true residence. We can only wonder what things would be like if we were still at our Manhattan apartment. How often would we encounter neighbors? Is everybody still maintaining social distance and wearing masks? Would we risk taking a potentially crowded elevator—or walk up and down a daunting 18 flights of stairs?

We managed those stairs during the electrical outage brought on by Hurricane Sandy back eight years ago. The events of that time were particularly surreal.

We were already concerned about increasingly severe hurricane seasons, but they seemed largely to affect Florida or the Carolinas. Then came Sandy, which tracked inland until it struck New Jersey and New York City. We were in Massachusetts as the storm approached, so (insanely) we hurried back to New York and arrived just in time to experience the punishing winds and the explosion at the 14th Street Con Edison power station that led to a blackout of lower Manhattan. 

The result was a divided city: Above 42nd Street, everything operated normally, but in lower Manhattan there were no lights, no nothing. One lasting memory is looking out from our 18th floor window at an apartment in Zeckendorff Towers across the way, where a tenant was wearing a miner’s hat with a light attached to the front. After dark, you would no longer see the person, just this ghostly light moving around in his space.

An 18-floor climb can be brutal, particularly if you are carrying food or other stuff. We did manage the stairs a few times, even slogging buckets of water up several flights since the lack of electricity meant our apartment had no water either.

The city ran its buses without charge. On a couple of occasions, we took a crowded bus up to 42nd Street and went to a branch of my gym there in order to take hot showers. Other people must have been doing that too: The gym ran out of bath soap, so I once washed off my body with shampoo.

Finally, as it began turning cold in late October, the lack of heat made us move out of the building altogether.

Here and now, there are many unreal aspects to existence as well. I don’t think in pre-lockdown life that my days were quite so centered on making dinner. Today, I’ve already begun cutting up vegetables and chicken for tonight’s chicken soup. And I even have begun thawing ground beef as I contemplate making hamburgers for tomorrow night. Weather forecasts play a role: Tomorrow afternoon is supposed to be partly sunny, so a cookout should be possible. Thursday is supposed to bring more rain.

Shortly, I am going out to the small Damark store to get stuff that Peapod failed to deliver: lettuce, carrots, yeast, rice, and the ever-desired, increasingly expensive toilet paper. While there, I will attempt to get more chicken stock and walnuts.

So, for dinner: avgolemono soup and salad.

Entertainment: the last episodes of Safe.