Monday, November 05, 2012

I had no idea

School resumed today, after a week of classes canceled because of Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy. The students in my two classes gave me two very different pictures of what I had missed, as I sat in Madrid, sipping cafes con leche and searching the web for the latest satellite photos and newspaper articles. Not just two: everyone had a hurricane story, whether of cars floating away in the rising waters out your window or guilt at suffering no more than a brief internet interruption. Many students had walked dozens of blocks to recharge a cell phone, have a shower; one camped on the floors of five different friends, one night each. In each class the disabled old trapped without water high in elevatorless projects were mentioned, and someone knew someone who had lost a house in a town on the shore, sometimes only minutes after escaping to safety.

But there was a difference. For what it's worth, the first class, peer advisers to the first year program, described a grand adventure and the discovery of new community, if also of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots: bars in the unaffected Upper East Side, we were told, were overflowing with revelers. The second, Theorizing Religion, offered a more apocalyptic sense of pitch-black stairwells, collisions at lightless downtown intersections, and an epidemic looting. It was as if in the quarter hour between the two classes I'd moved ahead a few chapters in Blindness, José Saramago's novel of the breakdown of society.

Then I spoke to a friend who lives in central New Jersey, who described an analogous vertigo as whole exurban landscapes found themselves without power or heat - a little bit of carnival at first, and then spreading waves of uneasiness and deprivation. I realized that for her, as for many of the students, the bigger picture I was following online was unavailable: no electricity meant no television or internet. The 5000 trees felled in NYC were irrelevant when every house in their own neighborhood had lost at least one big tree, most, miraculously, not falling on houses. Much of New Jersey remains without power, and much of the worst damage was on the New Jersey shore, which may never be the same. Again, stories of close escapes from death as waves swept houses away, their residents just getting away in time.

Sandy was a big disaster, and continues to be disastrous for many - 40,000 newly homeless in New York City, for instance, just in time for our first freezing temperatures and a big new nor'easter due to arrive on Wednesday. But it was one big thing only for those, like me, watching it from outside. Trapped inside it the experience was always local, both in its highs and lows. I don't suppose anyone on the ground missed seeing the satellite photos of Sandy effacing half of North America, but many went through terrors when they couldn't reach loved ones because one or the other phone wasn't working.

Like a fool I was sitting there in Spain ruing the fact that I had, yet again, been out of town for a defining New York City disaster - 9/11, blizzard, blackout. I am sorry to have missed the spontaneous eruptions of camaraderie as restaurants in the Lower East Side cooked up their remaining food and gave it away, as groups of strangers made friends as their phones charged from streetside generators, and independent teams of volunteers made carloads of sandwiches for the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. But I'm glad not to have had the traumatic, spooking experiences of vulnerability and isolation and anger which accompanied and followed.

I hope all still suffering are quickly restored a livable world.

PS Nov 6th: After more conversations I'm getting a widely shared experience of cognitive dissonance, as some parts of the city were reduced to darkness, anxiety and  9/11-like isolation while others hummed along brightly and noisily as if nothing important had changed. Crossing 39th Street in Manhattan was like moving from one time and world to another, similarly cycling from Park Slope to Red Hook.

And another difference between my experience and that here on the ground has become clear. I knew, by the time I'd rebooked my flight on Monday, that I had four days to make use of in Madrid - though that time was obviously haunted by a nagging sense of powerlessness and obsessive efforts to keep track of people and places I cared about. Those in the midst of the story had a much tighter time horizon, not knowing from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, what to expect. Just as my God's eye satellite view was on a different, and barely human spatial scale in comparison to that of my friends and students here, so my unexpected European holiday was an almost qualitatively different experience of time...

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