|An installation in the widow of Fishs Eddy: Messages to Hurricane Sandy|
Monday, November 12, 2012
Where do I find the words for the past two weeks? They are hiding in the dark. They are clogged in gutters. They are submerged in murky puddles. They are fractured in broken power lines. The words I am looking for got swept away by a hurricane–hurricane Sandy. Fourteen days ago I evacuated from lower Manhattan. Looking back on it now–it’s all a blur. The long lines of people stocking up on water, granola bars, peanut butter, flashlights and candles–the empty shelves–the panic and uncertainty of what was about to happen filling the air–and then everything went dark.
A few days before Hurricane Sandy blew through I was riding the 4 train, when suddenly everything came to a complete stop–the car went dark and all of us just waited in silence. After about 15 minutes, the lights flickered back on and the announcer told us that it would be another 15-minute wait because of “an incident” up ahead. The sigh of disgruntled passengers filled the car–everyone was late to somewhere–and I remember thinking to myself “if one train can clog up the entire city and make everyone late, imagine how bad it would be if something really catastrophic were to shut down the entire line.” Three days later that catastrophic thing came–hurricane Sandy–and it didn’t just shut down one train–it shut down the entire island.
If I had to pick one word to describe what the last 2 weeks have been like it would be disconnected. Not only was the city completely disconnected from the rest of the world, but I was disconnected from the rest of the island. As I stayed warm and dry on the Upper Westside, my texts and phone calls with friends downtown went silent. The only information I had came from parents that were outside the state that called with comforting words (tinged with a silent worry that loomed between the phone lines). It wasn’t until we turned on the TV that the reality of what was going on began to sink in. Lower Manhattan was under water.
The days following the storm were surreal. The Upper Westside had survived the heavy winds, and by Tuesday, the neighborhood was bustling with a mix of Upper Westsiders and refugees. For those of you that have never been to New York, people who live downtown rarely head uptown, and vice versa. We stick to our neighborhoods, to our small routines, to our local supermarkets, where we know the drill, the fastest ways to get through the line, the quickest way to get the cheese and the apples (even though they are on opposite sides of the store). But when everyone from one neighborhood (downtown) is suddenly displaced to a new neighborhood (uptown) everything suddenly feels foreign. Walking along the streets of the Upper Westside you could identify the natives from the refugees. Natives had dogs, knew their baristas, and gathered in grocery lines and sidewalk corners to chat with neighbors about how many refugees they had taken in during the storm–how many beds they had squeezed into their living rooms, how much extra hair now clogged their shower drain, and how many extra dishes they had to wash by hand thanks to their new long term guests. As a downtown refugee, I made my way through the aisles of Fairway wide eyed and wandering. Wandering and wide-eyed doesn’t work to your advantage in any grocery store in New York–or in any store in New York for that matter. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one, as I shuffled behind other refugees from downtown who I overheard on their phones saying “No I didn’t have time to even grab a change of clothes” or “The air mattress takes up their entire living room” or “Mom–I don’t know when I will be able to move back downtown” or “Where is the orange juice in this place?” As I settled into life on the Upper Westside, I began to pass by the same refugees on the street. We were the ones with messy ponytails, the same clothes and sweater we had lived in for the last 5 days and held the same expressions on our faces. We were all thinking the same thing: What is going to happen? How long will it last? When will downtown have food and water? When will we have electricity? When will the trains be up and running again? What should we do? Where are you staying? Where am I staying? Will I have school? Will I have work? When will the bridges re-open? If I had to get somewhere would I be able to find a cab? What bus takes me to where I need to go? How will I ever find a gift that really shows how thankful I am to my hosts who took me in? Will I ever be able to live in my apartment again? Do I want to even move back downtown? If I didn’t move back downtown where would I go?
To all our amazement–the city miraculously got up and running again. Slowly the waters began to recede and Manhattan began to light up–one building at a time. Unlike so many refugees around the world–I was lucky enough to stay with two amazing people (who gave me a cozy place to stay with amazing food) and eventually I was able to return home. I made it back downtown just in time for a freak snowstorm to arrive, blanketing the city in a freezing cold slush.
As a kid I remember countless drills of duck and cover. I remember climbing under my desk and folding my legs into a crumpled mess for multiple drills. I remember wrapping my arms around the leg of my desk in the event of an earthquake. I remember filing outside as a class and getting the chance to take a break midday for a practice fire drill in the “event that there is ever an emergency.” But never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that all those small–scale practice drills in elementary school would (a decade later) translate to escaping a historic hurricane to the Upper Westside. There is no drill that prepares you for that.
Here is my advice to all those small elementary school kiddos lining up to leave the classroom for a “practice drill”: make sure you have an extra pair of underwear and toothbrush in your pocket, because you never know how long it will be before you can go back to class.
This cup is for Jake and Lanie–Thank you. And for all the refugees out there–on a small scale–I know just how you feel.