New York to Sandy: ‘Blow Me’

Storm-battered city reels, then shrugs off disaster

web sandy illo 1 robertgrossman New York to Sandy: Blow Me

Illo: Robert Grossman

As The Observer was going to press on Tuesday, the death toll from what appeared to be the most devastating storm our city has ever experienced was up to 18, after 80 mph winds battered the city and waves as high as 14 feet washed through its streets. Among the storm’s victims were Jessie Streich-Kest and Jacob Vogelman, a pair of friends in their early 20s who were found under a fallen tree in Ditmas Park, having ventured out to walk Jessie’s dog. The subways were slowly draining of water and nobody knew when the system would groan to life again. More than 80 homes had burned to the ground in Breezy Point. As many as 750,000 New Yorkers were without power. The financial markets were down. Schools were closed. People were throwing around estimates of losses in the many, many billions.

A giant crane dangled limply, forebodingly from the side of the most prestigious new address in town.

Eleven years after the World Trade Center attacks, our city was again under siege. The sun was up there, somewhere, but the recovery was just beginning.

Not too long ago—or was it forever?—back when the name Sandy brought to mind a loyal mutt beloved of a plucky red-haired orphan and a tropical depression without a name was just stirring to life in the Caribbean Sea southwest of Jamaica, it was fashionable to complain that New York was getting soft. It seemed back then that the safety-first ethos of our anxiety-prone mayor, a Jewish mother at heart, who really just wanted us to be happy and healthy and well-fed, risked fundamentally altering the character of the city.

That would have been impossible to imagine in the ’70s, the ’80s or the ’90s, when the frisson of danger that seemed so endemic to life here lent every resident an Urban Survival merit badge for the dubious feat of actually making a home for ourselves. In exchange, we dealt with the grit, the graffiti, the vaudevillian array of chains and deadbolts on every apartment door, and the muggings so prevalent (in 1981, around four times the annual number that we have today) that it was thought prudent to carry around a second wallet.

It came with the territory. It was New York. You lived with it. Because, lunatic though it appeared to friends and relatives who lived elsewhere, you lived here.

Little by little, in the years since the Twin Towers fell, living in New York became a lot like living everywhere else. But not this week.

This week, things got scary.

WE’D SHRUGGED OFF the latest would-be terrorist attack on our city—an attempt by a 21-year-old Bangladeshi student living in Queens to do, as he explained to an FBI informant posing as a member of al Qaeda, “something big. Something very big. Very, very, very, very big, that will shake the whole country.” Having parked a van containing 1,000 pounds of explosives in front of the Federal Reserve Bank on Liberty Street, he tried to detonate it via cell phone switch from a room in the Millennium Hotel. To his surprise, it was fake.

A few days later, police would collar one of their own, Gilberto Valle of the 26th Precinct in Manhattanville, for the crime of tapping into state and federal law enforcement databases for his personal use. Which isn’t that serious a transgression, except that his personal use entailed plotting to kidnap, rape, torture, murder, roast and eat as many as 100 women.

Mr. Valle was instantly dubbed the Cannibal Cop, and then was promptly forgotten as the city received news of an even more horrific crime. After taking her 3-year-old daughter, Nessie, for a swim lesson, Manhattan mom Matilda Krim returned to her apartment on the Upper West Side to find her two other children, Lucia and Leo, lying in the bathtub in a pool of blood, and their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, on the floor beside them with stab wounds in her neck. The children died. The nanny survived but remains in a medically induced coma, so we’ll have to wait awhile to ask her why.

WE KNOW THE WORLD is full of horrors. But knowing things and feeling them are different. Based on Samhain, the millennia-old festival marking the moment when the wall between our world and the “other world” is at its thinnest, Halloween is still an entertaining way to process our fears. But we have lots of ways of doing that now.

One is to coo lullabies to ourselves and go to sleep. That’s how we’ve dealt with the greatest collective danger we have ever faced, the warming of the planet, about which all of our leaders in both parties have failed, utterly, cravenly, bewilderingly, to speak a meaningful word.

Then along came a hurricane to nudge us awake.

In an instant, fear came back, and this time it was a little harder to shunt aside. Amid the hurricane parties and the hurricane sex and the endless onslaught of 140-character irony and bravado and awe and confusion, we all felt it this time. This is bad. The meteorologists were talking about a “perfect storm,” an unprecedented weather event, a #Frankenstorm.

Monday afternoon, The Observer stood on the bike path in Hudson River Park at around 30th Street and watched the river beginning to crash over the embankment. Joggers were out. Tourists were posing for pictures in front of the scene. Water finds its own level, we thought. The illusion that Manhattan is an island surrounded by rivers began to fall away. More accurately, Manhattan is a shallow bump in the surface of the Earth—just like so many other bumps, some underwater, others peeking through now and then for some period of time.

Around midnight on Monday, as that crane dangled in the air atop the city’s gleaming new “billionaire magnet,” and 215 patients were being hurriedly evacuated from NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and façades were falling off of buildings and transformers were exploding and fires were burning and people dying, the novelist Bret Easton Ellis fired a tweet out into the storm:

Yet another reason not to live in New York, he wrote.

Mr. Ellis is admirable, in a weird way, for having clung to fame this long. If occasionally one has to troll an entire city of dazed and devastated individuals to keep the spotlight on oneself for another few minutes, so be it.

But what he doesn’t understand is that living in New York has never been about being reasonable. If reasonable were the criterion, we would live in any one of a million other places. We live here because it is New York. Because we love it. Because so many other people choose, unreasonably, to live here, too. Because even when the city is shaken—and it is, periodically, shaken to its core—it is the greatest bump in the water we can imagine standing on.

At one of the innumerable press conferences held Monday night at the Office of Emergency Management, as nature bore down on our home, Mayor Bloomberg waxed philosophical.

“It would be wonderful if we could get through this,” he said, “and then we can dine out on this storm forever.”

agell@observer.com