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Wish you were here
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
You'd think that being on the streets of New York City on a late summer day would be reason enough for people to stop looking at the cell phones in their hands for a moment and actually take in the sights around them, but no — as in Fort Wayne, Indy, and probably The Vatican as well, people are infinitely more interested in looking at the app idiocies in their palms nowadays than in the fascinating panoramas and exoticas that surround their temporal bodies. It is a universal truth of our age that exists in all cities, and can't be blamed simply on the younger generations any more. The desire for impersonality and social imperviousness now cuts a wide swath across all demographics and in all regions.
For some reason, though, I thought that the hand-starers would be a minority when I visited NYC last weekend — the city is still the city, after all, with all the attendant diversions and interests, and it's not like there was nothing going on: in addition to the late-season concerts, shows, operas, and art openings, there was also a — oh yeah — once-in-a-century hurricane barreling down on the city. Interesting times, seemingly. But on Friday evening, as the skies started to purple and the winds began to gust, I still saw a majority of people less interested in the ominous tableaux in the atmosphere than in their Twitter feeds and Angry Birds marathons. Go figure.
It's the kind of phenomenon that makes you wish that New York City's crime rate would start to go up again. At the very least, the fear of getting mugged would make these oblivious stooges a little more interesting when you encounter them on the street. I know I'm continuing to beat a lonely drum here, hoping that the alienating cell phone evolution would reverse itself, but I can't help it: I refuse to believe that people are really so fundamentally disinterested in other people. For in spite of the great architecture, the fascinating neighborhoods, and the legendary sights, people-watching remains the greatest physical joy of being in the city.
When I learned that my planned trip to NYC was going to coincide with a hurricane — I was flying in on Friday, out on Monday, and Irene was expected to hit late Saturday night — I tried to see if there was any wiggle room with the airlines or NYU. (The reason for the trip: Sunday was "moving in" day for all NYU freshmen, and my daughter is Class of 2015.) Nope: the cheerful undergrad manning the phone lines for the NYU admissions department told me that there'd be no changes, that moving in day was still Sunday, that we "might get a little wet" but the schedule was going to be maintained. Similarly, the airlines weren't altering any flights to NYC in advance of the storm; all decisions were going to wait until the hurricane's path was irrefutably determined to be headed down Fifth Avenue. So, with a little trepidation, we boarded the flight as scheduled on Friday afternoon, and quickly discovered one of the side benefits of travelling into an impending hurricane: a half-filled plane. Apparently some travellers had had second thoughts about flying into the eye of the Apocalypse. For the first time in years of flying economy/business/cheap-o, I had an aisle to myself. I quickly maneuvered the seat dividers and stretched out, reading magazines and enjoying the virtually cloud-free sky. The pilot informed us en route that we were way ahead of schedule, and would get to LaGuardia 30 minutes earlier than expected, which was a surprising disappointment for me: I was happy where I was.
Once we got to the airport, though, we learned that thing were happening quickly: NYU had changed its mind about freshman "move in" day, delaying it until Monday morning, and the mayor of New York had decided to shut down all public transportation on Saturday, at 12:00pm. Apparently the latest weather modules had placed the eye of the storm directly in the city's path, and the mayor was taking no chances. (And "spaghetti modules" became one of those phrases, like "hanging chad" that suddenly is everywhere: in weather forecasting, it refers to the possible paths that a storm might take, and the tangle of potential routes looks like "spaghetti" on a map. The phrase didn't exist to me on Thursday, was ubiquitous by Friday-Saturday, and returned to oblivion after the storm passed on Sunday.)
Without public transportation, the city tightened up like a drum. Getting around wasn't a problem — there were cabs everywhere, and you could still walk — but without the subways and buses, the employees couldn't get to their jobs; ergo, no waitresses + no bartenders = no restaurants and no bars. Of course, there were a few stubborn holdouts who kept their doors open well into the storm, but for the most part, the city began to shut down shortly after the last train left the last station shortly after noon on Saturday.
It's a weird thing, to see a metropolis suddenly desert itself. We took one of the last a.m. trains to the lower East Side on Saturday, and it was disorienting to see how few people were out and about. (Of course, we could have stayed near our comfy Mid-town digs, but I'm one of those downtown snobs who can't bear hotel cafes.) The usual Saturday foot traffic had been reduced twenty-fold, and the streets resembled a zombie movie set. Near NYU, we discovered more people and also, the familiar queueing up of folks desperate to load up on batteries, generators, booze. It's really no different than the mania you see at Scott's everytime there's snowfall predicted: at Trader Joe's, on 14th street, we saw a long line (60+) waiting for their turn to buy enough wine to get through the next few days.
Everyone was predicting major, widespread power outages, and in anticipation our high-rise hotel discontinued elevator service at 9 pm. I wasn't going to walk 17 flights for any reason, so before the ban I ventured to the mobbed grocery store on 57th St. for some eccentric emergency food stuffs (bananas, bread pudding, boursin cheese) and, like everybody else, I filled the bathtub with water, just to make sure our loo would operate properly when the lights when out.
Of course, they never did. Like most of Manhattan, I slept through Hurricane (actually, "Tropical Storm" by that point) Irene, and barely noticed any of the affects. In fact, things probably went smoother for me because of the storm — moving into NYU the next day was a snap with less traffic, taking less than an hour, and the airlines and subways were back on line, allowing for me an easy and painless getaway. Despite all the dire predictions, Manhattan had barely gotten touched. I wish I could say that I was relieved by the turn of events, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had secretly been looking forward to a zombie autumn in New York, with winds blowing aged newspapers across deserted streets.