I hear about the storm for the first time on August 23rd. It is a bad day. I spill water on my laptop before I’ve finished my morning coffee. Having done this before, I yank the cables out, turn it off, soak up what I can with a paper towel, and leave it to dry. A coworker suggests I get a big bag of rice and stick my laptop in it. Sounds good to me, but I think in the future this will be an insult.
I have an office laptop. Had I spilled water on that, I would have handed it to my boss, shrugged, and had a replacement by the end of the week. I prefer my own computer because it’s faster, smaller, and already tweaked out with the hundreds of settings and programs and shortcuts I install on all my computers. Still, at least the office laptop works as a plan B.
Four of us get lunch, apparently in an earthquake-free sushi-zone, since none of us felt the Virginia quake that rocked—or at least nudged—the office while we were out. We discuss disaster in our Skype group chat, and I idly check the weather and discover there’s a hurricane on its way. I submit this information to the chat room, prefacing the news with “This is our real problem” in the hopes of strengthening social ties. I am promptly rewarded with a “Holy fuck.”
I congratulate myself on breaking interesting news to the work place.
When I first try to turn my laptop back on, it seems that the shift key is broken and stuck in the on position, forcing me to plug in a keyboard to type in my password. I discover that even if you can type and use the mouse, a permanently pressed shift key makes a computer unusable. In an attempt to open a utility program, I open fifty-six other programs, including the entire Adobe suite and all my video editing software.
The next time I try to use the computer, the keyboard and the touchpad are completely dead. I consider what lie to tell as I cart the defunct machine to the nearest Apple Super Special Bespectacled 200+ IQ Middle Class White Polymath, who I know will tell me he has to send it to Texas. I tell him I have no idea what happened to my computer, I just left it open and it wasn’t working when I came back from lunch. He takes it and says they’ll call with a diagnosis in a couple of days.
My girlfriend and I realize we’ve somehow promised to attend four different events in two boroughs on the 27th. Since neither of us particularly enjoys doing anything more complicated than drinking wine and pausing Mad Men to argue about gender roles, the prediction of catastrophic winds requiring us to stay home comes as a relief. We write cheerful apologies to everyone and start stocking wine.
I run into my roommate after work and tell him to make sure the fans and air conditioners are out of the windows before he goes to his Saturday night bartending shift.
“Because of electricity?” he asks.
“No because of the hurricane.”
“There’s a giant fucking hurricane hitting us Saturday night.”
“Dude, how do you function?”
Four bottles of wine so far.
I start taping my windows, but then I pause and think about the physics of a chair hurtling through a window at 70 mph. I go to the IRC chatroom full of computer genius friends who answer all my programming questions and let me pretend I’m qualified to do my job. They direct me to the NOAA website which informs me that taping windows is pointless. I am shamed, because I always figured this was the right thing to do based on a X-Files episode I saw six years ago.
The weather reports are oscillating between a tropical storm and a category 1 hitting the New York coast. The most vulnerable parts of the city are being evacuated.
The Apple tech calls to inform me he’ll need to send my computer to Texas. I tell him I’ll pick it up and take my chances. When I get to the store, the tech asks me if I’m sure I didn’t spill anything on it. I display every single cliched body language indicator of lying and try to cover it up with a half-laugh and shrug.
“Dude, I have no idea. I went to lunch, came back, and my computer was fried.”
He nods, then looks me in the eye.
“Do you have any enemies?”
I laugh for real this time. Enemies? Are their really gainfully employed thirty-somethings with relationships in the enemy category? I guess there must be, because he’s completely serious. It seems like a paranoid way to live. I take my computer home and put it on the windowsill.
I wake up early, for no particular reason, and try my computer. It works just long enough to tell me the mayor has declared a state of emergency. Like the rest of the hipsters, it takes this to get me to start preparing, on the eve of the hurricane. I expect I will face the apocalypse in much the same way I deal with Christmas: “What, it’s the 23rd already?”
The information super swamp is viscous with opinions. It’s an even split between those who say nothing’s going to happen and those who say the New York City metropolitan area is finally going to get what it deserves. The summation of all these arguments is preordained, since disasters have one of two meanings after they happen: either everybody’s asking why were so worried or asking why we didn’t worry enough. I read a comment online that consists of something like this: “when it just turns out to be a light rain all those new yorkers are going to feel stoooooopid lol (yeah I know I spelled “stoopid” wrong lol).” This suggests to me that joining the debate will make me dumber, so for the most part I ignore it. Since preparing for this storm consists of cleaning things I should have cleaned a month ago, stocking food I’ll eat in any event, taking the air conditioners we don’t need anymore out of the windows, and buying a flashlight I should already own, my efforts don’t feel especially stoopid.
I wake up my girlfriend and we try to pick up water at the local dollar emporium, the go to market for cheap plastic junk. They have a sign on the door reading “We have no water, flashlights, or D batteries.” We shrug and look for plastic containers of some kind. We settle on four one-gallon bottles of knockoff orange soda, figuring we can dump them and fill them with water. When we get back and start pouring their contents in the sink, we realize we’ve erred. The smell is nauseating, and try as we might, we can’t wash out the remnant odor. We give up, fill them with water, and decide we’ll make my roommate drink them in case of emergency, since he’s still asleep and not helping. We fill the fifteen empty wine bottles on the counter and call it good.
Next we empty the fridge, in case of a power outage, which seems the most likely problem we’ll have to deal with. I’ll spare the details of the ordeal and sum up with it needed to be done, there was one item of food in a plastic container that could no longer be identified, and we fully expected tentacles to be squirming out of the outdoor trashcan by morning.
Next task was to find a flashlight and pick up more wine. We’d been been warned against candles, in case of a broken gas line,1 so a flashlight was paramount. Since finding a flashlight for sale was unlikely at this juncture, I asked my roommate if he had a hookup. He said he didn’t, but recommended looking for glow sticks, in a stroke of genius that could only be achieved by someone who still went clubbing. My girlfriend and I begin the quest for glow sticks.
There was a popular story going around that Brooklynites were at no loss for water, but rather clogging the liquor store queues. This is appears to be bullshit by the time we hit our third bodega. The lines are wrapping the stores with people buying batteries and food. There’s water in a number of places, although, biblically, no bread. The lines for alcohol seem no worse than an average Saturday afternoon.
In the host of dime and dollar stores we visit, no one shouts. No one fights or shoves or hoards personal space, despite the pervasive and strange emotion equal parts concern, dismissiveness, and excitement. New York moves like lava, slowly and destructively rolling over itself with the look of a river that’s never changed course. Every inhabitant waits for the moment that the city has spent its life foreshadowing. The proximity of the possibility that the moment has arrived draws out each facet of every human in staggered relief. The shoppers joke about the lack of batteries, tsk and sigh and catch themselves and keep control in the press of humanity brought to focus.
Flashlights are nowhere in sight. We eventually find a store selling bike running lights, which take triple A batteries and cost half as much as a real flashlight. We buy two sets, six packs of batteries, and fourteen glow sticks.
Mission accomplished, we head home, just as the first rains begin. Eventually, they ease enough for us to notice we’re at an intersection home to a scrap metal yard, a gas station, and a glass factory. We half expect Michael Bay to be in front of us, licking his lips, trembling hand reaching for an ignition button.
On a street of railroad apartment buildings, we notice a handful of people smoking at the entrances. They don’t speak, or pantomime the motions of boredom. They watch the sky, alone, signaling their existence, and little else.
We pick up four more bottles of wine and more cigarettes, drop them at home, and head for the bar.
The wind is picking up, the rain is coming and going, and everybody’s getting drunk as we watch New Jersey start to wash away on the closed captioned TVs. Outside, I smoke with some old friends I barely see, and ask if anyone else is a little excited. They’re evenly split, but whatever the motivation, everybody’s eyes have a little sparkle of wanting to see and/or survive what might come.
My girlfriend and I go home early and survey our preparations. We have fifteen liters plus four gallons of water, eight bottles of wine, six packs of cigarettes, three cans of dry roasted cashews, a cupboard full of canned peas, pears, peaches, and pineapple, a fridge with the evening’s meal of bread, cheese, and mango, and a sword. We’re ready for anything. Even irony.
We stay up as late as we can, but it’s hotter than usual, and there’s no air conditioning. She goes to bed around three. I want to gauge the wind to see if we should sleep in the kitchen, away from the windows. Nothing seems to be happening. At four-thirty in the morning, I give up and join her in bed. The bathroom fan is running when I fall asleep.
This was supposed to be it.
This was supposed to be the flying winds of karma and trees tearing from the ground and crashing through our walls and windows. The oceans would rise and punish us for our hubris; the streets would be a river sweeping slightly-more-expensive-than-necessary cars into the sea.
Instead, it’s a beautiful day. Supposedly the wind got interesting around five in the morning, and the bar owners couldn’t drive home. Everybody else missed it. The parks are a green fall, leaves covering the paths somewhat less alarmingly than when the July heatwave ended and the temperature drop made half of them turn brown and fall off three months ahead of schedule. Every other state in the storm’s path felt the pain of rereading Act of God clauses in their insurance forms. In Brooklyn, hurricane day is gray, temperate, and breezy. We can see brief disappointed hopes flare around us with each gust.
When we get home, I turn on my laptop and can type again. Some of the keys seem to be doing strange things. Eventually, I figure out that the keyboard thinks it’s in the Japanese Romanji setting, and I can’t fix it. I resign myself to learning how to use a Japanese keyboard. A paranoid part of me wonders if this is some kind of parting blow from the universe for faded sins. The rest of me just thinks something always happens, whether we notice it or not, and we never know what to look for before it passes.
1 As smokers, this was extra troubling.