Something Happened While I Was Away

By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr
By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr

By Jacob Margolies

We’re waiting in front of the building, under the canopy and protected from the rain, when the town car pulls up. It’s a chilly early morning. I’m going to the airport and should be in Seattle by the afternoon. My wife’s friend, Sarah, who has been staying with us, is heading home to Maine, and we’re sharing the ride to JFK.

Our driver is an elderly Korean man. All the drivers from this car service are Korean. “You can take Atlantic or Linden. Whatever way you think is faster,” I tell him.

He drives slowly. His hands, gripping the wheel, are trembling, and every few seconds he lifts up his right hand and glances at it before smacking it down on the wheel.

The old man heads down Coney Island Avenue and passes Caton. When I let him know he’s missed the turn, he points to the GPS. “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around,” I say. Again, he points to the GPS and drives straight ahead.

It’s out of our way, but we’re going out to take the Belt and ride alongside the shoreline. It’s the scenic route. There’s almost no traffic on the parkway. We can see glimpses of marsh adjacent to the water. Cordgrass and common reeds, the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. In the sky, flocks of birds are flying in formation. At this hour, with the rain coming down, it’s possible to imagine the New York Island in its natural state before the salt marshlands were drained and filled in with buildings, highways, and airports. In my still-drowsy state, these intimations of a physical world untouched by human activity strike me as startlingly beautiful, an impression punctuated by our driver’s periodic and emphatic slaps on his steering wheel.

We drop Sarah off at the Jet Blue Terminal. She says something about how lucky we are to have missed the storm, although, even if it hits, it’s not going to reach New York until late the following day. We’ll see. Weather forecasters are always hyping storms that usually end up veering off course and being less than advertised.

The plane lands in Seattle on time. I’m there to attend a conference on interactive media. There will be panels on social media, advertising, online commerce, and digital storytelling. Representatives from Facebook, AOL, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of smaller digital media outfits are attending.

The Japanese newspaper where I work has about ten million print subscribers, and its leaders are suspicious of the digital onslaught and new media carnival barkers. For fifteen years, I’ve been taking around colleagues, who are visiting from Japan, to American digital media companies claiming to have discovered the secret to a bright electronic future. Many of those businesses no longer exist. For over a decade, as American newspapers were blithely putting their publications on the Internet for free, their Japanese counterparts always insisted that anyone reading their stories online pay the same price as a print subscriber. Bolstered by a network of zealous sales agents and a reliable home delivery system, newspapers in Japan remain a staple of daily life. But since the 2008 Great Recession, Japanese newspapers have been facing the same afflictions battering print news publications in the United States. The Japanese, like Americans, are glued to their phones, and the handwriting on the wall says that before long, most of them will be reading the news on a digital device. So I have come to Seattle to attend panels and meet with whoever will talk to me, and I hope I’ll learn something that I can report back to Tokyo.

The next morning, as I’m heading out of the hotel lobby for the Convention Center, the rain is coming down hard. A smiling concierge is distributing sturdy extra-large umbrellas to guests. When I ask him if he wants my room number, he tells me it isn’t necessary. “We trust you,” he says. For some reason, I find this unsettling. An umbrella is something you buy on a misty street corner for three dollars from a Senegalese street vendor, or from a South Asian immigrant at a newsstand, or at a shoe repair store from a Russian guy who doesn’t speak English. This thing I’ve been handed is a piece of furniture. It seems so durable that I’d feel guilty about losing it.

Across the street from the hotel, there’s a cafe. I’m running late, but figure I can get a cup to go. At this place there’s a ritual around ordering coffee that I don’t understand and an elaborate art to making it. After answering series of questions from an extremely friendly barista, I wait and wait. It’s not yet nine in the morning and Seattle already has me rattled.

This is some of what I write in my notebook on my first day attending the 2012 Seattle Interactive conference.

News is getting faster and smaller. It travels at the speed of light. There is more news. There are more sources.

The story is reported before the media gets there. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone is covering the news. We get our information in different contexts. How do we know if something is true?

What does it mean to tell a story? Trust your community. Connect. Embrace the share. Storytelling is a narrative to which people surrender.

Interactive is nonlinear. Multiplatform deployments. Epic mix.

Amygdala hijack leads to an immediate overwhelming reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus, triggering a deep emotional reaction. Storytelling is an interaction. A single story builds on emotional connection and triggers long-term memory.

Forces of nature are reshaping the world. Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. This transformation is happening and we must adapt to survive.

When I get back to my hotel room that evening and turn on the computer, I see that just a couple of hours earlier, the big storm that had been approaching the east coast the day before has struck New York City. This one did not veer off course. Hurricane Sandy has made landfall. There has been flooding and an explosion at a Con Edison substation, and the southern part of the island of Manhattan has gone dark.

On YouTube, I see a video of cars floating down Avenue C, just two blocks over from the Lower East Side building where my parents live. It immediately occurs to me that they are prisoners in their tenth floor apartment. My father is eighty-seven years old and has Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, he’s had a series of falls, and every step he takes has become an adventure. There’s no way he’s going to make it up and down ten flights of stairs. It’s too late to call New York. In anticipation of the storm, my wife’s company had given everyone the day off. We live in Brooklyn on higher ground, so I guess that things aren’t too bad for her. I’ll check in with everyone tomorrow.

The next morning my eighty-year-old mother assures me that despite the lack of power and water, everything is fine. Neighbors are checking on them, she tells me. Later on she’s going to take the stairs and try to buy batteries from the hardware store.

The second day of the Seattle Interactive Conference is a lot like the day before. A chorus of warning from casually dressed marketing mavens to the survivors of a news industry decimated by the digital revolution. “Change or die” is their message. The electronic acolytes are exultant. There is a universe of possibility. The neophyte presenters have their beady eyes on the future. There are no elegies here for all that has been washed away.

I have lunch at a Vietnamese place with my friend Claire who has attended a morning presentation by someone named Shingy who works for AOL and has the job title Digital Prophet. She tells me Shingy’s got a space alien look with big electrified hair and that he’s very fond of certain words—mobile, leverage, social, branding. He’s a showman. Evangelical, but in a wink-wink way. A hustle here, a hustle there. She’s charmed by his audacity.

“I thought that all the digital prophets had left AOL and migrated to a different platform long ago,” I tell her.

“Not all of them. He’s a minor prophet,” she explains.

“Did he say anything about the flood in New York?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. But he’s only a minor prophet.”

I call home that afternoon. My wife Joanne says if the power stays down she’ll drive into Manhattan and pick up my parents. They can stay with us until they get electricity back. But the car needs gas, so she’s going to have to deal with long lines of panicked drivers at gas stations. I’m not sure my dad will be able to make it down the stairs, but if they go very slowly maybe it can be done.

Later on, I speak again to my parents. “Any looting going on yet?” I ask, remembering the 1977 blackout when local kids broke into stores on Avenue B and on Delancey Street. The Sneaker King was especially popular on that night.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother tells me. She is English, from the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire, and moved to New York in the 1950s. “Everyone is being very friendly. Hassan, the super, knocked on our door to see if we were all right. When I went outside, it reminded me of the war. The long lines. All the blackout periods we had. We could be fined if even the glimmer of a light escaped our home because it might aid the German war planes.”

I tell her that Joanne will pick them up tomorrow if the lights are still out. “Really, that isn’t necessary—we’re fine,” she says.

After the second day’s final panel, I go back at my hotel room and look at the New York Times web site and catch up on what has been happening. Subway stations and the tunnels under the East River are flooded. The South Ferry stop is covered track to ceiling with sewage. More than one hundred houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point. Two hundred fifteen patients were evacuated from NYU Hospital after the backup generators failed. There are photographs of garbage and debris in the streets, sandbags surrounding the Goldman Sachs building, a flooded plaza on Water Street, a parking lot with hundreds of partially submerged yellow cabs, and free pizza being handed out on Avenue B.

I read a story about some of the dead. A twenty-three-year old makeup artist in Queens electrocuted by a severed power line. An old man swept away from his house by flooding waters. A young couple in Brooklyn walking their dog, crushed by a falling tree. A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter drowning in their Staten Island home.

I talk with our newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief Yuji Yoshikata. He lives on the twenty-sixth floor of an apartment on East 39th Street that has lost power, and over the past twelve hours he has rushed up and down the stairs several times. There are interviews to be done and photos to be taken. Japanese daily newspapers have both morning and evening editions. So there are facts that need to be gathered, and context and history that must be provided. Deadlines must be met. For the Japanese, the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed over 15,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes will be the lens for understanding what is happening in New York. And for Yoshikata, who spent ten days in Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake there, the events in New York, will be filtered through his own recent memories.

There’s an email from a friend who has just gotten back from a Brooklyn bike ride through the destruction. He’s checked up on another friend who lives on a barge docked on a pier and writes about seeing fish onshore where the water has receded and cars that have been moved several hundred feet. People with gas-powered pumps are draining their basements.

I speak again to Joanne. She tells me they’ve set up shelters for displaced people at the big Armory by our house and a nearby high school. She’s been trying to contact our friends in Red Hook. They have lived for twenty-five years on Van Brunt Street in a house that, over many years, they renovated themselves. There are photographs online of terrible flooding on that block. “If they need a place to sleep, they should stay with us,” I tell her. She tells me she’s going to drive over the bridge and see my parents in the morning.

The two-day conference is over, but I have another day and night in Seattle. In the afternoon, I’m supposed to talk to some people at Amazon about putting newspapers on the Kindle. I call my airline to see about an earlier flight back to New York, but I give up after spending time on hold listening to recorded music. At 3:00 am, I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, insipid platitudes that I’ve heard over the last two days keep running through my mind. Paradigm shift. Game changer. Ride the wave. I pick up my phone and open up the laptop on the bedside table and check Twitter and Facebook. A flooded basement in the Rockaways. Scroll down. Houses in flames. Swipe. An outdoor Staten Island Red Cross station. Tap. People on cots in a makeshift shelter at the Armory. Click. The digitization of catastrophe recorded in real time on my news feed.

After my meeting with the Amazonians, I call home. Joanne’s upset. After waiting for two hours on a gas station line that hardly moved, she gave up and went home. She feels bad about my parents. “You did your best. They’ll be okay,” I tell her.

Later I speak to my mother who tells me that tomorrow, if they can make it down the stairs and manage to flag down a cab, they are going to stay with their friends George and Peggy in Hell’s Kitchen, where electricity was never lost and life has returned to something close to normal. “Peggy said your father can sleep on their massage table and I am going to be on something called a futon,” she says brightly. I’m sitting outside along the waterfront near the ferry terminal as we talk. It’s October 31st. Halloween. On the street there are people walking around in costume. Witches, superheroes, Mitt Romney, oompa loompas, Elton John. In New York the big parade has been cancelled.

Fortunately, my flight back to New York the next day takes off on schedule. My car service driver meets me at the baggage claim area, and I’m surprised to see it’s the same old man who drove me out to JFK five days earlier. This time we take Atlantic Avenue, and about half way home everything comes to a complete stop. The westbound traffic has somehow gotten tangled up with a long line of cars waiting to use a Shell station. “Very hard to get gas today,” the driver says. I tell him I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone to meet me at the airport. “Very hard,” he says. “Everything going up. Gasoline, insurance, taxes. And less work, much less work. Very bad since Lee Min Shok. I very angry at Lee Min Shok.”

I wonder if he’s talking about a new owner of Green Light Limo, or perhaps a dispatcher who’s giving him a hard time. After sitting in traffic for about twenty minutes, I realize he’s talking about the cascade of cataclysmic events connected to the day four years earlier when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In East Asia and, especially in Japan, these misfortunes are often referred to as Lehman Shock. It’s no wonder this poor guy keeps smacking the steering wheel. Some disasters are natural and others are manmade. Eventually the traffic clears and we make it onto Eastern Parkway, then up Prospect West, and finally, as night falls, home.

I speak to my parents. They successfully navigated the stairs, got a taxi, made it uptown to their friends’ apartment, and spent the night there. “The futon was very comfortable,” my mom says. My dad, who is on the other line says, “Don’t believe your mother. She’s just being nice Sleeping on the massage table wasn’t so great either.”

There’s still no train service into Manhattan. I tell my parents I am going to take a bus into Manhattan and walk around the old neighborhood. I’ll let them know what I see.

Later that day after waiting in a long queue, I catch the bus on Atlantic Avenue by the new arena. It travels over the Manhattan Bridge. I get off on the Bowery south of Houston Street and start walking. Just north of Houston, two kids with cans of spray paint are tagging a solid metal bar grate covering a storefront. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone doing that since I was in high school. On St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd, which is usually packed, there are fewer than a dozen people the entire length of the block.

I head over to Avenue B. Nearly all the boutiques and restaurants are closed. For this one week at least, the Avenue has been reclaimed by poor people. Many of them are black or brown. There are elderly people pushing shopping carts and bohemian types who would not have seemed out of place in grittier times. The streets are a ghost land of times past. I find I’m sliding into a 1970s reverie, looking at strangers and exchanging with them the head nod of recognition, which involves the slightest tilt of the chin upward. The Lower East Side head nod is a vestige of yesteryear. Its unspoken message was, “You know I belong here and I know you belong here, so we’re okay, right?” If accentuated with a tilt in a particular direction, it was also understood to mean, “Can you believe this shit?” The shit in question being the existential condition at that moment, which might have been expressed by the sound of a siren from a fire truck clambering along the avenue or a warning about those troublemakers down the block. So much communicated in a tilt of the head.

But now it’s November 2, 2012, and this head nod is acknowledging that there have been four full days without electricity, which is triggering in those of us who are old enough to remember some kind of supernatural time travel, or maybe just a new hyper awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything. And walking here, after the flood of instantaneous digital images and audio from these same streets that I absorbed just days ago from three thousand miles away, there is a deeper conjuring up of emotion and associations. What does it mean to tell a story? How do you know if it’s true?

Hooking back to Avenue A, I pass shuttered storefronts that once were Ukrainian coffee shops. Pirogi reveries. On the corner of 7th Street, long-gone Leshkos, where a girlfriend once threw a glass of water in my face and stormed out, leaving a plate of food that I finished because I was hungry. Sour cream memories.

One more block west at 1st and 7th Street there is a collection of bedraggled fair-skinned young adults huddled together. The hardware store on the corner is open, lit by candles, and as I get closer I see those gathered under the chilly gray sky are taking advantage of a portable generator to charge their phones. Looking to connect and share. They remind me of junkies, who forty years earlier, lined up on nearby street corners waiting impatiently, desperate to make a different kind of connection. Then and now, searching for a rainbow and an escape from being alone.

Up to 14th Street and then east and back to Avenue B. On the corner of 11th Street a large congregation of young people has come together in front of Congresswoman Velazquez’s District Office. They are loading cases of bottled water, blankets, and canned food into vans. A woman with a clipboard is asking if anyone speaks Mandarin or Spanish. “How’d you hear about this?” I overhear one of the volunteers, a young man, asking a woman.

“Facebook,” she says, making it sound like more of a question than a statement.

They’re being dispatched to deliver aid to the elderly and infirm trapped in their apartments. From this catastrophe, something unusual is happening. A communion between these fortunate good Samaritans and their often invisible neighbors, the tens of thousands cordoned off in the neighborhood’s flood zone, the brown brick shadow city of public housing developments running south and west along the FDR Drive. Each project has its distinct history and character. Wald, Riis, Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers, Gompers, Campos Plaza. The long narrow strip is the last bastion for the Lower East Side’s destitute and working class.

Gathered on this corner, the volunteers appear calm, resolute, and cheerful. While I’m aimlessly walking the streets, these kids, unburdened by the curse of memory, are actually helping people. These streets belong to them now. They have the run of the place. They’re the ones who will have the challenge of living on the island as tides are rising. Maybe someone among them will help figure something out. Wind, solar, fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon. Science could be our salvation. Or maybe the deluge swallows everything. These kids though, they are all right. They’ve set up a makeshift assembly line and are passing along pallets of bottled liquid from one person to another to another. Up close, I read the labels. Poland Spring. “People are thirsty and need water,” someone says.

•••

JACOB MARGOLIES works in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work as a journalist, his writing has recently appeared in Project Syndicate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Summerset Review.

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7 thoughts on “Something Happened While I Was Away

  1. Great piece, Jacob. I remember well that car ride we shared, getting out of New York just before Sandy hit. So interesting to read the details of your experience when you returned. Your article gives me hope that our kids will be able to meet the challenges of dealing with the environmental destruction their forebears have left to them.

  2. Thank you for bringing me home again, Jacob. You are a very, very very good writer. Thank you for processing information in front of us.

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