Ride Downtown

by antigob

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If yesterday felt like Sunday with everyone milling around looking for brunch and finding only one in five restaurants open, then today felt like Monday. People were up, the sun was out; New York was starting to move again. The rolling disaster porn on TV has given way to just how much of the city’s infrastructure has disappeared over night. The subway system is down and with tunnels still full of seawater no one is saying when it will open again. I try and image London without the Tube, I think about seawater and I think about what the bottom of a boat looks like. As well as the subway, the New Jersey rail system is closed. The radio says a billion people travel on it everyday but that can’t be right. Whatever the true figure, New York has a people shortage to contend with alongside the flooding and power cuts.

I got on my bike. At first I just wanted to get out of the house and ride around Central Park. But it was closed up, so I decided to ride downtown instead. I cut up W97 and onto Broadway. The traffic is languid. Everyone is jumping lights. I weave around yellow cabs, dog walkers, a kid on a long board, and I think of those old photos of logs floated downriver by men riding and shoving them into place with metal poles. In uptown there’s a bit more life: delivery trucks are double-parked, hauling in the food for the delis. It feels like if you can get a good meatball hero, then everything should be okay, but the radio said we have to conserve water. There’s a worry that the backup generators powering the pumps could fail when the fuel runs out.

The schools and the chain stores are shut. It’s the small places that are open: the supermarkets and the mom and pop newsagents and restaurants. I’ve slipped into a group of cyclists. At the lights, a man on a mountain bike asks a woman on a hybrid why she’s out. She’s looking for restaurants open near the west sixties. ‘The further south you go,’ says the man, ‘the more crowded it is, people are coming up from below the power line to eat. I say stay north.’ If you didn’t know what he was talking about it could be the zombie apocalypse.

At W65, Broadway crosses Columbus by Lincoln Square. It’s a mess of yellow cabs, parked trucks, road works and cops waving everyone on. Columbus becomes 9th Avenue. At W54 I take a picture of the dangling crane no one knows what to do with. It’s strapped to the most expensive condo building in the city; nine billionaires have bought the top nine apartments – although I can’t imagine a worse place to live right now. I notice the traffic lights are not working. Crossing intersections becomes a bit of a gamble, so I make a point of making eye contact with drivers because it’s harder to knock someone down if they’re smiling at you.

Bleeker Street is usually that New York stereotype of shoppers and locals walking their dogs clutching cups of coffee, but today everyone is crowded around a Con Ed generator jabbing their phones and iPads into the charge points studded along its back. It looks like they’re trying to bring it to life. A local woman directs traffic by angrily leaping into the road and waving her hands around. It’s the last time I see anyone on the street other than a few bewildered tourists dragging luggage about. There’s almost no one about below Canal Street. The roads are empty, only at the very edge of Manhattan do I come across a group of guys pumping out oily and acidic water from the basement of a messenger service. I cross over West Street onto the Hudson River bikeway. I race back home and think about the end of the world. It won’t be a bang, or a giant tsunami, but maybe something like this: an event, followed by the gradual seizing up of infrastructure because no one’s there to get it started again. But New York will get back on its feet. I’m so impressed with this city. It’s terrible fifty people have died during Sandy, but it’s also astonishing the number is so few when you see the extent of the destruction.

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