I moved to New York in May 2008, having found a cheap apartment on Edgecombe Avenue at 163rd, the northeastern tip of old Harlem. Like most people with literary pretensions, I always wanted, somehow, to live here. Living in New Jersey just sharpened my appetite for actual inhabitation. Sure, everybody here is from somewhere else—we’re all tourists, until we’re not.
But my frequent visits, attendance at parties, dinners, book events, lectures, seminars, etc., never got me to street level for very long, so the texture of the place was always something I had to look for and record, like a travel writer charged with collecting his hurried observations for publication. And each place I visited felt like a island in an archipelago, connected, if at all, only by my occasional paddling.
Living here changed my position in this social universe, and changed my perspective. Merely walking makes you pay attention to details you couldn’t have otherwise noticed, of course, but it’s more than that. You find out how and where the city works, or doesn’t, by trying—by having—to get from here to there. Your origin and your destination no longer feel like islands you connect with your own canoe because you know the enabling infrastructure of your individual effort is so vast, so physically palpable. These passages have not only been mapped, they’ve been created, long before you were ever on this subway platform or this narrow street, long before your were ever in this magnificent park or this flatiron building, long before you were ever at this impossible intersection.
You can feel the weight of the past every second you’re here, in other words, but it’s not a burden. It makes you feel that you don’t have to create yourself from scratch—you have choices not in spite but because of the choices your predecessors have made. I know, in New York, anything is possible, and it’s true. But that’s because somebody’s been here before you, facing similar circumstances, so that your choices can feel more consequential.
Once again I’ve buried the lede. My paean to New York is prompted by the joyfully, meaningfully hysterical coverage of Hurricane Sandy at The Weather Channel. The Perfect Storm, what could be better? This weather functions as economic crisis does in sectarian circles of the Left—the enormity of the event suddenly makes academic drones and talking heads sound insightful, urgent, necessary, in short, immediately relevant. You can’t turn away, because for the first time in your life and theirs, these assholes might have the answers to your questions, which all boil down to this one: what does the future hold?
So, what is to be done? At The Weather Channel, it’s all about preparation, which is up to you. Among the sectarians, the same: we know Marx was right, the crisis has come, but what now, except to tell the benighted masses to get ready for the shitstorm we predicted? Preparation all over again, but in both venues, this act is by definition belated, always already too late and too little. Why weren’t you paying attention?
What lies beneath all the prattling, scolding, and cajoling from both precincts is the unstated and the obvious. You’re not on your own: you don’t have to rely on the Red Cross or local charities or even local governments—nor “the movement,” whatever it may be, because it has no better clue about what the future holds than Mitt Romney.
Sure, stock up on bottled water, and, by all means buy a fucking canoe. Get all survivalist in the grocery store if you feel like it. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service, FEMA, state governments from South Carolina to Maine, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which operates all the roads, bridges, tunnels, and tracks into and out of the city), not to mention the public utilities that deliver gas, electricity, and steam (for real) as energy sources, are organizing every private effort, including yours, to endure and outlast this storm, knowing that the federal government stands as the lender, insurer, and regulator of last resort.
Here’s how the New York Times explained this invisible infrastructure:
“Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said at the news conference that operations were normal at the area’s major airports on Saturday, but advised travelers to ‘check with your air carrier before going to J.F.K., La Guardia or Newark’—all of which are operated by the agency.
“In August 2011, the transportation authority undertook an unprecedented shutdown of the subway system in advance of Tropical Storm Irene. The authority has submitted claims to recover $65 million in losses resulting from that storm, which sent trees falling onto tracks of the commuter rails, flooded train yards, and led to millions of dollars in lost revenue as a result of the service suspension.”
We will weather this storm because this city works. It stands as your brother’s keeper so that you don’t have to, perhaps because you’re unable, perhaps because you don’t care. Maybe that’s why the exhortations—be prepared!—from The Weather Channel and the local news shows are so hilarious, and so ridiculously enjoyable. Somebody’s been here before you, facing similar circumstances, so your individual, “private” choices feel more consequential.
They are more consequential these days, you’re right to feel that way, but maybe for the wrong reason. Your choices now matter more because they have been elicited and then organized by institutions that have a long history and a long reach. As you get ready for this hurricane, you’re already speaking the language of public health, not the words of a rugged individual. You’re not the captain of your own fate out there on some watery frontier. You’re just another passenger. Think of this simple fact as you figure out where that canoe will take you.