In the immediate wake of the storm nothing worked. Neither power nor light, neither running water nor heat, neither internet nor ATM, the fundamentals of middle class life, without which we don’t believe we can live happily nowadays. Fish and flesh rotted in the refrigerator. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Even your own body began to emit a cheesy smell, given the difficulty of washing, except with sponge and precious bottled water. Flickering candles and flashlights provided feeble light. You were obliged to fall back on resourcefulness and ingenuity, feeling your way around by touch and smell, in lieu of sight. It didn’t take long for unheated apartments to degrade into damp, dark caves, in which you huddled together with loved ones, as our ancestors once did, taking refuge from wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. Conversation was the only form of entertainment left.
On the fifth day after the onset of the storm, as if following the biblical prototype, the flood receded, creation started up again, and there was light, if only uptown, and the subway was running again, but only up to 34th Street.
Downtown remained in the dark. I made myself somewhat presentable and shared a cab to Penn Station with two well-dressed gents in suit and tie, who, like me, commuted to work. All three of us complained about the inconveniences of the last week and wished each other a pleasant day, i.e. a speedy return to normalcy.
I climbed out of the taxi and transferred to an uptown A-Train. The subway was free of charge for a change. A small compensation. Gift of the MTA. The train, otherwise stuffed like a sausage with human flesh, a conveyance that ordinarily waited for nothing and no one, lingered, laid back, in the station, as if with all the time in the world. I had ample occasion to study my fellow passengers. Directly opposite me sat a somewhat plump black woman of middle age dressed in the blue uniform of a security guard. She had two teeth missing on the top and one on the bottom. Her face was purple-hued and had something soft and squashed about it, like a plum not yet altogether, but almost, turned into a dried prune.
Two seats away from me sat a black man of late middle age, wearing a cap made of a cut-off women’s nylon stocking, through the weave of which several stubborn, stiff, white hairs reared. He kept his eyes half-closed, as if squinting in a glaring light, though the subway car was not particularly well lit. His head was bowed forward, his shoulders somewhat stooped. He stared at the floor.
At the next stop, 42nd and Times Square, an old white homeless woman hobbled aboard, shoving a shopping cart heaped full with all her worldly possessions. She muttered quietly to herself, something between a prayer, a cackle and a howl. Her skin color was not, in fact, white, but rather a waxen beige. Her scent was hardly French perfume.
Ruffling his nose, the smoke-gray man slipped over to the seat beside me. Maybe she noticed, or maybe not. The homeless woman soon got out again. Whereupon the man breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“You get used to everything,” said the woman in the blue uniform. “I know what it means to be homeless. I spent two years in a cardboard box in the Port Authority.”
My curiosity aroused, I looked at her as if she were indeed a dried prune come alive.
“Drugs. Crack. My own fault,” she answered my gaze.
The man nodded. “That shit is powerful.”
“Now I can afford a room, thank God!”
“How did you survive the storm?” I asked the man.
“In prison you at least stay high and dry,” he replied. “Just got out. After 31 years everything looks different.” A little while later he lifted his head and looked me in the eye, as if in answer to an unasked question. “Murder,” he muttered. “Two concurrent life sentences. I was a hitman, a contract killer.”
The purple-faced woman in the blue uniform and I went pale. Both of us stared at him with a mix of fear and curiosity.
“I studied the law books…found a loophole in the law.”
Words failed me.
But he clearly relished the opportunity to speak. His smoke-gray face turned somewhat red, as if he still saw the judge seated before him, he continued. “Guilty – I admit it. Thirty-one years is enough time to think about yourself. But in the meanwhile everything done changed. It’s like I was locked up in New York and let out in a strange city.”
There’s so much I would have liked to have asked that curious Rip van Winkle. If he experienced space and time differently? Or enticed by an uncertain future, did he stay stuck in the past? Is he still seething with anger? How do things stand with love of his fellow man and regret? In light of his former profession, I didn’t dare pose any unwelcome questions, didn’t want to upset him.
At 125th Street, without a word, he suddenly got up, got out, and disappeared in the throng.
The woman in blue kept looking at me: “Never would have guessed it!”
And when she, who had lived for two years in a cardboard box, got up at the next stop and stepped out onto the platform, she kept shaking her head.
I peered after her with a certain longing, since I was now the last one left. And then when the doors slid shut with a hefty smack, and with a slow hiss the train set itself in motion, I fell back in a fright at the sight of a colorless, transparent face reflected in the scratched, filthy glass pane of the door, until I suddenly recognized it as my own.
Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of a memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin, A Rhapsody in Gray (Travelers’ Tales), and the editor and translator of an anthology, Tales of the German Imagination, From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann (Penguin Classics).