Brightness In A Darkened City



Neighborhood: Uncategorized

On the morning of August 14, 2003, my wife Catherine and I learned that she was pregnant for the first time. That evening we sat huddled in the darkened Chelsea apartment building stairwell of an old friend, waiting for her return home from work, riding out a vast summer blackout.

We lived in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan for our jobs. The blackout had rippled across the city; there were no trains between the boroughs. Fortunately–if you can call it good fortune–we’d developed our de facto emergency meeting location on September 11, 2001, and so had instinctively headed there when phones died during the blackout.

September 11 came not much more than a year after we’d driven from Portland, Ore., to State Street in Brooklyn. Once there, we lived for a month with a couple we knew in their small garden apartment, sleeping, as so many had before us, on a borrowed futon until our own New York lives took shape. We’d first sensed danger that infamous day when overhearing an F train conductor reply to her crackling walkie-talkie: “I need a drink.”

It was just past nine in the morning.

By the time I arrived at my desk in Rockefeller Center, where I worked as a reporter for a Time Inc. magazine, the world had changed. My wife called from the literary agency near Gramercy Park where she worked and told me to go outside and look down Fifth Avenue as far as I could. “You’ll never see anything like this again.”

I left work, started walking, heading south on Third Avenue toward Catherine’s office. The crowd, meanwhile, pushed north, a somber flow of faces caked in white soot. I didn’t yet have the stomach to ask what had happened. I turned to my right and watched briefly as a woman shopped for shoes.

My wife and I took in the news on her office’s kitchen television (she worked in the basement of her boss’ brownstone), and then made our way to Chelsea.

For the next few days we stared at the television and fantasized about splitting town. Soon enough–too soon–life resumed and if we didn’t exactly decide to stay, we also didn’t leave. Jittery on subways, fluent in the ways of anthrax, we stayed and kept on staying.

This was surprising: our original plan called for five years in New York before moving to the Bay Area, where my wife was raised, to start a family. But that plan was hatched before spotting Julian Schnabel one night at the Chelsea Hotel’s adjacent restaurant, El Quixote, and joining him for a drink. That was before Catherine went to work for James Ellroy’s agent and heard the Demon Dog howling outside the window. That was before we really took in the view from The Cloisters. That was before our first romantic winter in New York City, the streets pungent with pine. Our first spring. Our first fall. (You can keep summer, thanks.) That was before we moved to a rambling, crumbling apartment a true melting pot of a building across the street from Prospect Park in the sleepy small town known as Windsor Terrace. Before we raised children there. Sure, some neighbors may occasionally pound drunkenly at our door, but others are opera singers, and we sometimes hear practiced, soaring scales while waiting for the elevator. That was before our two girls grew into kids, now 7 and 5 years old, and began appreciating the most wonderfully beguiling city in the world–and all of its many, many dogs, each one a must-pet.

Catherine and I have lived in Brooklyn for more than eleven years. Our conversation about moving back to the west coast, once a near daily occurrence, has, for now, ended. We may do that yet–but not today, not tomorrow.

Back in 2003, we waited in that dark stairwell for a very long time. Or at least it seemed that way. Local calls on our cellphones did not go through. But we were able to call long distance. So we phoned our borrowed futon friend, Lisa, who had moved to El Paso in early 2001. Lisa called her friend Chris who lived in Chelsea near to where we were. Chris was hosting a candle lit roof party. He had beer, wine and a battery-powered transistor radio.

Catherine and I shuffled down West 19th Street, extra careful not to let her slip on the sidewalk. We brushed past–and in some cases, up against–shadowed strangers carrying flashlights and candles and whispering in the dark: “Excuse me” ; “Sorry”; “My bad.”

I helped Catherine up the precarious stairs to the roof and when we emerged we could see the neighborhood laid out beneath us, quiet as an eyebrow, to borrow an expression from my younger daughter. Chris poured me a plastic cup of red wine while on the radio, Dylan cruelly instructed us not to think twice. We toasted our good luck in finding one another and the happy news from earlier that day.

The next morning, just as we had on September 12, 2001, Catherine and I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, home. And, again, we marveled at how mostly unbroken the city and its citizens looked in the brilliant light of day.

On the recent Friday of Irene’s weekend I drove the girls down to my hometown, Baltimore, to visit their Great Grandma. Catherine stayed in Brooklyn to work. On Saturday, during the storm’s peak, she sent text and email updates. Now bits of the bedroom ceiling are falling down. Now she’s sacrificing bath towels to sop up the water coming through the windows. Now the forest of Park Slope looks amazing, the lashed treetops swaying as one.

Catherine took to the bottom mattress of the kids’ bunk beds that night, just in case the roof collapsed. She finally fell asleep a little after five in the morning, once the banshee wind had mellowed.

When I got back to town I called the super to come look at the ceiling and the windows. There’s also a closet door off it’s hinges (not storm related), that needs fixing. And the oven dial is broken to the point that we unplug the stove when it’s not in use, so as to avoid being blown up in a gas explosion.

The super has still not called back. But eventually he will.

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