A prolific writer in the sense of words per day, I am used to quickly finding details that speak to me, stories I want to tell, points I want to make: meanings of experiences. I have been struck, therefore, by how little I have found—or that there is to be found?—in hurricane Sandy. (Today as I draft this is four days after the storm hit Manhattan, where I live, and I am fully prepared to believe that I am reporting on the experience of a particular person, with a dead television and traveling through just a few neighborhoods, in one corner of the larger event.)
Of course we, on the east side below 42nd Street, have had the “detail” of patients, to include babies and many others in intensive care, being evacuated from hospitals whose back-up generators were insufficient or failed (or ran out of fuel?). I happened one evening to bicycle home past one of these hospitals and saw the line of ambulances, the Klieg lights and a few television cameras. Ordinarily in New York one would assume that this was a movie set; under the circumstances, it seemed a sort of military operation, a secret movement of troops and equipment under cover of darkness.
Another of the few details that has stuck in my memory comes from the first morning after the storm departed. I was riding my bike around the largely deserted streets, and people were beginning to come out, like me, but on foot and with their cameras and cellphones, looking to take pictures of the devastation. But there was so little to photograph—a few tree limbs blocking sidewalks, some East River debris left ashore when the waters receded. These details spoke so timidly about the experience, which even on a physical, meteorological level was, for Manhattan, not about above-ground destruction, but rather about the “storm surge,” about very low atmospheric pressure and the power of an astral body 240,000 miles away, and about the extent of our dependence on electricity, and about someone or someones who waited too long to shut down a substation which, you might say, became enraged, blew up and cut half a million or more of us off from the national power grid.
Before I set down these details, in all their beautiful blandness, I had wanted the detail-less-ness and meaninglessness of the storm experience to be the key details, the holders of meaning (as a colander holds water?). I had wanted to propose that the detail-less-ness and meaninglessness was a sign both of maturity on my part (no longer insisting on meaning, on making up meanings) and of the force of the storm. As regards the latter, I had wanted to ask if the storm brought us in touch with the meaninglessness (which is neither bad nor good) of our lives, and of our power grid and television news, and of the jobs we are either able to get to or not.
Just before Sandy arrived, a colleague (Shifra Sharlin) e-mailed me a copy of an essay of hers, which begins as follows:
I used to scorn carpeting for the same reason that I would rather squint than wear sunglasses. The late Russell Hoban put it best, “I don’t want anything to come between me and It.” While I doubt that religion and flooring have anything in common, I am certain that I was reaching for the same thing as Hoban. I’m not sure what to call it. Truth? Authenticity? Unmediated experience?
I found myself ruminating on this rich concept this morning as I took what was only the second cold shower I have taken all week, having otherwise used my wonderful if entirely ordinary bicycle to go north, uptown, out of my powerless zone, to a little health club in the luxury hotel where I play tennis, and where there are not only showers and clean towels, but also a sauna. In many ways the storm has hardly affected me. Staff at two of the power-zone restaurants where I am a regular have graciously allowed me to sit for hours, enjoying the food and coffee and using the electricity and Web access to keep my computerized writing and editing life going quite as before. Although in my apartment I have gas and running water, and though I stocked up on food before the storm, I have only eaten one meal here. I have been boiling water this morning while my son sleeps in. Ostensibly I am doing this to clean containers that held Sandy-spoiled leftovers, but above all I like the sound of the kettle, whistling in a large apartment building that seems to have been almost entirely evacuated. (Though, in fact, it has not been; it would seem that the 100 or so people who remain are, like me, slipping in and out in silence and under the cover of darkness.)
As these words suggest, I am already becoming nostalgic for a time that has not yet ended: this time when Sandy turned off our lights, elevators and hot water, and my son and I slept with the shades and curtains open to the moonlight, and when a few bars up the street served drinks in candlelight, and a group of neighbors went door to door making sure no one was trapped in their apartments, and an NYU doorman or janitor was seen this morning cleaning the glass doors, just like he would any day of the week, although, his building lacking power, the doors were of no other use.
Hoban is best known for a series of picture books he wrote. They starred Frances, a temperamental girl. I quote from the 1964 Bread and Jam for Frances:
Frances did not eat her egg.
She sang a little song to it.
She sang the song very softly:
I do not like the way you slide,
I do not like your soft inside,
I do not like you lots of ways,
And I could do for many days
The people who wanted to embrace the “it” of the hurricane Sandy by remaining in their houses by this or that beach were considered threats to themselves and to the “first responders” (whose job is to rescue people from the it). This is not to criticize Hoban’s or Shifra’s idea of the great virtues of unmediated experience (of indeed feeling the egg’s soft inside), but I would note the extent to which, with our carpets and so many other things (with our writing essays and children’s books), we seek to distance ourselves from the it. (And I suppose I will have to add that the ultimate “it” is the one the comes at the end, and so our whole lives may be thought of as a distancing procedure—a relentless and ultimately futile cycling uptown?)
My son and my favorite detail, the only one we tried to photograph, unsuccessfully as it turned out, was a crosswalk sign that had fallen over without breaking; and, somehow, because it was near the end of the dead zone, the zone without electricity, this sign was still hooked up to a live portion of the grid. So day after day and all through the nights this sign—or two signs: one for east-west walkers and one for north-south walkers, of which there are now very few in either case—has continued to steadily alternate: its red “stop” hand; its flashing red, get-ready-to-stop hand; and its white OK-to-cross, stick-figure in a walking pose. And meanwhile the poor sign has lain on its side on the sidewalk, facing a parking lot fence, and cars have kept rolling slowly behind it, not stopping because the traffic lights in this part of the city have been out. Thinking about it now, after my shower, I suppose this sign, this detail, was like a soldier who keeps on doing what he has been told to do even though he has been injured and abandoned, and his orders have long since ceased to make any sense.
Paragraph from Shifra Sharrlin which includes a quotation from Russell Hoban (original source unknown) are from Sharlin’s essay, “Differences: Sade, Austen, and the Biblia Hebraica On Marriage,” Salmagundi, forthcoming.
Verses from Russell Hoban, Bread and Jam for Frances (I Can Read Book 2), with illustrations by Lillian Hoban (HarperCollins, 2008). Originally published in 1964.