Cindy Milstein's Blog

Dispatches from Hurricaned NY: Scariest Halloween Ever

On the last day of October 2012, I walked across the Manhattan Bridge twice, each time mostly with downtrodden-looking workers, going to and/or from likely dismal and low-paying jobs that might not even be there when they arrive. It’s hard to get info in some parts of the city; in others, it feels like business as usual. So much is shut down in NYC, at least in the desolate huge swath I’m currently living within in lower Manhattan. I’ve no precise idea of where the blackout begins and ends, but still, this Halloween evening, it looks like the Empire State building marks the magical point between electricity and no electricity, cell reception and no cell reception, heat and no heat. Of course, some friends today told me that they’d biked around Wall Street yesterday and enormous generators were lighting up enormous corporate high-rises, even as the ever-bleak public housing high-rises remain without any utilities or aid other than from community members and DIY relief — how state and capital structurally collude to near-literally starve people out of their homes and neighborhoods to then replace them with newer, nicer homes and newer, nicer neighborhoods in a process dubbed gentrification (no coincidence, then, that the places long without power are poor-but-now-prime-property-locations!).

The first time I crossed Manhattan Bridge on foot today involved going from dark to light, as it were, heading to Brooklyn. It was daytime, but still, it’s clear the difference it makes when there’s electricity or no electricity to life-on-the-ground.

The second time was definitely poor planning on my part, crossing back from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side when it was getting far too dark in terms of nightfall, as I left artificial light behind. Once again, about halfway across a bridge for the second night in a row (last night on Williamsburg Bridge), it suddenly got pitch dark. Not only is night coming sooner as we head into November, but without electricity in a city of tall buildings and narrow streets, darkness clamps down in a way I’ve never quite thought possible. As I descended the walkway from the bridge on to what’s usually a bustling intersection at 6:00 pm or so, I could once again barely see a few feet in front of me and was dodging the many cars that were trying to get on to the bridge, unhindered by the now-vacant-looking traffic lights. In this ultra-darkness, cars absolutely can’t see pedestrians and bicyclists, so these big intersections mean running like hell when there’s a slight opening. It creates a weird camaraderie between those of us about to race across the big intersection, and a collective look a relief once on the other side.

And once safely past that hurdle, the streets became increasingly empty, increasingly darker, with few cars, except for the occasional cop car with lights flashing zipping past. I kept getting the increasingly uneasy sensation of being inside a really (really!) bad B-movie about zombies or the end of the world. I tried to play a game with myself, imagining I was on a really (really) bad cheap carnival ride through one of those “enchanted forests” or something cheesy where obviously fake ax murders, werewolves, and ghosts unexpectedly hurl themselves at you, and then are quickly pulled back by obvious mechanical devises. It is, after all, Halloween. But above me, to the East, as I stumbled northward gingerly (because one can hardly see the pavement and its many pitfalls like garbage cans, broken glass, and curbs), loomed the dark, dreary high edifices of public housing (“a welcoming community,” one sign told me earlier in the day, gesturing toward the most unwelcome of architectural monstrosities). I didn’t have to imagine how hard it must be for those likely stuck inside, sans elevators, any utilities, and money to get out. Not a bad B-movie; instead, a rotten social system.

On this particular not-Halloween but oddly most-Halloween of silly-scary-dark evenings in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, all the buildings are pretty much dark now. You can still see faint candle flickers from some windows, and the odd flashlight beam moving around within apartments high above. Far more than last night, and enormously more than the night before that, though, it seems many folks have by now abandoned home and hearth for another borough (or even upper Manhattan), if they can. They’ve gone in search of the things we still lack: power, heat, cooking fuel, hot water, cell reception, showers, wifi, lit-up pumpkins.

Friends and acquaintances in Brooklyn today offered me couches, and asked why I hadn’t thought of temporarily relocating to Brooklyn. One said, “I figured you were enjoying the adventure!” That’s definitely part of it – adventure, but maybe more so the intrigue and my curiosity. Sometimes I’m also really bad at asking for help and really good at always seeming fine, seeming strong, and mostly I am – fine and strong. Maybe, I thought, walking through the ghastly, spooky streets that probably aren’t all that safe right now, whether due to unseen potholes or unseen desperate folks who need the $40 cash in my pocket more than I do (besides poverty in general, the lack of ATMs in particular right now makes cash a prime commodity) or cars that can’t see me, or police that can, I really should get better about asking for help, and less good at finding adventure. But this past year-plus has brought me, each time serendipitously, into so many monumental moments, the highs and lows of which I’ve never experienced: accidentally being in NYC on September 20, 2011 for the first week of OWS; then accidentally testing out a move to Philly just when Occupy Philly’s encampment began and so sticking it out through the eviction and aftermath; going to the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair in May and knowing I couldn’t leave the Quebec student strike and social movement there for the next almost four months; and now, in my quest to find stable housing, accidentally getting a sublet in a former-now-legalized squat in NYC’s Lower East Side. So yeah, curiosity is again getting the best of me.

So rather than worry, I bumbled ahead through the blackout, toward my current sublet, and on the way, found that the pizza places that were open last night were now closed. Maybe they ran out of generator fuel that allowed them to be among the first “necessities” to open in the powerless Lower East Side immediately after the hurrican, or their pizza dough stock, or both, or just made so much money selling higher-than-usual-priced pizza slices that they decided to stay home (I heard that one pizza joint gave out free slices on the day after the hurricane, but all I saw were many selling slices, amid closed and tightly shuttered store after store after restaurant). I’d hoped to stop by the community center in Chinatown on Hester Street where folks were helping others with food and things, to pitch in, but a black-and-white, hastily made sign on a post as I neared the address — asking things like “Wonder when the lights will come back on?” “Wonder when transit will be restore?” “Are you without heat?” – informed me that it had closed at 5:00 pm. Maybe tomorrow.

I forged ahead, getting closer to home, and ran across a few bars that were open, with candles instead of lights inside, and sandwich boards out front announcing “Fuck the storm! Celebrate Halloween!” that one could barely see (much less read) until you literally ran into them in the dark (yes, perhaps commerce and failing infrastructure are by far the more dangerous elements on these dark, dark, dark streets than any sinister individuals or goblins, ghouls, and ghosts). It was only about 7:00 or 7:30, so at least for now, these few bars were nearly empty. A guy standing outside one urged me inside: “We’ve got beer for sale!” he exclaimed. “No Halloween free beer?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Yeah, everyone’s gotta make a buck somehow.” He wasn’t even wearing a costume; neither was the bartender. Nor could I see a real pumpkin anywhere on the premises; just a badly drawn on one that hazardous sandwich board. I encountered this same entrepreneurial zest earlier in the day, in the form of a woman who’d set up an impromptu Hurricane-relief “store” on the sidewalk out of boxes, stocked with umbrellas, candles, water, flashlights, and batteries. She tried to sell me batteries that were four years’ expired. I could use batteries for my tiny flashlight on its last leg and tiny battery-operated radio. “They’re only two dollars!” she frowned, after I pointed out they likely were no good. “Only two dollars! Only two dollars! Only TWO dollars!” as if that somehow changed the expiration date the more she said it.

I kept walking, out of that damned curiosity. It was still early; only about 8 :00p.m. But when a 15 bus arrived at a shelter and only a few people were waiting, and no one was inside the dimly lit vehicle, it seemed unlikely that the bars would suddenly fill up here in the eerily quiet Lower East Side.

A few dejected kids were slumped together on a stoop near one of the bars, debating when school would start again. I couldn’t tell if they are looking forward to school or were just trying to distract themselves from the profound lose of Halloween. Their costumes looked almost as sad as they did, hunched over the still-wet and leaf-covered sidewalk, leaning on each other, their bags to collect candy empty of any contents.

Meanwhile, across the street next to Tompkins Square Park, dark and still locked-up tight, two guys who looked like they were dressed for Halloween as squatters from a quarter-decade ago (probably not costumes, alas, but their daily attire) conversed against the fence. One explained how the sky was completely orange as the sun went down. “Really, dude, orange! I wonder what that means?” I think they, too, were trying to simply make up for the disappointment over this Halloween gone bad—even if it will be a Halloween to remember.

And just before I got home, I heard a couple chatting with friends on the streets; they’d gone uptown to a take a shower at another friend’s apartment, and when they tried to get a taxi back to the blacked-out Lower East Side, they explained, “the driver said he wouldn’t go there; it’s too scary.”

As I reached my former-squat-now-legalized sublet, which since the storm has (re)turned into near-squat conditions (still no heat, no hot water, no cooking fuel, no refrigerator, no lights, no wifi, no cell reception, and now dampness and plywood on the floors by the entryway), a bunch of hyperactive kids rushed past me as I entered. I’ve heard their overly loud voices for the past few days whenever I walk by their apartment – increasingly loud, since they are increasingly bored. Now they are in haphazard costumes, empty pillowcases in hand for sweet loot, yelling even louder with the anticipation of ringing (now-silenced) doorbells, or maybe just shouting “Trick or Treat” at the top of their little lungs to the darkened windows in apartment buildings above to somehow get candy, candy, candy – maybe simply tossed downward into their bags by an outstretched arm, looking dismembered in the flickering light of a sole candle illuminating the fire escapes. I’m already imagining how much more hyper-hyperactive that will make these kids on their return squat-home! But I can’t help laughing at their happiness, and I almost believe – as they seem to believe so heartily – that there will be plenty of apartments waiting for them with open doors, smiling pumpkins, and delicious treats.

I almost went back outside to join them or traverse the holiday-less streets again after entering my sublet, first lighting two little tea candles and dropping off my backpack. Then I remembered that it was actually pretty creepy outside – having just walked down near-empty, utterly dark cavern-streets – a real-life haunted city. Maybe I’d already had my Halloween. I’d definitely eaten one too many cheap peanut-butter-stuffed chocolate “lips” and a few crispy-chocolate “toes,” thanks to a friend bringing by a bag of Halloween goodies to Interference Archive in Brooklyn earlier (my destination in crossing Manhattan Bridge twice). Her candy was meant for her grad students, but I heard today that all colleges and universities are closed, probably for the week — not Wall Street, of course, just anything to do with education. Fortunately Interference made it through the deathly toxic waters that rose up 8th Street in Gowanus, just a couple doors’ shy of our archive from below, so today it was home to refugee CUNY grad students who are friends of the archive and archive-affiliated folks whose workplaces were closed (said one, to paraphrase: “They told us work would be closed all week.” Everyone at the archive cheered. “With no pay for us.” A big Halloween boo!).

Back to my sublet. About an hour after my return, outside my Lower East Side third-floor not-squat-apartment, down on the street, someone turned on their car in order to blast NPR news from their car radio to the whole block. It felt like such a treat, not a trick! Most of us who’ve stayed in the utility-less netherworld of Manhattan have hadno access to news—printed, radioed, Wi-Fi’ed, televised, or livestreamed. What nice mutual aid to let us all listen in to the latest disaster info! I was glad to hear familiar NPR newscaster voices, like old friends, both for the news they imparted and because it helped drown out (a little) the monotone of an excruciatingly loud pump that seems to have been going nonstop for two days attached to the same basement opening. Maybe that basement has a direct link to the subway tunnels and is helping us all get mass transit that much faster. That’s what I’m fantasizing about at least, so that I’m not driven completely mad by the noise. Likely, it’s just some overzealous landlord worried about their property value.

I’m paying almost nothing to sublet here, because radicals held on tight to this building (and others) in fights with cops over the years; many of these same radicals and some new ones (and the loud, hyperactive kids who live downstairs) are beneficiaries of those battles, and can still do their politics, art, and other awesome DIY work because of low monthly costs. Most apartments in this neighborhood, sans their inhabitants going head-to-baton with riot cops, likely cost in the many thousands of dollars per month. Odd, then, to think of those folks abandoning their apartments, and those in the now-legal squats still here. I hear over at C squat that TimesUp! has hooked up a bike-powered recharging station and there’s other material aid there. I keep meaning to go have a look – but everything takes so long in this powerless world that it’s hard to fit much into these dark days. Besides the former squatters, the other hangers-on here in the Lower East Side are the community gardens, also squatted and reappropriated, also now legal. So many of these gardens now look so pitiful, also having a bad bad Halloween, since their biggest and best trees are lying post-hurricane winds on the garden ground – in my imagination, as if simply asleep or resting until springtime.

Anyway, back to NPR. Just as a story comes on about how the Lower East Side has been without electricity and how that feels – which of course, doesn’t come close to actually getting what it really feels like here for those of us currently living it! – the noisy kids return, strangely triumphant. I don’t see them, because it’s pitch dark below my window, pitch dark across from my window, pitch dark in the sky above. But I definitely hear them, managing to both drown out the pump and radio. It’s clear that their efforts at Trick or Treat were without luck. I thought, “They should have gone over to Brooklyn, to at least enjoy ‘Trick or Aid,’” where folks with Occupy Sandy Relief and other projects (the lovely legacy of Occupy, now showing how self-organization works, again, far better than FEMA and National Guard, cops and capitalism) are busy going door-to-door to collect water, candles, batteries, diapers, and such for those in need in places like Red Hook, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and so on. But these energetic Lower East Side kids can’t quite bring themselves to go inside yet, even after failure. Or maybe because of it! After all, what’s inside but more darkness and further boredom? So they are loitering on the sidewalk two floors below my window, chanting happily, loudly, proudly, on their holiday that’s been shut down by climate change:

“What do we want?” “Candy!”

“When do we want it?” “Now!”

“What do we want?” “Power!”

“When do we want it?” “Now!” “Every day!”

Suffice it to say, they chanted this familiar refrain many, many times, always in the same loud order. I don’t blame them. Isn’t that what we all want? Candy and power! Power and candy! Sounds a lot better than bread and roses right about now.

They finally tire of this game. It’s quiet again. And seemingly even darker, though I’m not sure if that’s possible. The pump is still going. But no car radio, no NPR, no kids. I heard their little trampling feet running into their apartment, then nothing. I can see the reflection of my two tea-light candles in the window; I see one tiny flashlight beam bouncing up and down as someone walks by on the sidewalk below, but I can’t see the person or the sidewalk. Maybe another disappointed Trick or Treater, or perhaps someone off to one of those bars for a likely pricey beer without real-live pumpkins? I’ve suddenly begun fearing all day that the only treats from the trick of this commodified-world-induced, climate-fuck-up disaster is all the toxic water-food-air confection that most of us in this Superstorm Sandy region are probably now collecting in our bodies this October 31. I hear sirens in the distance. Silence. What sounds like a jackhammer or couple firecrackers go off far away. Silence. Then even the pump stops.

This is indeed the eeriest of Halloweens ever.

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(Photo: by Cindy Milstein, outdoor pumpkin for sale with others at a Brooklyn corner store)

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