On Thursday, I went to the Park Slope YMCA early, 6 a.m., expecting it to be open after it had been closed two days. It wasn't. And thus began the Miracle on 14th St.
You see, I live in Brooklyn, close over the bridges from New York City, and my power never went out. But my daughter, Anna, lives in lower Manhattan, which has been in blackout since the storm. When she went to buy a flashlight at her local hardware store, it was $29.99! (WARNING, New York humor alert: Anna, "How much do you charge for it when there isn't a power outage?"Clerk, "$29.98.")
So, I decided to bring Anna and her boyfriend a flashlight, as well as some papers I needed to deliver to her. Only the subways are out. So I got on my bike. Mapquest says the trip is six plus miles -- taking some indirect routes, let's call it 15 miles, roundtrip. I bike over one of two bridges -- the Manhattan, or the Brooklyn.
History Lesson: When I first started coming to New York to stay with friends after college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York was a wreck. Then -- as now -- the two greatest human constructions in the city were Central Park, built by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux from 1858 to 1873, and the Brooklyn Bridge, built by John and Washington Roebling (father and son) from 1870 to 1883.
In the late 1960s, Central Park was in disrepair, but my friends and I often walked through en route to other destinations. And very few pedestrians used the wooden walkway across the Brooklyn Bridge -- certainly at night. At the time, there were few bike riders.
Flash forward: CP is overrun since it has been renovated -- and is maintained -- by a well-heeled citizens' group, the Central Park Conservancy, and has become a magnet for tourists and New Yorkers both. Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to find room to cross the BB by bike these days during peak hours, since it too has become a tourist attraction.
Usually, I cross to Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge, but at 6-7 a.m., I chanced the usually crowded BB, a thing so beautiful I think of church arches as I pass beneath the bridge's stone towers. In the summer, when I bike to Manhattan at night, I can see the lights up and down the river. When I hit the city, I pass through Chinatown, SoHo, Little Italy, the East Village, Washington Square-NYU, en route to my daughter's place in the West Village, just below the High Line (a new tourist destination) and the newly hot Meatpacking District. The streets are alive, teeming at night, each district distinct in both its look and the people who are crowded into its restaurants, bars, and streets. These trips are peak experiences.
Today, even though I entered a predawn city, there were no lights, because -- well, you know why. It hadn't occurred to me how traffic might work without traffic lights (you mean, with no electricity, there are no traffic lights? -- right). But things were remarkably orderly. Cross streets almost took turns in their traffic flows (well, that might be describing things slightly optimistically -- but not too much).
Society Lesson: Social units tend to organize themselves. In the absence of formal controls -- such as traffic lights (and I saw hardly any police in the early a.m.) -- people tend to create their own social norms for operating. These would obviously be challenged in mid-day traffic. But they were working fairly well in the early morning. Moreover, drivers were unusually considerate of me as a biker. (Note: I never took advantage to drive recklessly.)
When I arrived at my daughter's building, just below 14th St., less than a block from the entrance to the High Line on Gansevoort Street, I recognized a few deficiencies in my plan. First, the buzzer to my daughter's apartment didn't work because -- well, the electricity was out in lower Manhattan. Plus I had recently broken my cell phone.
So I began asking passersby to borrow their phones. Each of the three men I asked tried to help -- the first poked thoroughly through his bag but couldn't find his. The second, outside a neighboring building, said his phone was out because he couldn't charge it. And the third found and gave me his cell phone. But my daughter's phone was off, and went to message (it was still barely past 7).
Now came the real miracle. The second man I asked outside the next-door building beckoned to me and said, "My wife acts as the super for that building. I can get you the key." Which he went in and did. When he came out of his building with it, I asked if he wanted to come in with me -- you know, to make sure I wasn't up to anything. He waved me off -- "Just bring me the key when you leave."
Psychology Lesson: People really do help out -- certainly in a small community environment, which the West Village is within the larger City. Or maybe emergencies bring out the best in people. Or maybe my story was so plausible I could have gotten away with anything. Or maybe New Yorkers have hearts of gold.
So, I let myself in, knocked on my daughter's door, presented her surprised boyfriend -- who answered -- with a flashlight and some bank papers, left the building and gave the nice man the key back, then rode home before 9 a.m. and had a beer (ooops! -- strike that).
And every word here is true. Well, except that I never rode recklessly.