A Cause, Looking for an Effect

A good friend texted on hurricane Friday, reassuring me she was prepared: “I bought some unperishables. And boots.” How perfectly natural—we had been hearing for days how important it was to be prepared with food and water. And good boots were a necessity even without a hurricane.

What was a hurricane in Manhattan?

I didn’t think about the boots again until Saturday morning, when I did my own hurricane shopping. I had bread, water, and peanut butter. I also had a watermelon. How perfectly natural: a watermelon would keep well, and would help with hydration. Good boots are a necessity, even without a hurricane.

Never mind that projected flooding in lower Manhattan would have made rainboots a worse choice than flippers. Never mind that a power outage would mean a warm, spoiling watermelon. We were not seriously preparing for a disaster.

Preparations unserious: in the under-25 set some friends fled to a family home in Connecticut, photographed mock drownings in an azure pool. Others took a box of wine onto their village roof. Nearly all of us checked in to ‘Hurricanepocalypse 2011’ on foursquare. One friend checked in at midnight Saturday at a bar on the lower east side.  I and the rainboots took shelter in a friend’s West Side apartment, dipping watermelon in balsamic.

Not seriously preparing for a disaster? Heavens! Had our mayor not warned us it would not be ‘cute’ to attempt riding out the storm? Had we not heard the comparisons with the 1938 storm? How could preparations be unserious? Perhaps we were too young for fear. Perhaps, having moved here in the last month, we had already been infected with the solipsism of New York: that even what harms the city makes it stronger.

By sometime Saturday it was apparent that the imminent hurricane was even less serious than our preparations. It was sunny. Irene had nipped North Carolina. Okcupid’s impish ‘Irene is checking you out’ email proved prophetic: the storm that came was more flirtation than catastrophe.

Hurricane: on an identical Saturday sometime in November we would have lived our lives, grumbling about cold rain, shaking our umbrellas, wishing we had better shoes (or boots!). This Saturday, with the exception of the absent trains, could have been the same. We could have gone out for drinks, taken a cab to meet our friends in the meatpacking district. It would have been a triumph: a city as heedless of hurricanes as sleep.

But we did not. We did something different. We felt a shiver of warm fear as the wind hissed against our window. At 9 we put on raincoats and walked down to the river. We poured mugs of wine and watched a movie, read children’s books aloud to one another. After midnight, standing in the vestibule, we watched the rain.

It was all—my apologies, Mayor—terribly cute. We slept through the hurricane and made guacamole in the morning. The next night, Sunday, even though we might have returned comfortably to our homes—a 36th floor, a couch in Brooklyn—we did not. We watched another movie, went for another walk, tried to draw the tree outside the window.

What was the hurricane? Not quite a vacation. We stayed at home, felt no need to see museums. Instead, a holiday: a chance to forget ourselves, to live for a weekend not as we were obligated but as we wished. A chance to read instead of searching for apartments, to cook instead of drinking. A rare chance to become children, fascinated by a mystic night. A chance to live differently than we were used to.

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