By Hamilton Nolan
Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan this morning, on the footpath with all the bikers and walkers forced to trudge into the city, was a very fat man riding a very tiny electric scooter. The smallest size of scooter an adult man or grown child could sit on outside of circus setting. Near the midpoint of the crossing, he stopped and dismounted. His right pedal had fallen off. He was standing on the left side of his tiny scooter, straining to reach across and pick up his broken pedal, being thwarted by his sizable belly. Eventually, he succeeded in picking it up and reattaching it. He rolled by me very slowly ten minutes later on the way down.
That fat man on a tiny scooter with a broken pedal had a more effective transportation method than the entire New York City Transit System.
It’s Halloween in New York City, and half the city’s power’s out, and there’s no way to go anywhere without a car, and so you walk over the bridge. There is always a certain level of foot traffic crossing the bridge, but today it expands from fitness-minded commuters to everyone, from wide-eyed tourists to annoyed-looking workers to old people who clearly are not really in any shape to be walking over a bridge.
A mother with her two children, a boy and a girl, exquisitely dressed as a skeleton and a princess respectively, were trudging over the bridge. So were one full grown man in a Captain America mask, and another who seemed to be walking the entire downslope with his eyes closed. “Blind guy” for Halloween, perhaps. The chances of scoring treats on the other side of the bridge, though, seemed dim. The power outages that stretch south from 34th street or so render the whole Lower East Side as a stubborn, dank wall, a dark and eerie and unwelcoming sight. An anti-Ellis Island for Brooklyn migrants. The tennis courts in East River Park are soggy and covered in detritus, licked by the river’s dirty tongue. The project towers that surround the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge on both sides look meaner than usual, nothing but dark windows crisscrossed by useless strips of duct tape and silence. No power, no elevators, no residents; the buildings themselves have a distinct “Life After People” vibe. The sky is blue, but they seem to suck in light and produce their own gloom. On Ridge St., south of the bridge, an entire tower of more than twenty stories was presided over by no one except a handful of NY Housing Authority workers raking leaves on the sidewalk. A courtyard without loiterers might as well be a graveyard.
Delancey Street is drowning in police whistles. All of lower Manhattan is without traffic lights, and, it must be said, quite dangerous. Traffic cops are stationed at the major intersections, but everywhere else, crossings are based on foot speed alone. (It could be worse: in Greenpoint, where the power’s not out, I encountered an intersection with working pedestrian crossing lights, but a missing traffic light, so that pedestrians confidently strode out into oncoming traffic that had no signal to stop.) Bus stops have gained a level of overnight popularity that rivals the trendiest of nightclubs. All the stores are without power. On Grand Street, a line of hopeful customers had formed outside of a darkened Rite Aid that was said to be opening its gate soon. Elsewhere, pitch-black bodegas opened their doors to sell cigarettes and warm booze to anyone with low standards. But mostly, there was nothing. The pizza shop and the flower shop and the bialy shop and the falafel shop and the kosher bakery were closed. Across the street, the pickle shop was closed. The Lower East Side, stereotypical and otherwise, is closed.
I’d had a cup of coffee on my way over. After wandering around for an hour or so, I had to pee. I looked up the street. I looked down the street. Closed, locked, gated, dark. New York has never been a city of public bathrooms; but now I realized that there was, quite literally, nowhere to pee on the Lower East Side. It was an easy calculation: I had to walk back over the bridge, to Brooklyn. To piss. Better a 30 minute walk towards a place I know than to roll the dice on wandering this Mad Maxian wasteland of no power and nowhere to piss except on a cop car.
As I reached the foot of the bridge, I passed a young woman with her elderly grandmother, who had just walked over from the other side, and were looking extremely tired and extremely worried. The young woman was begging a teenaged girl standing outside of a shuttered cell phone store: “Do you know where we can find a bathroom? Please.” The girl looked up the street. She looked down the street. And she said nothing.
Happy Halloween, New York City. We’ll all get through this somehow.