Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bike Ride to the Dark Side!

Bike Ride to the Dark Side!
Friday, November 2, 2012
New York City
Island of Manhattan
11:34 p.m.

At 2:30 p.m. I jumped on my trusty, rusty bike and headed south from Washington Heights down into the eerie chaos of mid-town and the ghost town that is southern Manhattan. After about an hour of pedaling south down the West Side Bike Path, I stopped at 34th street just across the street from the Empire State Building for a lecture on the Cuban economy by Carmelo Mesa-Lago at the CUNY Graduate Center's Bildner Center.

More on that excellent and informative analysis in a later post.

When that ended at about 5:45, I jumped back on my bike and rode east on 34th street, planing to pass by my workplace - Baruch College - at 24th and Lexington, and then head down as far south as I could get - and see what I could see. Upon leaving 34th and 5th Ave, I noticed a bizarre scene where the north side of 34th street had power but the south side did not - running all the way east and west like that. Then I noticed literally hundreds of people lined up on the darkened south side of 34th street under a scaffolding that ran the entire block - all of them waiting their turn to get on a bus to take them home from work back into Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx.

I was glad to be on my bike.

When I got to 34th and Lexington and tried to turn right, I was blocked by a wall of busses and realized that I was now at the head of the line of all those people waiting and where a group of 5 or 6 police officers were directing the waiting passengers onto busses as they pulled up. It was quite strange to see all those commuters waiting huddled together and to see that the interchange of 34th and Lex had been transformed into an impromptu bus station!

Finally navigating my way around all the busses and people I flew like the wind south down Lexington toward Baruch at 24th. As I rode, I immediately noticed that the entire ten block stretch between 34th and 24th was in the dark and despite my having seen crowds of people waiting for busses on 34th street, as I glided down Lexington, I was virtually the only vehicle on the road, with all the stores shuttered and all the traffic lights out.


Baruch was shut up tight with only the gleam of emergency lights shining from inside. I crossed over 23rd street and headed past Gramercy Park Hotel, Gramercy Park, and down to Union Square. All this area was without power except for a few buildings that had huge generators humming along outside, providing the basics in power. I slowly made my way south through the darkened canyons that are now southern Manhattan. At every street crossing were a pair of cops directing traffic - the little that there was - and on the larger crossings they had even set up bright red flares to alert motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. I can still smell the phosphorus in my nostrils and see that sharp gleam in my eyes when I close them.

I was happy and even a bit proud to see so many cops out keeping things safe and relatively calm. I did feel a bit of an edge to such a bizarre scene in the city that never sleeps. I was also quite impressed that most people, while perhaps frustrated, seemed to be taking things in stride and I saw no evidence of looting or any kind of crime. Nor have I heard reports about any such behavior. I also noticed that a number of stores - especially food stores and pharmacies - were open for business. The bodegas just worked in the dark, while the pharmacies had generators.

When I got as far south as City Hall, I made a point to turn right (heading west now) so that I could take a look at ground zero. I came up on it from the east, riding beside the huge Century 21 store and saw that the street between them was soaking wet with puddles and even a small stream of water running from the WTC site through a fire drainage hose onto the street and down into the storm drains. Four-days later, they were still pumping water out of "the pit" at the WTC site - and out of the subways and the Path Train tunnel!

I then made my way further south, passing Wall Street, Trinity Church, Bowling Green, the bronze bull statue, making it all the way down to the southern tip of Manhattan at Battery Park. I then turned right and headed west to take the West Side Bike Path back up north. I passed by my brother's old apartment just north of the WTC site, which cost him $4,700 a month in rent if I remember correctly!. It was all dark without power but there were generator lights in the lobby and doormen there to greet residents.

Instead of going up the West Side Bike Path, I decided to turn back into the city and ride north through the west side of southern Manhattan. I zigzagged north, sometimes on 6th Ave, sometimes on 8th, and finally ending up on 10th - where I passed Chelsea Market riding just beneath the High Line for about 20 blocks. About 80% of that area was still in the dark as of 6:30 p.m. on Friday night. It was quite desolate with very few people around except for cops at every street crossing directing traffic.

When I made it up to about 34th street, I felt like I had crossed back into civilization from the land that time, electricity, and the rule of law had forgot. Between 34th and 59th Streets, there was a massive crush of people and I had to ride my bike quite slow to avoid hitting pedestrians who would wander into the street or bike lane. It was especially crowded around the Port Authority and the NYTimes building.

For a friday night, there were a lot of people like me out riding their bikes. We would strike up cyclist solidarity conversations whenever we found ourselves waiting together at a stop light.

When I got as far north as Columbus Circle, the crowds started to thin out and as I passed into the Upper West Side, I felt as if I were riding through any Friday night in that area, with bars and restaurants open, movie theaters, the Apple Store, shopping, night life, etc. It was an eerie contrast from the different world of southern Manhattan.

Because I had seen enough, I decided to exit Broadway at 83rd Street and headed west to Riverside Drive, intending to take that all the way north to 181st street in Washington Heights, where I live. However, just as I was passing in front of the massive Riverside Church at 116th street, my front tire began to wildly hiss and went flat!


Without a spare tube, I had to walk my bike. Luckily, I was just two blocks from the 116th St. stop on the 1-line. So I went into the Subway (for the first time in a week) and - happy at not having to pay, rolled my bike through the open gate and carried it down the stairs. The first northern-bound 1-train was too packed with people for me to get in with my bike. I was able to get on the second train that took me up to 181st and St. Nicholas.

I ran into a neighbor upon exiting the subway and we talked of the eerie state of the city together as we walked the 5 blocks west home.

When I got in, I saw that Obama had ordered Army trucks to deliver gasoline to a starved city and that - responding to rising protests from the city residents and from many of the runners themselves - the organizers of Sunday's NYC marathon had decided to call it off. A neighbor whose two daughters had been staying with her for the week, refugees from the Lower East Side, told me that they (thankfully) had left since ConEd had called to tell them that power was back on in the LES!

I hear that power will be back on for most of Manhattan by tomorrow too - so I guess my "ride to the dark side" was just in time!

And what a ride it was!

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