The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember in 2003 when the power went out in New York City.
Sorry. Went out everywhere.
I was reminded of 1977 when a similar situation stranded my father at Penn Station.
A “kind stranger” gave him a ride home.
Meanwhile the news focused on chaos in the streets.
There are two types of stories that crop up during such times of “crisis”.
The disposition of “certain elements to riot and loot”.
It should be noted that this group tends to live communally.
And the disposition of “resilient citizens to help one another”.
It should be noted that this group tends to live individually.
There’s something fundamentally wrong with both types of story.
First, given the one group’s subjugation and oppression, it should come as a wonder that the rioting doesn’t happen all the time.
Second, given the other group’s self-indulgent reputation, it should come as a surprise that such aid isn’t persistent and infinite.
Given these two extremes of mediation, you might be led to believe that one might actually cancel the other out.
Resulting in perfect harmony.
We know that the quite opposite is rather the case.
I will no longer be able to fathom this glorification of “outpourings of aid” during disasters and the like.
Such humanitarian behavior–putting someone else first–should be a given.
And the mediation only points out how much it isn’t.
And if it were, many disasters might just well be avoided.
Unfortunately, we are comfortable in our reliance on Authority.
To “keep the peace” and “make us safe”.
It absolves us thinking about our neighbors.
As the City gridlocked to a halt, it was disturbing to see people waiting for the traffic lights to come back on.
Or for a cop to show up and route them out of their impasse.
Meanwhile, the media focused on the “civil city”.
“PEOPLE SLEEP IN CENTRAL PARK!”
“RESTAURANTS GIVE OUT FREE FOOD!”
I would love to think we’ve reached some urban Age of Aquarius.
Instead we might consider that the above-mentioned subjugation and oppression is now complete.
Total and annihilating.
Because everyone was thinking that we were reliving 2001.
And so “civility” became an accusatory marker.
We [unlike them] are “civilized”, after all.
When I got back to my apartment, I went into minor survival mode.
I plugged in an old Bell telephone my father had brought back from overseas.
I found batteries for an old Zenith shortwave radio that had a similar origin.
I assembled candles; determined what food should be cooked first in the refrigerator.
And I waited for my sister to come home.
She arrived; we had dinner; checked in with friends and family by phone.
Some friends called from a payphone at the piers in midtown Manhattan.
The ferries were overwhelmed with those who were Jersey-bound.
I told them to make their way uptown.
I cooked another dinner.
I left the door open.
In case the neighbors needed anything.
Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.
What is an exception in New York is the rule for me here.
I mean to say that in Beirut, this is normal day-to-day living.
Since living without electricity is a day-to-day reality.
Such that we tend to laugh at stories of people going into “survival” mode.
Not that a slow and steady debilitating psychosis resulting from a civil war that has never really ended should be a cause for laughter.
Not that the quotidian of making do with the full-on brunt of living in a neo-liberal nightmare should be a joking matter.
And yet we laugh.
We’ve been laughing for years at the likely European government that saw fit to fund traffic lights in the city.
They are mostly set to blink yellow, because no one pays attention to them.
The funding might have come from Denmark.
I only say this because I remember that the sidewalks of Copenhagen had footprints embedded in them to show you which direction to walk in.
Reliance on an “external authority” certainly is beneficial to the class of those who make up such external authorities.
Who then determine how to define other classes of people.
And keep them in their place.
To fit their idea of social harmony.
Which is nothing approaching my idea of such a concept.
The trauma of the 2003 blackout was universal.
And so was borne universally.
Compare and contrast with the aftermath of Sandy.
When those above 38th Street were hard pressed to care about those on the Lower East Side.
Trauma “divided” in this way leads to evident societal separation.
A subjugation; an oppression.
Raisins in the sun.
Do indeed explode.
I recall commuting into the City to attend university.
I would take the bus, the depot for which was near the local train station.
One day we stopped to let people board downtown across from the train platform.
Someone that morning had decided to end his days.
He had thrown himself onto the tracks.
The entire Northeast Corridor came to a grinding halt.
The passengers were cursing him.
For, you know, ruining their morning.
And making them late.
I remember a few years back when I was visiting a similar story took place.
A man had hanged himself in Watsessing Park.
Such that commuters had a full-on view of the scene.
Later, when researching to find the news story online, I was stunned by the hateful messages found there.
Leaving the family of the man to defend him in their time of grief.
These stories have always haunted me.
I try to understand the lack of empathy.
Perhaps the anger stems from the fact that these men achieved a fleeting notoriety in death.
One that they couldn’t necessarily achieve in life.
Perhaps they were upset that these men found a short cut.
Perhaps they blame these men for cheating their turn.
For stumbling upon an escape route.
One they had not actively considered before.
Image: The 2003 blackout | Date: August 14, 2003 | Place: Midtown Manhattan | Camera: keyring digital “spy” cam | Caption: People waiting at Grand Central Station; people queueing up for pay phones; people grabbing a ride in the back of a pickup truck.