The Gift of Darkness

Everything changed as you crossed that bridge and was swallowed up by Manhattan. It was post-apocalyptic—a label usually reserved for shoddy action movies—as if some perverse force had dramatically resized you and set you down in a punctiliously detailed diorama that a child prodigy had built in his parent’s basement. Sounds were enhanced, as they always are in the dark, though never in Manhattan. A bottle broken 300 feet away, and you hear it, bright and clear, then comes a mild rush of adrenalin. You have the distinct feeling that you are not supposed to be here. As if you had forced your way in, violated the law, yet half of the (few) people you see are police officers, posted at the intersections of the chosen thoroughfares, directing traffic as much with their voices as with the red and white torches in their hands. Traffic inches by, cars come to a halt in odd places, make indiscernible turns, then hesitate—hesitation, a foreign concept on this tall island. A burning cigarette can be seen from a distance of several hundred feet. Faces, shapes, forms appear out of nowhere, then vanish into darkness as if they never walked these oily streets.

It is a waning moon. According to astrology, this is a time for banishing things, a time to correct mistakes, but on the night of the storm, only two nights ago, it was full, a time of lycanthropy and shooting werewolves with silver bullets. Now the moon is hovering over the East River, over The Bronx, over dry land, and the sky is clear and dark-blue with scattered clouds that look like they were originally painted white, then stepped on, smeared out with a muddy boot. The three iconic bridges are shrouded in darkness on the Manhattan side and lit up on the Brooklyn side. The city has been sliced in half, incision located in the middle of the East River, like a knife cutting a Doomsday Cake, like the Red Sea, except there is no passage, and the modest Brooklyn skyline has straightened its back, coy, self-righteous, recently graduated from a high-ticket school, returning with a brand new vocabulary. As if Brooklyn Heights knew this would happen. The WATCHTOWER sign shines brighter and appears larger than ever with letters that look like giraffes on fire. Did they crank up the lumen? It says 9.45 pm on the crowning digital display. The temperatures alternate between 45 Fahrenheit and 7 Celsius, epitomizing Jehovah’s Witnesses by having two answers to the same question.

To the north, Midtown is floating in a sea of black nothingness. On the Empire State Building—the art deco pin marking the cross-town incision—red and white floodlights are burning. The Chrysler Building exudes a feigned elation; it wants to be carefree with illuminated slits of light resembling locks of hair on a young woman coming back from the restroom at a party where, a minute ago, everything was so much fun.

After the crossing, you adopt the sensibility of the blind. The streets of the Lower East Side are pitch-black, held in place only by the grid. Still the darkness is labyrinthine. You can make out parked cars, but nothing moves, there is no breath, no structure, you can’t tell where a building ends or another begins, or if they indeed are buildings or billboards, or abandoned trucks. Or perhaps not man-made at all, but a person standing so close by that you sense the presence even before you can make out the silhouette. The air is crisp and clear with a hint of gasoline mixed with salt water. Sound travels unobstructed, unrivaled, and with each footstep, broken glass crumbles under your feet, emitting a rattling sound that would have been heard half a block off had the block not been deserted. Later, standing across from the Woolworth Building—two windows lit up out of a thousand—you turn north, up Broadway, but the perspective escapes you, the endlessness is straight as a country road in a bad painting, sketched in the brightness of an asylum by someone who will soon give up drawing and take up, say, torturing frogs. Most cars pass in pairs, a few at a time—taxis, emergency vehicles, there are never more than five or ten in total within your field of vision.

Buildings have no depth, only height and width. It is frightening, sobering (Saint John could have written compellingly about this on Patmos), yet it is exhilarating, the added perspective of having no perspective. You feel like you’ve been given a second chance at a time in life when you had no idea a second chance was needed. This makes the gift astounding and generous. This eternal city was never eternal, nor are you, but the city sacrificed itself to deliver you that very message. So you are grateful, and this being New York—in the midst of the post-apocalyptic moment, standing there with a shortness of breath, trying to decide whether you should cry now or cry later––a jogger emerges, headed north on Broadway, under a scaffolding, across the street, and on the next block she is gone. People around you carry flashlights and cameras, but the most photogenic city in the world can now only be captured by words.

You walk up Broadway, past City Hall where, inside the booths, the faces of the guards, lit up by battery-powered laptops, seem to float like bloated melons in a fish tank. You glance up darkened corridors pointing more than leading toward the Hudson. You try to take it all in, you, immersed in this vast nothingness, and then two people walk by and you hear them discuss plans for the summer. You catch the word “vacation”, and they laugh a bit, so you turn and walk after them, laughter being rare, even suspicious, in this mordant, bootleg atmosphere. You want to know what they are talking about. They have a child in a stroller. You want to know how it is possible for them to process this so rapidly—sound travels faster under water, sure, but thoughts usually don’t. Out of the blue a car will appear and flood you in light for a fragment of a second. Then it vanishes, and you do want it to leave with its useless, blinding light. A line from a hymn comes to mind. I was blind but now I see. Has the darkness made you see? Had light made you oblivious? Then you think: Are there cinematographers out there this very minute, shooting footage to be used later? It is the only chance they are likely to get. There are still certain things that money can’t buy chants the only un-American thought in your head. This is one of those gifts that you can’t wish for, and when you get it, you can’t resist. People have died, people have lost their homes, their livelihood, loved ones. Whole sections of the city have been wiped from the map, or rather, not from the map: They are still intact on the map and only there.

You resisted the urge to visit the nighttime island until two days later, though you did visit the daytime island on the day after, but the gift was not pools of water, or abandoned cars with rolled-down windows, or blown-in storefronts. The gift was darkness. That was when you really saw Manhattan. Now Canal Street is a dead snake, and as the snake is stretched out between two rivers that for a brief moment became one and the same, you see the legs that the snake lost eons ago. A dark form is hunched inside a phone booth, prying it open to gain a mere fraction of the money it will cost to repair it (such is the logic of property crime), and you hear steel against steel as you walk on. The legs of the snake have unscientific names—Elisabeth, Mott, Mulberry, Baxter, Centre, Lafayette—and you know that you will never again look at this snake and find it legless. You accept it, this gift from the darkness, and in doing so you have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a profound darkness in your own heart: Are you overwhelmed by the suffering and destruction? Is this empathy? Or are you overwhelmed by inspiration, by the storytelling promises of a storm? The year before, you had planned a novel set in a citywide blackout decades earlier. A spy story, cold war, darkened streets, unnavigable, otherworldly, and you’d toss in a few Russians and a love affair, too. Somehow you never got started on that novel. Well, here it is. You have arms and legs, steal with them. Creating a work of art will not add to the disaster. Unless it is a very bad novel.

You have biked to this place from Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge, and only halfway across, as you entered the pharynx of the creature, did you unadventurously reach for the miniature flashlight in your hip pocket and held it in front of you like a—and you have to admit this—like a sword. And then you are enveloped, protected and short of breath, perpetrator and victim at the same time, a property of pitch-darkness, and you recall that the man in the store assured you, even if you never asked, that this indeed was a very bright flashlight, so you point the cone of light into the pavement and forms appear out of nowhere, and you go slower, realizing that unlit people are coming toward you. A few windows in Gehry‘s undulating steel tower are lit-up by candles, one apartment is mockingly full-lit, perhaps by halogens connected to a car battery. Down the Bowery you walk the sidewalk, never turning off the bike lights, and you make a right turn up Worth Street. You have never noticed Worth Street before. It was worthless to you. Now it is a path into the heart of old New York. You turn left down Centre, riding against the traffic, but a female police officer had pointed you in that direction. She saw you on your bike and said, “Brooklyn Bridge”, though you never uttered a syllable, and then she directed you into the darkness with her torch. You want to object that you will be going the wrong way up a one-way street but there is no traffic at the moment, so you ride on, slowly, up a slight elevation, and then a few cars appear, but you are not afraid, you have the word of the female cop on the corner of Worth and you have the sword in your right hand, so you aim it at the middle of the road, and the stratagem works. The on-coming cars pull to their right, away from you, slowing down, another incision, as if you could slash their tires with your sword. Now you don’t like the sword anymore. You love it.

You paid $2.95 for it in a drugstore on Myrtle Avenue and it is made of plastic, presumably in China, but your wife left for Africa on one of the last flights out of Newark before the storm, bringing along your American-made flashlight, a sturdy model with a crenelated bezel of hardened steel to be used in self-defense. You had assumed that this feature was more befitting for a month-long sojourn in Africa than in New York on a Wednesday but clearly you were wrong, and yet in this mysterious town you can make things happen with the $2.95 child labor gadget: Urge pedestrians to make way, liaise with the city’s finest, slow vehicles down and have them veer off––all of them things, you realize as you approach the Municipal Building, that you would normally need a loaded gun to achieve. Yet the $2.95 pocket flashlight has the power, and the man did add that it was an incredibly bright light, but not for a second did it cross your mind that this might have been allegorical.

You dismount and look up the towering façade of the century-old structure. There is one row of light burning on the fifteenth or twentieth floor, just one row, the rest is dark, a dusty dark color that gets dusted off, ever so slightly, when a car passes by, and then the dust settles again. By the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge you make out ten or so people at one time, the most people you have seen in one place all night. They are scattered across the little plaza, some just standing there, others leaning to talk through the windows of NYPD patrol cars that are parked along Park Row with engines humming and lights flashing. But you have to leave the island. You have to walk up the ramp, back to the unharmed world of electricity and dry basements. Standing on the bridge, Manhattan looks paralyzed from the waist down. You don’t want to leave an island that is so lonely. People walk by with a stunned look on their faces, their mouths open, the apologetic smiles of those who have been spared by disaster. It is sobering, unreal, something you never thought you would experience and you never wanted to, but now you have and you want to. You are grateful and humbled, almost in tears. It is a city that you love, that you have always loved, and now it has been hurt. Again. Not by man, but as a consequence of man. Pundits will almost certainly debate that aspect for years and gradually New York City will reappear in its fragile permanence. The cars on the darkened FDR Drive seem to be driving in the water, but you know that is of course not the case. Cars don’t drive in the water. They only do that in the movies. Not in the real world. An emergency vehicle crosses the bridge, headed toward Brooklyn, lights flashing, no siren, and you do the same, switching off the sword. You will never know if, by this expedition, you gave anything back to Manhattan or if you merely collected.

  1. #1 by Scott Hardy on February 4, 2013 - 10:00 am

    To write or paint something that many have seen but failed to notice is the mark of great artistic insight. To then be able to describe Manhattan in such a surreal yet entirely representational light is the mark of a master. This work is a collision of poetic intuition and pure work ethic. It addressed an ache that I have never been able to find in words until The Gift Of Darkness. Thank you!

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