Friday, November 2, 2012

Blackout Tourists: Halloween Adventures in Darkville

It was already dusk when my friend Sheridan and I climbed the ramp onto the Williamsburg Bridge, walking in the opposite direction of most people, who were headed to Brooklyn for power and a shower. "Why are they going to the East Village?" I heard someone say. But I had been feeling  cut off for days, obsessively keeping track of friends in Loisaida as the East River overflowed and turned Avenue C into a river. Emergencies bring out the best in the East Village and I was really missing being a part of the neighborhood's beautiful big-hearted spirit. As my friend Joel said, "It's like Burning Man meets a Rainbow Gathering!"

It was also like the early 1800s. We were on our way to meet Joel on the darkened corner of Avenue A and 10th Street. Buzzers didn't work, he said, and neither did cell phones, so we were back to those days when you made a fixed appointment to meet up with someone. Of course, we were already half an hour late. As we passed the halfway point on the bridge and there were no more lights, my cell phone rang. Apparently, Joel had scrounged up a phone and plugged in his moribund landline, which he had kept for emergencies just like this. But the phone cut off just as he told me to meet him at his home instead.

A dark lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge. 
Delancey Street without lights. 
I repeatedly tried calling him as we got off the bridge but the phone refused to cooperate. Apparently, in Darkville, there were no phones. There were also no traffic lights. A policeman in a yellow slicker with reflective stripes was directing cars as they came off the bridge onto Delancey Street. We turned up Clinton Street while I continued to dial Joel's number. But when I finally got through to him, a friend answered the phone and said that he had gone out on the street corner to try to meet me.

So I gave up calling and concentrated on getting to Avenue A as quickly as possible. As he had told me, the Lower East Side seemed peaceful and beautiful, bathed in darkness. A few restaurants were open, serving dinner by candlelight. No music, limited food, lots of wine. I had heard that earlier, restaurants were giving away food for free. It made me think of the novel Germanie Lacerteux by the Goncourt Brothers, which begins with a description of a lavish communal dinner on the streets of Paris at the height of the horror in the French Revolution.

When we got to Houston Street, I was surprised that there were no policemen at all. It certainly wasn't like the blackout in 2004, when cops swarmed around everywhere, putting red flares in the middle of each intersection. A few cars crept by warily as we scurried across the avenue, Sheridan frantically waved her blinking light like a kid trying to do tricks with a yoyo.

Only one restaurant was open on Avenue B and on the normally busy strip of Avenue A between 6th and 10th Street , flickering yellow candlelight could be seen in only three establishments  - the bar part of Sidewalk Cafe, Niagara, and the relatively new taco joint La Lucha. Most of the familiar old bars and restaurants that had been there since the 1980s were dark and shuttered - Benny's, 7A, Lucy's, Odessa, Ray's. Tompkins Square Park was shut tight. But as we passed by, there was the unmistakable rustle and squeak every New Yorker knows. The headlights of a passing car revealed that behind the park gate at 8th Street, a generous misguided soul had scattered birdseed that was being consumed by a hundred hungry rats.

Joel was not on the corner of Avenue A and 10th, so we proceeded to his apartment. But the buzzer didn't work and neither did my phone, so we milled around outside uncertainly until someone who had been walking his dog let us in. "Joel?" I called when we got to the courtyard of his rear building. "Vicky?" he responded from somewhere in the dark. We heard footsteps and saw a light weaving around in the dark, as he descended from the third floor to open the door.

Joel was in the middle of washing his dishes. We opened a bottle of wine as he told us that a friend was going to be cooking a huge dinner on 10th Street. At 7:30, he ran downstairs to let another friend in. "I'll finish washing your dishes," I volunteered and went into his kitchen. After a few minutes fiddling with his faucet in puzzlement, I realized that the dishes had to be rinsed with water that was boiling on the stove since nothing but cold water came from the tap.

Joel came upstairs with Monica, who was wearing eye make-up that looked like an expressionistic mask. I couldn't tell what she was - a sexy raccoon from the 1920s? - but I wished I had a costume. So far, she and Sheridan were the only two people whom I saw dressed for Halloween. Sheridan was a Zoo Creeper from Killema Zoo, a costume she had created for a haunted house in a park she works at.  I hadn't had time to put together a costume before the storm hit and I felt rather lame in their company. "Would you like a trick or a treat?" Monica asked archly. "A treat!" Sheridan squealed. Monica instructed us to rummage through a giant brown leather bag and pick something. Sheridan pulled out a glittery skull made of styrofoam. I got a tampon.

Joel finished washing his dishes and began to put on his Halloween costume, a dapper outfit from the early 1900s. I wanted to say hello to a few friends whom I hadn't heard from and Monica also had a friend she wanted to visit, so we all told Joel that we would meet him at his friend's place for dinner in about fifteen minutes. "Just holler Bianca when you get there," he informed us.

We parted ways with Monica on Avenue A and set out for my old apartment building on 11th Street and Avenue C. When we arrived, we saw that a generator was running, apparently pumping water out of the basement of the building. The door was open, so we entered and immediately noticed how damp and musty the building smelled. The first floor had quite obviously been flooded. Later, I heard that there had been a river between 8th Street and 14th Street on Avenue C, which was quit natural since it was all landfill on marshy ponds here anyway. Picking our way up in the dark, we knocked on Apartment 16 and spent a few minutes catching up with my old friend Sense, who was huddled in the dark with a few candles. He told me his wife and daughter were in Brooklyn.

Then we walked down Avenue C and found a cook-out happening in front of C-Squat, one of the remaining squats in the neighborhood and the only one that still hosted raucous semi-legal punk rock shows. Jerry the Peddler was outside with a bunch of the usual punks and crusties. I asked about the museum that had just opened on the ground floor of the squat and he confirmed that the basement had flooded and they had lost some artifacts. We also stopped at my friend Chip's apartment, but he wasn't there so I left a note for him on his door. Then we doubled back up Avenue B and ran into a group of my son's friends in front of Sheen's Deli, which apparently is selling candles in the dark for twice as much as usual.

Sheridan the Zoo Creeper in conversation with Jerry the Peddler in front of C-Squat. 
On the corner of 8th and C, Darkville. 
Making a call  to Chip the old-fashioned way. 
As we arrived on 10th Street, we heard someone yelling, "Bianca!"  It was Joel, outside with a friend, who was on her way to the alternative Halloween Parade. Monica had not yet arrived. I was intrigued with the idea of an unofficial Halloween Parade but we were hungry. Bianca came down eventually and led us up to her apartment, where we had a fantastic dinner of coconut shrimp and fish with two other friends. When they found out that Sheridan and I had come from Williamsburg they said, "Oh, you're blackout tourists!" We all moaned about eating so much in the past few days but that didn't prevent us from polishing our plates. Dinner was punctuated with Joel occasionally leaning out the window shouting, "Monica???" She never showed up.

Joel in costume at Bianca's for dinner. 

We eat like kings in Darkville. 

A Darkville dinner. 
After dinner, we hitched a cab back to Williamsburg and found normality rather strange. People were in costume and bars were full. Halloween as usual. I wished we had seen the alternative parade but it was fun going to the Monster Mash at Glasslands, where the top costumes included a guy dressed as a bloody vagina and a girl in a giant lobster costume made of red felt. I still felt stupid for not having a costume. Someone asked, "What are you?" I brandished my camera and said, "A blackout tourist!"

Alana Amram on Halloween.  
Halloween at Glasslands. 

Lady and a lizard. 

Mary and Jesus DJ-ing. 
Outside Glasslands at the Monster Mash. 

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