Thursday, November 1, 2012

Riding The Wave

The night Sandy came, I barely noticed. I slept through what sounded like a light storm.

The next morning felt a bit surreal. The things you saw on TV happened. It looks like the set of a disaster movie.  It seems every few miles, a tree was uprooted or the base of a telephone pole was cracked.

Anything tall, heavy, and made of wood is a potential hazard. Giant beams lay on top of houses, garages, and in the middle of roads.  Some of the uprooted trees have uprooted big mounds of grass or entire chunks of concrete sidewalk.  And you really have to watch out for stray live wires.

Lil’ New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state. All the road blocks, hazards, and power outages turned highways into detours, and the collective detours into mazes. Plenty of lost cars end up on the same back roads bumper to bumper in long lines. A 2 mile, 5 minute trip down the highway could turn into 5 mile, 50 minute maze. By my estimate, lines for gas stations that are operational stretch up to twenty cars long.

Anywhere there is electricity, which for some reason is usually a strip mall or a Wawa, there are an insane amount of people crowded into one space. One guy outside of Wawa was hawking a generator from the back of his truck.

Any operating Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, where you can get Wi-Fi and cell phone reception, looks like a small town crammed into 2,200 square feet of caffeine, laptops, pastries, and extension cords.  I’ve ran into four bagel and coffee shops that have run out of food and/or coffee. People give you the predator’s eye if you approach any electrical outlets they’ve claimed.  Actually, there are small groups huddled around any working outlet, anywhere.

It’s like watching the peaceful seeds of anarchy clear just over the dirt’s horizon. There’s still plenty room to grow, but I imagine shorter elbow room, patience, and pockets will burn the fuse with time. I’d give it 3-5 weeks before it all boils over.

For me, there’s actually a benefit to all this.

If you had lived in town from the time you were born into your golden age, you would probably still come across some roads that you hadn’t seen in your lifetime, or at least traveled in a very long time. Traveling for hours on highways and side roads to find a place to charge my phone isn’t just a matter of practicality.  It’s an excuse to explore.

The first thing you notice when traveling on the road is how quickly your internal compass kicks in. The trick is to know which direction you are going on the main road. When you hit a road block, go perpendicular for a little further than is sensible (otherwise you’ll likely to end up running into another roadblock or a long line of detoured cars), travel parallel, then turn back up further up ahead. If you find yourself in completely unfamiliar territory, the locals will point you to shortcuts and bi-ways you never would have known of.

Any travel between Trenton and New Brunswick is likely to give you trouble. And I’ve heard how much of New York City looks like a ghost town.  Going the other way was the right decision. I probably had to make my way through local roads in five or six towns to get to Pennsylvania. Usually it’s a fifteen minute trip down Route 1. But I enjoyed getting to know a little more about Garden State’s backyard.

Once you cross the border into Pennsylvania, there aren’t any long gas station lines.  The topography is relatively spacious, to the point where any debris I can’t see has a limited, if any, effect on traffic patterns. Out here, people have lost power, but in spots. People can specifically speak to the borders that separate electrical haves and have-nots.  The full malls, strip malls, and any other stores are still crowded. But something feels a whole lot more civilized about the experience than in New Jersey.

Make no mistake, people are congregating in retail outlets for food, electricity, gas, and internet access. But it’s weird. Because the internet and phones only work sporadically, people are actually talking to each other. Like, face to face conversations. It’s how they are spreading the news and socializing with one another. Usually, they’d be buried in their smart phones. It’s oddly comforting in a way.

The street lights are mostly out at night in Jersey, but if you give it time your eyes adjust. And it feels more…. natural? I look around longer, linger longer, smell the air a bit, overhear humming generators and conversations from down the street. I don’t feel rushed for no reason. A lot of people are indoors, but, more often than usual, people are congregating outside just to have a conversation.

It feels different.

I can’t explain it. And I can’t say I’d want to live this forever. And all my heart and sympathy goes out to all the people whose lives have been changed, damaged, or ended forever because of this storm. But something about this experience makes me appreciate it while it’s here.

Sometimes, it just feels good to lose control and see it result in some sort of odd peace, morality, and good nature. Even when the world makes every effort to convince you human nature is otherwise ;)