The Empire State Building.
The Empire State Building.

The New New York

What's it like to watch the Storm of the Century hit your home from 2,000 miles away?

The Empire State Building.
Ryan O'Hanlon

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You’ve all heard it. No doubt, you have. New York is just different. We’re a special breed. It’s the Big Apple, Madison Square Garden, (fucking) pizza. It’s the subway, the cabs, and the honking melody that buzzes behind daily life—not a soundtrack of anger or anything like that, but just the hum of people needing to get where they have to be and the impatient men and women leading that charge. It’s just New York. You don’t know it until you come here, and if you leave, it’s because you can’t handle it. But that’s OK, because it’s New York. And not everyone can be a New Yorker.

I was born on Long Island, spent four partial-years in Massachusetts for college, then lived in Brooklyn before moving out to Santa Fe in July. So, by whatever definition you go by, I’m a New Yorker—and fuck you if you say otherwise. (See?) And, honestly, I hate the way we talk about ourselves because it makes us sound like a bunch of assholes.

New York is great. It’s home, and I love it. But everyone’s different for all the reasons that make anyone uniquely human. Santa Fe is not New York. That’s obvious when you look up and see a mountain, then look down and see an old couple emerging from the woods without a walker. It’s obvious when all of your food is green, red, or Christmas. It’s obvious when you breathe. It’s obvious everywhere. But people live here because it’s what they want, it matches up with who they are, it makes them happy—which, happiness. Giving and getting it: the point of being alive, right? And you find that in your own way, put yourselves in whatever conditions you need to be in for that to happen. Believe it or not, that doesn’t include New York for, well, the majority of society.

We’re not better; we are different. But everywhere is, isn’t it?

NEW YORK WILL BE forever-different next time I go back, once the water from Sandy gets pumped out and dries up, once the sand’s pushed back to the beach on the Islands, once the salt-and-wetness damage is done and the subways re-start that always-moving tangle we all take for granted, once it gets itself out of it’s own way—picking scabs that have to leave a scar—and starts to look like the place I knew when I left. 

I’ve watched it all happen. Updating out site by the minute for the first two days, dialing it back but still going from then on. And I feel like I’m watching myself go through it all. Out of body experiences happen to some people, I guess? I don’t know, but it’s kind of like watching yourself get punched in the face—except you don’t feel a thing, you’re just really angry because some asshole just hit you in the mouth. And then you’re guilty you couldn’t take the punch—even though you should probably shut up and be happy you can open your mouth without wincing.

And that’s how it feels, covering the storm-of-all-time as it hits and thrashes and forever changes the place that’s always been home. I’m in my office looking out to the courtyard with the red-green-and-yellow leaves against the mandated adobe walls—there’s fall here, too—posting photos of the crane on 57th Street dangling over the city, looking at the West Village under goddamn water, seeing that tree crush the shed in my parents’—and my—backyard, lucky one closer to the house didn’t fall but still staring at it all, knowing the picture on the screen isn’t fake, but never coming any closer than clicking command-plus and zooming in, which only blurs it even more. The closer you try to get to it, the realer it is that you’re not there. 

I’m not, and I can’t not feel like I should be—at the same time knowing this shit is real and that I’m lucky to be out of the way of falling trees, electrified water, and the rotting food that I’m sure my mom and cousin and friends and everyone else I know forgot to throw out. 

None of this is fair—it’s an inherently stupid idea anyway, fair, that certain things should happen, and it’s maybe pointless to even think about it all like that, but it’s also impossible not to.

AND YET, THE CITY is still standing, with a tragic number of people dead, but a number way lower than what could’ve been. Long Island’s still there, too, somehow back to a steady creep despite the number of people with electricity amounting to just a couple of full-finger hands. My parents are fine; no one’s hurt. And so is the rest of my family. One of my closest friends is back home for med school, and he’s OK—along with his family and everyone else I grew up with. My cousin and most of my friends in Manhattan can’t use their phones because cell service is down and their computers don’t work because you need electricity for the Internet and what’s a computer without that? My old neighborhood in Brooklyn couldn’t make it through a West Indian Parade without anyone dying, but they seemed to weather—man, terrible pun—Sandy without any deaths. Things are totally and currently fucked, for sure. From Montauk to Midtown East and West, but it’s all still hanging on, promising for a come back just from the sheer fact that it’s still there. That it’s New York.

Could anywhere else still be standing—definitely wobbling, but still up, ready for a return—after something like Sandy clamped down on it, tossing the “fuck yous” and “go to hells” surely shouted from the ground as the water rose and wind got heavier right back on top of it? I don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. New York, though, I do know. 

Or I did. The place will be different. It has to be, both in case something like this ever happens again and because it just did. After 9-11, Colson Whitehead wrote, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” Whether moving to Santa Fe right before a hurricane made me into a True New Yorker isn’t the point, but what was real and solid to me—the place I left and hoped to return to soon—probably isn’t there anymore.

“One day the city we built will be gone,” Whitehead writes, “and when it goes, we do.” And I’ve gone—it’s clear and 60 and sunny where I am, the only water coming from machines and sinks and refrigerators. Each photo, each tweet, every update I clicked and published helped me see the city and state I’d left, let me know that it was still there, but that I wasn’t. Despite the storm and despite all the reasons for things to change, New York keeps going on without me. Those assholes.

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