The morning of the first day in the Dark Zone, I wake, still dreaming in black and white. I am Joan Crawford. I am Mildred Pierce. In the black of night, a storm is raging. I am in a bungalow by the ocean. The white foam waves crash on the beach. I dress frantically in the dark and run out the front door.
Significant Other is behind me shouting and grumbling, slowing me down. It’s noon. Epic lines are forming at the pizzerias where gas-burning ovens are cooking in the dark. We walk westward along St. Mark’s Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. I remind myself that, as a post-modern woman, I know how to starve. Throngs of curious people are out looking about. Everyone has a camera. Not cell phones but big proper cameras are hanging around people’s necks as they traverse the streets. Sig‘s eyes are soft and sad, observant, downcast.
“This is the fourth one of these that I’ve lived through,” Sig says.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. The lights aren’t back on yet,” I reply.
“My father died in the 1977 blackout. His respirator failed.”
“I was four in 1977. You would have been arrested for child molestation.” Sig looks over at my face and smiles.
We arrive at St. Mark’s Bookshop and it is closed. Owner is nowhere to be found. I stand peering through the front door, rattling the keys in my hand, wondering whether to go in. I decide it’s pointless. Some of the Cooper Union Maintenance Crew are in front of the dorm. They call out to us and wave. We return to the apartment on 4th and First.
Our super is standing sentinel at the front door and Sig joins him while I go upstairs to shower quickly in the dark and wash my longish, dirty hair. We have hot water. Super’s eyes are also observant but worried. Sig and he do that thing that men do where they cite the obvious to one another and call it an exchange of vital information.
My mother is upstairs knitting in half-light with a candle burning. I dress intentionally. I put on rain boots even though it’s not raining anymore and exit the apartment to rejoin Sig who asks what the hell has taken me so long. Sig’s twin brother, Ass Grabber, and his wife Stripper Brows, have migrated north from Chinatown in search of supplies. It’s impressive that they’ve found us since no one’s cell phone works. Stripper Brows emerges from the bowels of our local deli’s darkened corners, with hard salami triumphantly raised over her head in one hand like a Sandinista holding up an AK-47. Her black Brussels Griffin is in the other. A can of tuna is pressed awkwardly to her chest. The focus turns to acquiring alcohol and it’s decided that the only liquor store which could be open is in Chinatown by the Manhattan Bridge. We all take a walk down there. I stand half-listening to their decisions and not focusing on their conversation, resenting that I have to be swept up in a crowd when I have concerns of my own. They prattle on about how to plan the first night. They talk about dinner. They always talk about dinner.
I meditate on how to get in contact with Owner. I stand staring into my hand, flexing it open then closing it into a knot, trying to remember life before cell phones. Being teenage in the Village and traveling in packs from park to park, packs of urchins in search of love or drugs. My teenage voice appears in my head in a shadowy memory. We’ll be on the benches in Tompkins Square Park, it says to someone somewhere in time. Calling my mother on a payphone at 1am loaded, screaming, I’m not dead! Please open the door when I knock? There used to be a way of calling for free by unfurling a paper clip and sticking one end into a hole of the receiver’s mouthpiece and the other end into the key slot in the square metal drawer that the quarters are deposited into. The paper clip forms a conduit between these two holes. Something short-circuits and you hear a click. Then you can call the world.
“Ah, shit, I’m a moron,” I mutter rhetorically, bolting across the street ignoring disaster-tourism traffic—cars from outside the Dark Zone driving with no traffic lights just for thrills. I’d forgotten about payphones. I dig through my wallet for quarters left over from preemptive hurricane laundry, fish out my planner, look up the number.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice comes on the phone.
“Hey! Hi! Owner’s Wife?! It’s Margarita. Is Owner there? You’re on 14th, no? Are you blacked out? I stopped by the shop. Are you OK?” She starts to respond, then Owner comes on the line in mid-sentence.
“Hi, Margarita. We’re all right but we’re in a high rise. No water or power. It’s OK though, because we’re just on the second floor so I can come and go.” Heroic Owner has arthritis. Heroic Owner’s Wife is battling cancer.
“What do you want to do? Are we going to open?”
“OK. But I’m here. Sig has offered to volunteer for the cause. I texted with TLS Hipster last night, I bet I can find him. Plus we can probably figure a way of getting in contact with SoHo-Anonymous. And there’s you and Owner No. 2. That makes six. Are you sure you don’t want to open?”
“No. Wait until the power’s back on.”
* * *
Wednesday morning the sun rises and floods my mother’s living room. I wake slowly, nuzzling into Sig’s hairy chest and out of habit gently reach for his soft Sphinx cat penis curled in slumber. I throw on leggings and a cotton sweater then stumble into the kitchen to make coffee. We’re all a little hung over from screwdrivers, compliments of Sig, and drinks and dinner at Ass Grabber’s place the night before. Sig, mother and I are triangulating between the three apartments out of necessity. Yesterday afternoon Sig led me into a liquor store unprompted and picked out the biggest bottle of Stoli he could find. “People! Alcohol! Civilization!” I squealed, clapping my hands as we entered the darkened shop on Grand Street.
I pack a flask and we go out to see the transformer, Sig and I. There are cars marooned at weird angles all along eastern most 14th Street, by Stuyvesant Town. We see a lime-green VW bug with driftwood through its passenger window at a diagonal to the curb.
“Should we all like, be taking Chlorella tablets or something?” I remark, looking at the Con Ed structure struggling back to life.
“What, you mean Fukushima? That was a nuclear power plant. We’re fine.”
“Yeah? What powers the power station, then? What does that thing run on? What does it eat? Sig, it blew up and we’re right on top of it.”
East River Park is trashed and blocked off by police cars. We turn south on C. No one in the neighborhood can get cell service and only ground lines work. I keep hearing passers-by in the street saying, “That cheap-ass MetroPCs still works.” I turn to Sig and mutter, “I have MetroPCs and my cheap-as-shit ghetto service is not working.”
There is a pocket of reception on the SW corner of Avenue C and 9th Street. About 30 people are crowded together yelling “I’m all right!” to somebody, somewhere. The crowd grows as more people passing by stop to inquire why we’re all standing there, then retrieve their cell phones and smile relieved at being able to make contact with the world outside the Dark Zone.
Eateries take it to the street and serve hot food from aluminum containers warmed by gel fuel canisters. Sig buys himself a taco with rice and beans. He hands me a second fork and I pick from it nervously while we walk. Bars and restaurants are open by candlelight and flames glow and jump about illuminating smiling profiles as we pass. C Squat, a/k/a the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on Avenue C, has taken its generator onto the street and is cooking food for the neighborhood, recharging phones. Anarchist punk squatters know how to survive and well, Sig and I comment to one another and beam old-skool neighborhood pride at them. We continue along Avenue C and Sig comments on piles of furniture at the curbside with CDs and DVDs stacked on top of a sofa.
“Is that Bowie?”
“Yeah, but it’s late Bowie.” I reply.
A middle-aged woman in serious rain-boots and a gray slicker walking up the block overhears us and starts laughing. “That’s my stuff.” She resembles a fisherman. Sig apologizes for perusing her belongings and returns the CD.
“You got flooded?” He asks the obvious.
“Yeah,” she says, turning toward a below-street-level apartment in a very low-rise tenement the front door of which is wide open. “Water wrecked the place. We had to pump it. All this shit is ruined. Oh, well. It’s just stuff, right? You can keep the Bowie.”
We continue along Avenue C and notice generators loudly pumping basements of businesses and restaurants, water flowing freely down the block, opposite of the way it came. The sun is setting and the streets are turning a murky grey. Flashlights begin to appear on the streets in loose wrists. Rays of light shine left to right across the pavement. Bright beams of light blind us as we approach. Nocturnal vision kicks into full gear.
“It’ll be night soon. What do you want to do about dinner?” Sig asks randomly. “Do you want to go to Brooklyn to buy food? We can walk over the Williamsburg Bridge. Then go back to your mom’s place and cook.” Sig and I have an electric stove while mother’s is gas.
“Yeah, let’s do that. Sig, listen, I think we should go to Spoonbill & Sugartown. They’re our friends. We’ll ask to recharge our phones and maybe they’ll even let us use their internet. Maybe we’ll even see Chelsea Girl or run into TLS Hipster there. I want news really badly right now.”
“Me too,” he says, kissing me on the forehead and we sway east and further south to the bridge, which at that moment is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it in my entire life with the possible exceptions of 9/11 and the MTA strikes.
We’re in a blackout in lower Manhattan. We walk through an autumnal gloaming. Williamsburg is bright and lovely and alive with power. Their electricity is not being held hostage. The bridge is literally half lit. The lights lining the bridge on the Brooklyn side are on beginning precisely in the middle of its long red torso’s expanse four hundred feet above the East River. Light beckons from Brooklyn as night falls fast. We pass from Manhattan into Brooklyn as though we’re walking out of a dark cave into the light, a parade of refugees going toward salvation. We turn left onto Bedford Avenue. Something knocks into my leg and I look down.
A tiny ballerina has pirouetted out of control. A woman wearing a black leather jacket, a silver eye-mask and cat whiskers apologizes and pulls the little tulle thing by the hand out of my way. Tiny Firemen, little Supermen, miniscule Batmen come at us as a mob led by adults with cat tails and strollers appear. “Awww, was that a munchkin Silver Surfer?” I ask looking back as Sig pulls me along. A roadkill traffic cop with a mangled face barking directions at a small laughing witch and a spinning unicorn knocking into one another appear as a frontline before us.
All the traffic lights are on. The street is illuminated by shop windows. All of a sudden there is so much light—multicolored neon of blues and yellows and reds and noise and people and the exuberant voices of children, everywhere. A swarm of tiny cheering, discombobulated things hopped up on sugar, somehow simultaneously wandering in circles while being ushered forward by their minders. They hold plastic orange pumpkin head pails out at tiny arm’s length to every passing stranger. Bedford has been taken over. It is impenetrable. They spill into the street bringing oncoming traffic to a halt. My head reels. I feel like I’m tripping—all the colors, all the lights, all the noise—but in a bad way and it’s all happening way too fast.
“Sig, it’s Halloween. I’d forgotten about Halloween. Lower Manhattan must have thrown up every last tiny costumed beastie to panhandle candy on Bedford.” I look up and realize that I’m talking to no one and feel nervous that the breeders might take offense and turn on me. Sig is half a block ahead. I run negotiating the masses and noise to catch up and grab his corduroyed arm, letting him lead while I look back as we continue along Bedford.
Collagist looks up from behind the register when we enter Spoonbill & Sugartown. Her big warm eyes soften and smile a greeting at us. “Hi,” Sig and I mutter one after the other, smirking pathetically, a little embarrassed for some reason.
The store is packed.
“Collagist, would it be awful if we recharged our phones?”
“Oh, of course not,” she says reassuringly, gesturing for us to come behind the counter where Sig is already sniffing around for an outlet.
“Would it be too much to ask if I could possibly get online, too? Actually and, more importantly, have you seen TLS Hipster?” My speech is a nervous staccato. She laughs softly. “He’s here, in back. Go ahead. Just behind the curtain. Go on.” She draws back the curtain to reveal TLS Hipster slouching face-first into the Mac’s large flatscreen. He turns his head after a minute, then rises and approaches, says my name and we hug like survivors reunited in a refugee camp.
“What’s the good word?” I ask, gesturing toward the Mac.
“There are all these terrible fires in parts of the Rockaways. Breezy Point burned down. Coney Island got hit hard too. All the high rises are blacked out,” Hip responds.
“Isn’t Breezy Point that weird community with all the awful zoning and parking regulations that pretend they’re a gated community with a private beach but really aren’t?”
“Yes,” Hip responds.
“Those people are assholes,” I mutter.
“Still, no one deserves that,” Hip gently admonishes me.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I say, lowering my head and nodding. “We have to call Owner, TLS. Have you been in contact?”
“Yeah, I’ve called him every day so far. I have a ground line.”
“Right. Right! I’ve spoken to him, too. I want to open, Hip.” His simultaneous response of “—Open! Let’s call him. We’ll call in the mall.” His focus shifts abruptly. We’re standing behind the counter of Spoonbill as a young man approaches to make a purchase. He is accompanied by a nondescript but attractive male cohort and a beautiful disaffected skinny woman with pin-straight blonde hair. “Margarita! This is Xeno’s friend Siberia! I must! Introduce you,” TLS Hipster says emphatically. “Hello, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m Siberia,” the beautiful young man says in Russian while reaching over the counter and extending his hand. He looks exceptionally Russo-Asiatic. Fashionably dressed in tight dark blue jeans and a black leather jacket that hits the waist, with a knit black cap over jet-black silky hair and thin slits revealing ice blue eyes, his skin all rosewater, his features all pointing east. “Huh?” I ask, distracted. “Yes, hello. I’m Margarita.” I respond too formally, weakly shaking his hand while moving away from the counter.
“And there’s Xeno! You’ve never really met,” Hip says, leading me between the bookcases. Xeno is an adorable nerd boy synth player who tours prolifically and internationally. He was a Russophile before he discovered Hungary. “Xeno is learning Russian!” Hip exclaims. “No, I’m not touring Russia! I’m going to Hungary,” Xeno yells over the noise of the teeming crowd and loud synth music. We can all mostly hear one another but are losing track of the conversation. “Hungarian is one of the weirdo languages. If you speak Russ, that won’t make sense for learning Hungarian, Estonia or Finnish,” I mutter absentmindedly but loudly, making myself semi-heard while scanning the room, plotting a course to the street. “Yeah, I know that. That’s why I’m learning Hungarian!” Xeno shouts. I’m making my exit with my eye on the front door as he makes an attempt at noble conversation in Russian: “Yes, Margarita. I’ve heard much about you from TLS Hipster. I’m getting ready to tour Europe. What do you think about . . . ” He’s at my side and I turn to face him.
“Xeno,” I say in plain English. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time, too. I really dig your music, truly, but I have to apologize. I need to . . . just get some water. I’m just going to the store. I don’t mean to be rude. I’m a little over-stimulated right now. And I really want water. I apologize.” He looks at me oddly and backs off as I run toward the front door traversing beautiful Brooklyn’s prosperous American refugees who’ve fled the heart of the country for the heart of the world. They’ve packed the store. They browse in unison.
I bolt through the front door into Halloween child madness and blessed fresh air, navigating through them. They are oblivious, staring up into the night’s light and yelling nonsensically at parents and friends. I walk past stores until I find one that makes sense, enter and buy a bottle of lime seltzer, cracking the seal to drink while standing on line. Children barge in between each exchange, screaming – “TRICK OR TREAT!!! TRICK OR TREAT!!!” I walk back slow, taking my time, sipping seltzer and wondering when begging candy off of grocery stores became acceptable.
When I return, Hipster touches my arm gently and we retreat through the second entrance of Spoonbill into the mall area, where tiny panhandling children knock into us as 20-something gazelles in full make-up shout audibly about their hook-ups and booty calls and party plans for the night in voices and personalities indistinguishable from one another.
“You look beautiful!”
“No! You! Look beautiful…!”
“Text hime already!!!”
I turn my head back to Hip as he dials Heroic Owner’s number while my own cell phone is left unattended recharging somewhere behind the counter of the bookstore. We exchange looks in dim amber light by the entrance to the mall and entreat them to open the shop to no avail. Hip points out to Owner that Spoonbill is doing amazing business while we’re bleeding money. We encourage Owner to at the very least take his wife, leave their apartment and cab it to Brooklyn or Midtown for a hot meal in a restaurant, but they have that distinctly provincial quality that older Manhattanites who’ve lived in the same neighborhood for decades acquire. Brooklyn may as well be Beijing and north of 14th Street Helsinki. Hip clips his mobile shut and we return to Spoonbill stopping at their wall of art books.
Spectacle Theatre enters with his remarkable hair. Sig and Xeno walk over to join us. “Awww, look who’s here,” Hip announces and we all greet TLS Hipster’s thin ex-girlfriend, Butterscotch Lick, as she approaches smiling in all her cerebral adorableness. We begin catching up on one another’s ordeals. The Brooklynites interrogating the Manhattanites admit sheepishly that all is well and normal, even dull, in their neck of the woods.
TLS Hipster turns to Sig and me: “Are you two walking back to Manhattan now?”
“Yeah, as soon as our phones are charged, we’re going to get food, then walk back over the bridge before it gets too late,” Sig replies.
“Stick to the main roads, and all that. You can gentrify the shit out of it all you want but it’s still the LES in a blackout and tonight’s Halloween,” I add.
“Man! It’s like the fucking Warriors!” Spectacle exclaims and I can’t help but hold up two fingers and the thumb of one hand and tap them together menacingly—“Clink! Clink! Clink! Clink! Warr-i-ors. Come out to pla-y-ay. Warr-i-ors! Come out to pla-y-ay! WARR-I-ORS!” Suddenly we’re all screeching it in unison until the word devolves into laughter.
“I have no idea what any of you are doing.” A confused, wide-eyed Butterscotch Lick says, surveying us as though we’ve all gone mad.
“Awww, man!” Spectacle begins, “You’ve never seen The Warriors? It’s a movie. A classic! They’re in this gang, right?”
“Their gang is called the Warriors,” TLS adds, smiling softly at her.
“They’re from Coney Island but they go all the way up to the Bronx to some like, UN peace, gang accord, rally thingy,” I continue.
“Nooo! Not peace, Cyrus is trying to unify the gangs to take over New York,” TLS says, correcting him.
“It takes place in 1979, when New York almost went bankrupt,” Sig offers.
“But Cyrus is shot during his big speech and the Warriors are framed for his murder. Escape from New York is another amazing movie from that era,” Spectacle continues.
“So they have to get home, all the way from the Bronx down to Coney Island, through three boroughs and, in the process, they have to go through every single other gang’s territory. And everybody is after them because there’s a call out to avenge Cyrus’s murder. They have to fight their way through. But all the other gangs are really silly,” I add.
“Like the Furies,” TLS says, laughing in spite of himself as Butterscotch furrows her brow and takes it all in very seriously nodding as though at a grad level critical theory lecture.
“Which are the Furies?” Sig asks.
“Oh, they’re on rollerskates with Kiss face paint and baseball bats wearing those Babe Ruth uniforms,” TLS explains.
“The Warriors are led by this really good-looking tortured shirtless blonde dude wearing a leather vest named Swan,” I add.
“They’re all shirtless. They’re all wearing leather vests,” Sig says rolling his eyes.
“Swan—How hot is that?!” I smile suggestively and nod at Butterscotch.
“That’s Michael Beck. Walter Hill directed it.” Sig adds.
“Michael Beck was also in the classic, Xanadu,” TLS says sarcastically.
“I LOVE XANADU!” I squeal as everyone bursts out laughing and Butterscotch gets even more confused. “It’s about the seven muses, you know, from Greek mythology and one of them, played by Olivia Newton John, falls in love with Swan in a roller rink, but Zeus, her father, totally does not approve. It’s a musical. Xan-a-duuuu,” I start singing.
“Isn’t The Warriors based on a novel?” Sig asks.
“Sol Yurick!” TLS directs the response back at him.
“Maybe I should screen The Warriors,” Spectacle Theatre says thoughtfully.
“Oh! With Xanadu! A Swan double feature,” I chime in.
“Alright, it’s time for us to go. This one’s getting a little . . .” Sig says, leading me away by the arm.
We say our goodbyes and Sig, TLS and I walk up Bedford toward the bridge foraging for food at various stores along the way to the Williamsburg Bridge. Butterscotch accompanies us midway and leaves us at the point on the Bridge where the Dark Zone begins on the Manhattan side. A man and a woman dressed as Magi fall into step with us while walking their bicycles across. My ever untrusting Sig eyes them suspiciously as they try to make conversation.
“Are you supposed to be Magi or two wise men?” I ask. “Yeah, something like that,” the male Magi answers. Only assholes say—something like that—and anyway, it was a trick question, I think silently to myself as I hug Butterscotch Lick goodbye at the line of demarcation.
We exit the bridge onto Delancey Street and are met by large NYPD lights powered by portable generators illuminating the roadway of the vehicular exit/entrance to the bridge. “Why is anyone driving?” I anunciate with annoyance.
“Disaster tourism,” Sig replies.
“I’ll bet none of those people are brain surgeons on call or lawyers with clients on death row. We don’t even have the fucking death penalty here! They have no reason to be out. It’s dangerous. Especially for us, since we live here,” I muttered, growing irritated.
“Who really knows what’s going on down here,” Sig responds.
“Why are those lights on, for instance?” Hip asks, pointing south as we walk along Delancey.
“That’s Seward Park High School. It’s been designated an emergency shelter. There are a lot of disabled, elderly and infirm people out here in the NYCHA projects. I bet someone’s on a respirator,” I say, looking over at Sig.
“And that other building over there?” Hip asks, pointing at the only other tall structure that has its lights on.
“Don’t know,” Sig responds.
“It’s Gouverneur Hospital. It’s really just a glorified high-rise clinic, but they probably have a backup generator. It might be the only thing we have close to a hospital down here, but I don’t think they even have an emergency room. St. Vincent’s is closed now, so that leaves Beth Israel on 14th, and Bellevue. Is NY Downtown in the Financial District still open?” They both shake their heads contemplatively. “Hey! Do I know my neighborhood, or do I?” I ask, smiling proudly in an attempt to antagonize the boys and keep spirits high as we walk further and further into darkness.
“This is where I leave you,” Hip says, turning to face north on Essex. I hug TLS Hipster goodbye as Sig waves.
“Stick to large streets,” I shout after him as he disappears into the night. I can’t see Houston and Essex from Delancey as he walks away from us and the silhouette of his form merges with the blackness.
Sig and I turn south on Essex and proceed back to my mother’s apartment with the spoils of our foraging. We traverse the blackened hallway and enter the apartment where my mother is nervously knitting by candlelight. Well, she didn’t burn the place down, I think, silently reassured.
Sig proceeds to light candles, making the small apartment come alive and cozy as I mix screwdrivers and prepare a meal of cannelloni beans and quinoa with turmeric. It’s Spartan but quick, filling and hot. Everyone’s now slightly tipsy, says ‘yum’ and praises the little meal, but I suspect it’s just emotional and physical exhaustion, and the dark heightening our senses, that makes us more appreciative. The dark is making us devolve, or perhaps evolve, depending on how you look at it.
We finish eating and I clear the plates while making more screwdrivers. Sig had laughed at me for buying a whole container of orange juice in Brooklyn and lugging it home over the bridge. He’d made a comment about my having all the wrong priorities, but we’re happy to have it now. “Well, you bought us that big pretty jug of Stoli!” I shout toward the living room from the kitchen, laughing at him as he enjoys his blackout cocktail. “What did you expect me to do with it? Is good, no?!” I mock him in an ambiguous Pan-Caucasus semi-Russian accent.
“Horrorshow.” Sig replies, nodding drunkenly and making an attempt at remembering the word for good in Russian using phonetic transference.
Sig entertains us by making up a trivia quiz, but it doesn’t last long since he alone knows all the answers to his own questions. Mom and I accuse him of cheating. The game falls apart when I return to the living room, having scraped the dishes clean in the kitchen, putting the trash into sealed plastic bags and tying them. My mother retreats to bed.
I look out the window at the buildings across from us and see beams from flashlights and the dancing flames of candles in some of the other windows. He approaches and stands behind me, cupping his hands around my upper arms, reassuringly.
“We have the best lit place in the apocalypse,” I say softly, looking up at Sig behind me. We are surrounded by silence and stillness.
He removes his clothes unprompted, dropping them on the armchair to the right of the window flanked by paintings and climbs into bed on the pullout couch. I touch the plants to the left of the windowsill, watching my neighbors’ lights flicker, then I walk through the apartment to make sure every last candle has been extinguished. I undress in the dark, placing my clothes adjacent to his and climb onto the pullout couch, curling fetal under the blankets. I close my eyes and make my internal darkness one with the darkness that surrounds us.
an excerpt from The Year of Our Lord Quetzalcoatl