When the familiar becomes foreign

As the East Coast hunkers down and prepares to weather out Hurricane Sandy, I can’t help but remember what it was like to be in Manhattan leading up to Hurricane Irene last year. The metropolis that is usually brashly self-assured started to come apart at the seams. Flashlights, candles, radios and batteries sold out in a matter of hours and supermarkets couldn’t restock the shelves soon enough for the shoppers lined up around the block. Two besuited business women almost came to blows over a loaf of bread at my local Trader Joe’s. I slipped by them and took the crackers instead.

Then everyone disappeared indoors, filled their bathtubs with water and waited; armed with travel scrabble and playing cards; flashlights at the ready. When the all-clear was given, I remember rushing to the window of my top floor apartment and leaning out to see New York like I’d never seen it before. There wasn’t a single car on the road, not one yellow cab, not even a suggestion of the garbage that usually lines the sidewalks in black plastic sacks. The silent streets stared back at me; the streets I had walked along daily for several years; suddenly unfamiliar and strange and very, very foreign.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

I watched as a man walked by with two dogs on a completely empty sidewalk, and wondered if the dogs had ever had the sidewalk to themselves before.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

Just after I snapped this photo a flurry of yellow cabs screeched around a corner and I realised that New York was not going to waste any time getting back to business. If I wanted to experience this strange fleeting silent city I had better do it quickly, because the familiar old Gotham was beginning to stir.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

I threw on a coat and scampered downstairs, out onto the sidewalk. On the other side of the street a pile of discarded boxes had magically appeared. Trash was already returning to the streets, and the all-clear had only been given perhaps 5 minutes ago.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

There was an air of celebration; you could feel the city breathing a sigh of relief as New Yorkers took to the streets in droves, walking their dogs, dancing on the sidewalks, airing out their mini macaws. I’m not kidding about that last one.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

new york manhattan hurricane irene

Twenty blocks later, this strange silent city had vanished without a trace. Traffic was thick; the honking of yellow cabs threatened to rupture my eardrums and as I rounded a corner I was brought to a complete standstill by a towering mound of black garbage bags. New York was back with a vengeance.

new york manhattan hurricane irene

Seriously – are there garbage elves? How did they get there so quickly?

Stay safe over there on the East Coast. xxx Ailsa

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue wheresmybackpack.com Remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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95 Responses to When the familiar becomes foreign

  1. Stunning post Ailsa! Regards, Karen

  2. Sounds like a really strange and eerie experience, especially the rapid reappearance of the rubbish!

    • ailsapm says:

      That first pile of boxes appeared between the time I left the window and the time I got downstairs, and the strangest thing was that there was no one around at all. Someone must have grabbed the boxes, hopped out on the sidewalk and dashed back in again. Ahh, New York. :)

  3. writecrites says:

    We here in Hawaii experienced somewhat the same thing this evening. As an earthquake off Canada triggered a tsunami warning for all low-lying areas, Waikiki was evacuated. I’ve seen it like this a couple of times before, and it’s always eerie to see normally bustling Waikiki empty of traffic, pedestrians, street performers and other colorful people. Even police and emergency responders had to evacuate. So far, the highest tsunami wave has been a few feet, so it seemed we dodged the bullet. I hope no homes are flooded tonight.

    • ailsapm says:

      Keep safe, Jennifer! I have family on the other side of Oahu and their house has been flooded before, here’s hoping the waves don’t get too high. xxx

      • writecrites says:

        It turned out to be much ado about very little, ailsa, but even so, low lying coastal areas did see what the weather guys call “a bump” in the water level, in some places as much as 4-5 feet (apparently 3 feet is enough to pick up and move a VW Beetle), so hope your family’s house wasn’t flooded this time.

    • Oh wow, Jennifer – there I was recounting waking up in Waikiki one morning a million years ago to just that deserted eerie scene – not knowing you had had a warning last night – spooky :)

    • Angeline M says:

      OMG. I slept in really late this morning, heard about the earthquake in Canada, but didn’t know that Hawaii had been effected by the tsunami warning. Waikiki evacuated? Wow.

      • writecrites says:

        That’s the thing about tsunamis, they can gather height and momentum as they move across the ocean, and we’re just a few little islands sitting out here. The Japan earthquake hit us hard, flooding many places including all the shops and hotels along the ocean in Kona on the Big Island. Houses were floating away. We don’t know yet if there was damage from this one, but I don’t think it will be anywhere near as extensive as the the Japan tsunami. And Waikiki was ok.

  4. Kimberly says:

    Great photos! That is an intense pile of garbage!

  5. I have a vague idea what a deserted New York must have felt like, Ailsa, having woken up in a deserted Honolulu, unaware of a Tsunami warning while I slept. Even the birds had disappeared, and the boats, of course – the air felt like a vacuum, and I suppose the pressure must have been down (or up?) as the earth waited for the wave … that only rose three or four feet. The all-clear siren rang out eerily and before I knew it, people were spilling out onto the streets!

    Great post dear, and thanks for the memories :)

    • ailsapm says:

      Yikes, that must have been weird, waking up to a deserted city. Reminiscent of 28 Days Later – minus the zombies.

      • Didn’t see that Ailsa (I’m not a Zombie fan, strangely!), but I get the idea, and yes – truly weird. Like it must be in New York again now, with the subway halted and all – must go and see what’s happening!

        It was a great post my dear – totally foreign territory for the city that never sleeps … :)

  6. ledrakenoir says:

    Wonderful shots… :-)

  7. seakist says:

    The familiar was also foreign for about two weeks after 9/11, when people on subways looked deeply into each others eyes for some sign of hope. It was both sad and gorgeous at the same time. I just loved how people were so nice to each other even if it was just for such a brief period of time. Great post, great photos!

  8. Pat Bailey says:

    Great writing, Ailsa. And the photos helped to make me feel I was there. Thanks.

  9. Madoqua says:

    Excellent post. Lots of food for thought!

  10. Love your mini story and the mini macaw. Thanks for the concern. Think positive :-)

  11. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Strange I always imagined New York would be a gleaming clean city!

  12. Tina Schell says:

    Well done..story and photos work beautifully together.

  13. petit4chocolatier says:

    Love your writing and pictures! Absolutely love New York!!

  14. Great story- aren’t you lucky to live there? Let’s see how it goes this time around!

  15. You’re right about it being strange. I was also in NYC during this time – it extended my stay because JFK closed. What amazed me was the City That Never Sleeps was…well…sleeping. Except for the Irish Bars – they were still awake!

  16. I can relate to the chaotic frenzy in getting ready for storms, the silence and eeriness leading up to it and of course the relief if it turns direction. I live in southwest Florida. We always have the diehards who stay out on the beaches as long as they can, like the dog walker taking advantage of the place to himself. Nice post.

    • ailsapm says:

      Those diehards always freak me out, Lynne. I consider myself fairly intrepid, but have no desire whatsoever to be swept away by a twenty foot wave if I can avoid it!

  17. Life&Ink says:

    Awesomeness! A very thoughtful and interesting post. :-)

  18. bulldogsturf says:

    Where was all that garbage before the all clear… there’s enough to fill a small apartment…

    • ailsapm says:

      No kidding. I imagine the hallways of apartment buildings filled with those bags – you’d never want to leave your apartment again!

  19. I remember the eerie atmosphere in NY leading up to Hurricane Irene last year, too!! Thanks for sharing your pics, brought me back. We had a wedding to attend that wknd that, unfortunately, got cancelled.

  20. Angeline M says:

    I’m sure a very strange sight to see the empty sidewalks and streets in NY. I just heard they are shutting down the subways later today.

  21. Great photos and post, also thank you.

  22. Anne Camille says:

    What a great post and photos, Ailsa.

    In 2007, I was stranded in NYC by a spring snowstorm, all flights having been cancelled after I checked out of my hotel room. I struggled from my office in Hoboken with a suitcase to the UWS to my cousin’s home. It was impossible to find a cab or car service into the city. The subways were nearly deserted and when I got to the right stop, there was nobody on the street as I trudged up the block to her building. A few hours later, I realized that there weren’t even police & ambulance sirens. How strange to not hear any traffic, the city all hunkered down, snuggly inside. It was 4 days before I could get a flight back home without being bumped. The first time that I saw a plane ascending over Manhattan, after takeoff from LaGuardia, I felt relieved that I would get home eventually.

    I didn’t think those black trash bags ever went away.

    Stay safe during Sandy.

    • ailsapm says:

      I love New York in the snow, Anne, it turns into a winter wonderland. Last winter’s no-show snow was awfully disappointing, I felt cheated.

  23. What a wonderful experience to have and well done for grabbing those moments before the beast came back to life!

  24. eof737 says:

    Stay safe and hunker down… I plan to do same. ;-)

    • ailsapm says:

      I am on the west coast right now, so missed all the drama. The transit system looks like a real mess. Hope your part of town didn’t get hit too hard. xxx Ailsa

  25. danajoward says:

    Wonderful photos after the Irene. I have heard that Sandy will be worse than Irene, so please stay safe and hunker down to all on the east coast. Sandy is huge and covers over 300 miles…it is going to last longer than Irene. Thank you for sharing your memories of Irene and the coming of life after she was gone. :)

    • ailsapm says:

      Hi Dana, I’m actually on the west coast so missed the storm – spent a sleepless night keeping in touch with my friends back east making sure they were doing alright. Sounds like Sandy was frighteningly destructive.

  26. Pingback: Weekly photo challenge: Foreign « The (Urban-Wildlife) Interface

  27. viveka says:

    Great photos … great told story !!! Wonder where they kept all those black waste sacks during the “hurricane warning” – amazing. I was in New Orleans under a tropic storm Isidore in 2002 …3 years before Hurricane Katrina, very wired experience.

    • ailsapm says:

      The force of nature is so easily forgotten until something like this comes along. I’ve been through hurricanes and earthquakes; the one that really unnerves me is a tornado, which I have thankfully yet to experience.

      • viveka says:

        It has been all over the news today over here in Sweden – Sandy, how she hit New York and New Jersey.
        Terrible – so that must have happen after you posted your post or ???? Because when I read your post I thought she had passed you. Yes, force of nature we can’t do anything about more than take care of ourselves the best way we can. I lost 3 friends in the Tsunami.

        • ailsapm says:

          Yes, viveka, I wrote this post before Sandy hit, I was writing about last year’s Hurricane Irene which veered off course and missed Manhattan. Unfortunately, Sandy didn’t miss, and has left a trail of destruction in her wake. So sorry to hear about your friends, how tragic. xxx

          • viveka says:

            I thought so .. but I didn’t pick up it was Irene – no Sandy she came and destroyed.
            Yes, big lost for the families – it was 2 sisters and 1 husband.

  28. I still remember that day in August last year. Brooklyn, for about 5 minutes, stood at a standstill, yet every bar and restaurant in the neighborhood were offering some sort of Hurricane Irene specials on drinks. The next day, my boyfriend and I and our dogs frolicked all over Prospect Park and the giant pools and puddles the hurricane left as a trace. I’m in Peru at the moment and some of my colleagues have flights back home today and tomorrow, and are particularly worried about cancellations and delays. There’s a lot of anticipation going on and I do hope everyone will stay safe in NYC.

    • ailsapm says:

      Hope you get back safely without too much delay. I’m just catching up on reports, looks like there were a number of fatalities, so tragic.

  29. Great take on the challenge, Ailsa! We lost power for almost 2 weeks last August… when the October storm happened (and we didn’t lose power), we were on vacation, but our kids enjoyed our working plumbing and electricity! It is eerie how the world shuts down around us during these storms…

    • ailsapm says:

      I hope Sandy didn’t cause too much destruction in your area, TRS – she was horrifically destructive in NYC. Sending you my love! xxx

  30. Very topical, and a well-told story!

  31. Loved this post, Ailsa! These strange moments of “solitude” can be over so quickly, can’t they? Glad you had the chance to experience NYC in a new way for a few blocks. Take care everyone!

  32. Deborah - d.mooncrab says:

    I usually prefer less crowd but for this, I was relieve to see crowd, action, ..trash! To me, New York without these features are like a heart not pumping blood. Nice post and pics Ailsa!

  33. I was once able to walk around London on Christmas Day, and it was dead quiet, hardly any traffic, and it was also completely surreal, like your experience with New York. I love your take on this theme.

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh yes, Silken, there’s nothing quite so magical and London on Christmas Day. Did you by any chance take one of the London Walks? They do two Christmas Day walks – Samuel Pepys’ London at 11am and Charles Dickens’ London at 2pm (if memory serves me correctly) – and they’re both fantastic. xxx

  34. bebs1 says:

    Am glad that it didn’t turn out the way they predicted but amazing how fast it came back in character quickly. Very nice blog!

    • ailsapm says:

      Sadly, Sandy turned out to be worse than predicted. I don’t think anyone expected a 14+ foot rise in water, it looks like the transit system is going to be out of commission for ages, and I keep hearing reports of houses destroyed and lives lost. So sad.

  35. eotezine says:

    You have a very readable style of writing and take dynamic shots. I’ll be back for more… Thank you for looking in on EoTE!

  36. Ewa says:

    Amazing story. I hope that this time everything will go OK and you will celebrate again (even if that means trash;) )

  37. Max510 says:

    Great thinking post Ailsa !

  38. Josy says:

    Wow— I’d heard the “zombie apocalypse” comparison for New York before and during Irene, but I’d never really thought about about how quickly it came back to life again. Really cool documentation!

    Thanks for the well wishes— we’ll need ‘em.

  39. Stay safe. Enjoyed your photos… love the title “when the familiar becomes foreign”. A change in perspective can be a good thing!

  40. Wonderful captures ! I hope you’re doing all right tonight, looks like you’re getting hit hard. Thank you so much for stopping by and liking one of my posts. Hope to see you back soon! Bella

    • ailsapm says:

      I was out of town during Sandy, Bella, but it looks like she hit Manhattan very hard indeed. I spent the night checking in with my friends back east to make sure they were doing alright. It looks like one big mess right now. xxx

  41. In Calgary we’re so lucky in some ways – landlocked with minimal risk of earthquakes (one of the lowest risk areas in the world), we get some windstorms, but we’re talking 60mph – not 100mph, even tornados head further north and east. The one and only time this city shut down was with 60cm of snow (2 feet) – and I happened to be in the Bahamas and missed it. I can’t imagine what anyone in the east is going through right now (had a friend experience a lot of damage with Gustav a couple of years ago) and I certainly can’t imagine NYC shutting down. Eerie – but a wonderfully told perspective!

  42. Seth Barker says:

    Very cool perspective. I’ve only traveled to New York, but you captured a very different city than what I saw. Thanks for the like!

  43. Marianne says:

    That was great, Ailsa! Let´s hope that folks stay safe this time for Hurricane Sandy.

  44. Jo Bryant says:

    Loved your story Ailsa…I hope the city is doing okay with this storm

  45. Madhu says:

    Brilliant post Ailsa! Must seem like an eerie replay this time around! Hope the worst is over and things get back to being ‘familiar’ soon :-)

  46. Suzanne says:

    That was very interesting reading. Thanks.

  47. Sandra says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. Great post.

  48. Justine says:

    I liked your story Ailsa. Keep going. Great read.

  49. The Hook says:

    Beautiful work! Some of these shots have left me with vertigo, but I don’t mind!

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