A postcard from NY as Frankenstorm takes Manhattan

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

FIFTYSOMETHING:IN MUSTANG Sally’s on Seventh Avenue, New Yorkers queue for a table in wellington boots, the less well-heeled with plastic bags over their shoes. The east side of the city, from Midtown down, is without power – nothing, no traffic lights, no Starbucks, no corner deli calling you in from the cold.

The bartender is Irish, he’s working alone. He moves so fast he blurs at the edges.

The subway is down; presumably his staff, like millions of other New Yorkers, are trapped in high rises, are wading through flooded suburbs to empty grocery stores.

On Monday the sky was a lake of milk; white, impermeable. There was a full moon buried in there somewhere. The air was corpse-still, the aroma from the curry houses on Lexington sat heavy on the air.

Our holiday apartment is on the fifth floor over an establishment called Doggy Day Care, whose canine residents – some dressed in sheepskin jackets, all with more expensively groomed locks than mine – are yapping with impatience at the bay window of their nursery. The pooches are put out – they were supposed to have a Halloween “paw-ty” but a hurricane called Sandy, with a bite as big as its bark, has scuppered their plans.

In the corner deli there are just two scented candles left. Outside the rain has started, branches squeal, leaves drop. In the deli, two women and their fluffy dogs choose from an astonishing array of dog food.

Impervious to the gathering storm they ponder the right blend of vitamins, nutrition and adoration. Liberated from day care, their demonic pooches dance on the tiled floor; they want to go outside, chase grey squirrels, cock their manicured legs against the howling trees.

They want to hunt the storm. No chance.

“Oh baby, are you cold?” asks the woman on the other end of the lead, picking the fur ball off the floor and blowing warm breath on her pet’s paws. Her friend follows suit and the dogs are carried to the till, their yellow-and-blue mackintoshes snug over their hindquarters – the dogs, that is, not the women.

New York City is pooch paradise. On the Upper West Side, tiny women with enormous mutts on diamante leads jog through Central Park; on the Lower East Side, big men in small T-shirts trot after tiny dogs with ribbons in their hair.

BEFORE THE power went out on Monday evening, the rolling news was the sountrack to our vacation, anchor after anchor reassuring the city that although Frankenstorm was racing towards Manhattan the emergency shelters were welcoming pets. I thought about those mackintoshed doggies as I lay under the rickety-looking glass gable of our vacation rental, listening to the sirens compete with the wind.

When the transformer blew on 14th Street it sounded like an arsenal of Fisher Price fire trucks had invaded Earth. And then the lights went out and the city that never sleeps was suddenly, violently comatose.

I hope those doggies managed to get a night’s sleep, but I reckon if any living souls in New York City managed to catch 40 winks that night they would’ve been the pooches. Christ knows, they probably had fleece-lined pyjamas and Valium.

The next morning, the rolling news silenced, we hit the streets to find out what was happening, cold and grubby and a bit grey around the gills but, compared to the electrocuted pigeon on Fifth Avenue, we were hunky bloody dory. In Mustang Sally’s we share sockets with strangers and, despite the staff shortages, we all eat.

But the city is bruised. Obama calls the night’s events a major disaster. The television in the bar shows burnt-out houses and floating cars, felled trees and felled lives.

Later we walk through the wet city, past the cordoned-off streets and the crane arm that hunches like a tired drunk over 57th Street. On Times Square, Batman looks a bit dejected, posing for photographs with sodden tourists in his rubber suit.

It’s going to take more than one superhero in a damp suit to clean up the streets of Gotham this time.