The Flood

By Jared Marcel Pollen
  • 22 Oct - 28 Oct, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I find myself oddly contemplative in times of crisis. More contemplative than usual, that is. After all, crises encourage us to see ourselves as participants in the great cultural drama, players living through hinge moments in history, and with this comes the heavy business of worldly reflection. These days, “crisis” is an ongoing phenomenon, which means that our perspective must constantly refresh itself. The German philosopher Hegel said that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the gathering of dusk, meaning that an epoch is only intelligible after the fact; we can’t really know what we’ve experienced until it’s passed. True, certainly. But who has the time for that?

It was 8:15 and I was writing the first draft of history. The shades of dusk had gathered over New York and we were living through what was already being deemed a catastrophe, or that most abused media-term, a tragedy. A macro-storm, a nor’easter, had descended on the city the previous evening, shutting down sections of its electrical grid and reducing the borough’s lower levels to submarine darkness. It was another Sandy-type event, another one of the biblical disasters that seemed to strike this side of the American coastline every annum. Last year it had been Puerto Rico, the year before that, Texas. And although I was safely ensconced in a restaurant on the upper west side, in my mind, my fingers were already queuing up over the keys.

Karen Marlowe, perhaps sensing this inward course of thought, asked the acutely feminine question:

“What are you thinking?’

“Nothing,” I said.

We sat at a corner booth in low light, under girder work hung with Edison bulbs, their coils burning noiseless. I felt slightly above my station, being here with affluent Manhattanites, all vastly more important than myself. But I wasn’t about to protest. Karen Marlowe was a beautiful shamble of a woman, a photographer and a cosmopolitan breed who embraced the transient pleasures of an unquiet life. We had a professional respect for one other, and there was little to our relationship beyond the fact that we happened to work for the same magazine. She was, like so many people in my life, a contact, a name in a list.

“Nothing,” I said.

“You’ve got something. I can see it.”

“Don’t worry about it, okay.”

“Well, don’t look so morose.”

“What morose? I’m sitting here.”

“You’ve got that hundred-mile stare. Absent, brooding.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“So am I, but I don’t look like that.”

The screen went to sleep and I caught sight of myself in the dark glass of my device. I was pale, in need of sleep as well. Karen too looked lagged and bloodshot. She’d just gotten in after a nineteen-hour flight and her mind was still in another time zone.

“I have to write a piece about the storm and submit it tomorrow morning,” I said.

“What if we do something together?” It took me a moment to catch the meaning. “Would Bill object to you submitting this article with images?”

“You want to go out in this?”

“Sure, why not? We’ll walk downtown and see what we can get.”

“I don’t know if this is the time to go running around outside.”

“When everybody else is running inside, I’m running outside. I was in Dubai last month when a sandstorm broke. Those things are brutal. They were telling everyone in the hotel to stay away from the windows and take cover while I was trying to convince the manager to let me onto the roof.”

“I wish I had your courage.”

Because of her job Karen never stayed in the city long enough to have a proper home. She had a small flat in Dumbo (a nook, a closet) which was currently underwater, so she asked if she could stay with me for the next few evenings.

“It’ll be nice to go out and walk around. I’ve been on the road so long I feel like a stranger in my own town,” she said, sectioning off a piece of meat. “Whenever I see this city now it’s always from the window of a fuselage, or an office in the middle of a skyscraper. I stand next to people in elevators and I can’t imagine a single thing about their lives. You know that three of my friends have had babies while I’ve been away and I haven’t met any of them? And every time I come home it seems like there’s a new skyline. I feel like I’ve missed a million things.”

Karen had a birthmark near the back of her left cheek the color of a wine stain and shaped like a bowling pin, and when she drew her black hair back with the comb she made of her hand (like she was doing now) it stuck out like the moon in a starless sky.

I swiped through webpages of satellite imagery, interactive maps, Doppler radars, rainbow spirals, nebulous masses churning, bulges of color flashing over the coastline. I found a map of the city that showed the boroughs trimmed blue along their edges and marked “Disaster Areas.”

“We’ll have to walk,” I said. “No taxis will take us downtown.”

Now shots of Con-Ed men in day-glo gear, knee deep in water, the mouth of a subway station churning foam, frothing over the steps, water choking the drains, pouring through the slats, dim shuttered storefronts and street lights swinging dark and dead, lots of yellow cabs reduced to their roofs, abandoned construction sites with collapsed perimeter fences and tarps smacking in the wind.

When I looked up, Karen was staring at me.

“Tell me about your life. I’m desperate.”

Karen was like an astronaut back from a year in low-orbit, fresh out of a vacuum and eager to hear the stories of earthlings. Her eyes hovered above her glass, examining me. They were red-dark, like cherry wood, their black grain bleeding through.

“I’d rather hear about yours,” I said.

She told me stories as we walked through midtown, a light rain falling. The aggregate LED displays worked on overhead, lonely and useless without their audience. Above a line of trees at Bryant Park, the Empire State loomed as a dim, geometric obscurity. Karen cradled her camera in her chest like a kitten.

We passed a team of reporters – men shouldering cameras out of trunks, people in headsets holding hands to their ears, speaking in clipped and coded language. More Con-Ed men were gathered around the base of a fallen crane. Its collapsed frame ran nearly the length of the block, lying neatly between the parked cars. Because it didn’t appear to have caused any real harm, I didn’t feel guilty about finding the scene intriguing. In general, I hadn’t thought of the storm as something truly menacing. I thought of it in the way Barthes had written about the floods in Paris in the fifties, as an antic moment of mythic splendor. I recalled those black-and-white photos of French men rowing boats down the rues and lily-hopping from chair to chair to cross the street.

We came to 34th street and went into darkness. Karen wandered off, looking up a cluster of buildings through her viewfinder. I took out my phone and refreshed the page. There was an article about a car bomb at an airport in Istanbul, but this seemed like lesser news now. The storm was the top story everywhere. It had risen above all others and made a claim on the world’s attention.

Karen reappeared, camera slung across her chest like a bandolier. She rubbed her hands and used my sleeve to wipe off the lens. She used a Nikon F, the Kalashnikov of cameras. She hated digital and refused to use it. The whole point of the photograph is the imprinted moment, she said, the flash-capture, and the way you had to wait to find out what you’d seen.

Karen said she took photos to locate herself, to remind herself where she was and where she had been.

In about an hour we made it to the highline, a block of raised-railway-cum-promenade. From the walkway we climbed a set of metal steps to the roof of the Whitney. Around us, the shadowed tons hung in silence. Karen snapped away, pulling back the wind with her thumb and releasing it like a bolt-action rifle. I saw the work-in-progress of a new tower, its unfinished glass half still lit, the iron interior rising up and disappearing into the darkness. Out in the bay, the lights of distant industry marked where the earth met the sky.

Having spent the afternoon reviewing a book on the romantics, I thought, as Wordsworth might have, of the sea that bares her bosom to the moon and the winds that will be howling at all hours, about how we wasted true opportunities for contemplation with all our “getting and spending” – and how nothing moves us anymore. The winds were howling, certainly, but perhaps we were moved too much now, in every possible direction. At the moment, a thousand different connections seemed available to me (the landscape practically shuttered with them) all ready to go with meaning, as easy to call upon as they were to discard.

Karen asked me to lean against the railing and look into the distance.

“Look like you’re thinking about something important,” she said, followed by the sound of the shutter.

When we finally got home, Karen collapsed on the couch. She stared at the ceiling, caught in a moment of paralysed reflection, maybe the first real one in weeks.

“What time is it?” she said. “Wait, don’t answer that.”

“I’ll draw you a bath,” I said. “You know; I’ve always loved that phrase – draw a bath. We don’t use it for anything else, do we?”

“No, I need to sleep. God, I need to sleep.”

I went to the window and climbed out onto the gated ledge, bracing myself against the lintel. Not much was happening, just the numbered awnings snapping in the breeze. The rain changed into mist, which didn’t fall so much as cling to the air, and there was a bit of lightning in the distance, flashbulbs taking pictures inside the clouds.

I climbed back inside and peeled off my socks.

“I’ll put our clothes in the dryer,” I said.

I helped her with her pants, tugging them off each wet leg, which she raised lazily like a kid before bedtime.

After she slipped off to bed I stayed up, wandering the dark apartment. The wind moaned through the windows and I felt a breeze on my feet. I took this as metaphor: the world leaks in. Like Karen – like all of us – I had a journalistic mind, and the mind kept running to keep up with the day-to-day. The world crawled up your spine and attached its busyness to your brainstem. Nietzsche said that newspapers had replaced prayer in daily life. They were the new source of worldly reflection, when you contemplated the sufferings of others and the state of things elsewhere. The fleeting, ephemeral, transitory clutter of our lives had taken the place of the eternal, and it was the job of journalists like Karen and myself, as the new priest class, to focus people and make sense of it. This required a certain derangement of the senses, as Baudelaire (that great documentarian of modern life) advised, a “frenzied journalism,” which demanded that you be awake all the time. This may have been why Karen never seemed to sleep. But I took the phrase “sleep on it” seriously. We couldn’t understand anything until we did.

I paced, feeling a pressure collapsing in on me. Images from the street began calling themselves up in an inner-montage. I couldn’t be sure which bits of it belonged to the things we’d seen or the footage I’d watched. I checked my phone again. Social media was blowing up with people talking about the storm, discussing the present as if it were already the past. This commentary also seemed to be an important element in the event. It wasn’t laid on top of it, over it, after it – it was part of it. This was the real phenomenon: not the flood, but that we were here to record it, remember it, share it at the speed of light. I pulled down on the page a few more times, watching the little throbbed spin. I didn’t even know what I was looking for anymore. I felt drained, disoriented. I got down and laid myself out, supine and silent in the middle of the floor. I stayed there for I don’t know how long, star-shaped, helpless, as raindrops rang on the iron bars of the fire escape and the city rolled on under night.