November 4, 2012

Hype and Mysteria


There is something perversely charming in watching public officials and the media raise their voices to a near squeak and muss their hair in order to rile the masses up into a state of high-octane hysteria. It’s so very obvious, and it always works, no matter what the supposed crisis at hand. A threatened terrorist attack, a flu pandemic, an epidemic of Satanic ritual child abuse, a rash of seemingly random murders. My favorites, though, are the weather panics—snowstorms, Nor’easters (arrrh!), any kind of weather outside the norm. And when politicians and broadcasters have a week or so to really get going before the scheduled event? Look out.

            Hurricane Sandy was a special case, and the level to which the madness was whipped up deserves nothing short of awe and wonder. In the two days prior to the hurricane’s arrival, even as actual, trained, professional meteorologists were trying to pin down just what the hell they were dealing with, the news coverage along the eastern seaboard went nonstop, an endless barrage of speculations and warnings and lists, and potentialities and news conferences and commentary—there was even enough time to generate commercial endorsements from half the nation’s major insurance companies. Meanwhile shoving matches were breaking out in supermarkets and hardware stores as people fought over month-long supplies of things they would never need.

            (I will confess that given the Bunker’s almost comical history of flooding even when it doesn’t rain, the possibility of a major Deathstorm doodling over Brooklyn did leave me a little antsy. But all it really meant was that I backed up the supply of smokes and beer and bought a second mop, as the first one was getting pretty ratty. Then I waited.)

            While I was discussing the coverage and the public reaction with my friend Don, he used the term “mysteria” to describe the madness. Although he later admitted that he’d of course meant “hysteria,” we agreed that mysteria worked better, given the nature and tone of all the public shrieking. In none-too-subtle terms, after all, the storm was being treated not like a storm, but like a monster—Godzilla or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. We could identify it, but not understand it. We knew what kind of damage it could do, but didn’t know exactly where it would go. It was an evil, destructive force that seemed to come out of nowhere, wandered around the ocean for awhile, messed up a few tropical islands along the way, then suddenly took an unexpected turn and decided to fuck us up but good.

            Look at the terms that were used—Sandy was “a monster storm,” a “killer storm,” a perfect storm,” and of course “Frankenstorm.” And look at what the public was told to do—evacuate, stay off the streets, stay in your home or a nearby shelter, just as they’re told in giant monster movies. The transit system was shut down (giant monsters love trains and buses), and the financial district was closed, as monsters have a bad habit of crushing banks.

            The day of Sandy’s expected arrival, listening to assorted mayors and governors and city officials and newsreaders stir up the deep anxiety over the approach of an enigmatic force they didn’t fully understand, clearly feared, and clearly wanted us to fear as well, the term “mysteria” seemed unusually apt. It was something I kept in mind as I followed the news and made my hourly rounds of the apartment, checking for rising flood waters and expecting the worst.

            Earlier that day I received a call from Grinch, who said “I was just listening to the news here, and thought I’d give a call over there to find out if you were idiot enough to still be living in a basement.”

            “Yup!” I told him.

            By seven or eight, my apartment had miraculously stayed dry while on the radio I heard reports of what was happening in Manhattan and Jersey as Sandy stomped ashore near Atlantic City and headed north. It was slowly becoming clear that much of everything we’d been told—this mysteria I was so ready to dismiss (while fully expecting that I would flood again anyway)—was turning out to be true. Around nine, Morgan’s power went out in Manhattan. I still had power and the Bunker was still dry, but I knew it was going to be a long night. On the radio I heard they had started to shut down all the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan, perhaps in an effort to contain Sandy, corner her there somehow, but it didn’t seem to work.

            I continued making my rounds and listening as the news grew more ominous. Around two or three I finally went to bed. The power was still on and the flooding hadn’t started. The flood waters always seemed to creep in while I was asleep, so I woke up every hour or so to pat the floor on either side of the bed to make sure it was still dry. It wasn’t firm and thorough proof, but it was something anyway. The small table fan whirring next to the bed told me I still had power. That was something, too.

            My own personal mysteria only began the next morning. When the clock radio went off shortly before six, all it broadcast was static. I’d set it to a station I hate as a means of getting myself out of bed in the morning, so not hearing it was actually kind of a relief, but only hearing static was a little ominous. I sat up and tentatively lowered my feet to the floor, expecting them to plop into ankle deep water the way they had just two weeks earlier when the water heater blew. I was much more surprised to find the tile beneath my feet still dry.

            “Well, that’s unexpected,” I said. I shut off the radio and stood. Things were quiet. I moved across the room and snapped on another radio, this one set to another station, and again all I got was static. Something cool and furry began to grow in my guts. This wasn’t right.

            I made a cursory check through all the areas in the apartment where the flooding had traditionally been worst. They were all dry.

            Moving into the front room, I grabbed a cigarette and lit it. Yes, things were quiet, but unnervingly quiet. It was normally a quiet neighborhood, but through the front windows, even this early, there were always a few cars, the regular bottle scroungers, and the birds. This morning there was nothing. Even the birds were silent.

            Nothing but static on the radio, and nothing at all outside. Not even a breeze. Something was definitely wrong and strange here. First my apartment doesn’t flood, when by all accounts I should be in chest deep water by now. I mean, of all the times when my apartment should flood—when it’s supposed to flood—it stays dry. When my power’s supposed to go out, the lights are still burning. And the rest of the world, given the evidence of the radio and the silence out my front window, has been completely wiped out. Hell, even after a zombie apocalypse there are still damned radio broadcasts. Maybe this wasn’t merely a Deathstorm as we’d normally think of it, but something far worse. Maybe it was some kind of enormous alien that sucked up every (other) living thing on the East Coast. Or maybe that giant toxic shit monster crawled out of the Gowanus Canal and wiped out everything except the Bunker as I slept. The only thing that was clear at six that morning was that I was the last man on Earth.

            The thought didn’t much bother me as I ground out the cigarette and poured myself a cup of cold coffee. In fact it was kind of a relief. Having seen enough movies, I knew what I had to do. Yeah, it was about damn time. No more assholes to contend with on a daily basis. Even those fucking birds were gone at last.

            The inevitable disappointment came about ten minutes later. After finishing breakfast, I returned to the bedroom, tried the radio again and, again hearing only static on the set station, idly gave the dial a spin. I almost yelped when I heard voices on other stations. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t the last man on earth—it seems a couple of jerks survived as well.

            Well, it had been fun there for about fifteen minutes or so. On the bright side I was isolated down in Bay Ridge and out of reach. But on the downside there was still that giant Gowanus shit monster to contend with.


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