Sandy Studies 2: Darkness

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Some years ago, the historian, A. Roger Ekirch, published a book titled, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. In it, he explored the history of night in Western culture. Night was a bad time, full of potential violence, fires, and ghosts, but it also had its blessings–lovemaking, storytelling, family. His work has been on my mind.

My Studio Apartment, Messier Than Usual from My Shambling in the Dark
I made it home to my apartment in Hoboken last night, but in the process, I found real pockets of desperation and the darkest of night.



After I posted on this blog last night, I left the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology and walked down Hudson Street, which has functioning street lights. When I reached Hudson and 8th, I saw National Guard troops unloading people from a large truck into a shelter at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. The Guard continues its operations today.

I went on to Andy Russell's apartment, where he and his fiance, Lesley, fed me dinner. I watched the news for a while. I am lucky in this–many people here have no idea about the scope of the destruction, though they hear snippets of it from word on the street. Later, Lesley and I were standing on their fire escape when we heard a train roar in the night. You can't guess how much these small signs of technological systems mean to us today.

After I left Andy's house, I walked to Hoboken High School, which is quite near my house, with some things that Andy and Lesley were donating. The school is serving as one of the major staging areas for donated goods. As I walked away from 11th St., I walked away from light. 

Hoboken at Night (From Hobokenhorse.com)

As I neared the school, I saw an elderly woman dragging a cart down the sidewalk. I could barely make out her form in the light-less space. I asked her if she was close to home, if she was going to make it, if she needed help. She understood none of that. In broken English, she told me that city had turned off the water, and so she was leaving. But the city hasn't done that. The water is fine, and I told her so. She couldn't understand what I was saying. We went back and forth like that for a while, until I asked, "Will you be OK?" "Yes, OK," she said with some finality. I walked on in the inky streets.  

I really like an article by the historian of technology, David Nye, called "The Energy Crisis as a Cultural Crisis." One of the most memorable things he mentions in that article is that Americans like to light up their entire houses at night, whereas people in Copenhagen, where Nye lives, prefer for their houses to be mostly dark with small puddles of light here and there.

This is all to say that we have tightly bound up technology with our culture, with our very way of life, and when that web of technology becomes disengaged from us, we find ourselves in a strange space. The technology is gone, but our practices that depend on them are still with us. I'm not talking about anything fancy or high falutin' here; I'm talking about walking down the street and our perceptual expectations for making it from here to there.  

I eventually made it to the high school with Andy and Lesley's things: some canned food, pasta, batteries, a Snuggie, and some chocolate chip cookies that Lesley baked. There weren't any lights on at the school, and I thought that they must have closed down operations. But then I saw someone walk across the street from the school with a flashlight, get into a car, and drive off. I walked up to the doors of the school and saw a flashlight dancing around in the distance. I knocked, and a man came. "Are you taking donations here?" "Yes, we are," he said. He let me in. "Just put them up there on the counter." They work in the dark here. His flashlight pointed the way to the counter, and then I was back into the night.

I made it into my apartment nearby, but it was not a peaceful place. Things are not so good on the backside of town. People are confused, frustrated, scared, and angry. My apartment was fine, as I expected, though its becoming a bit messy from my shambling in the dark. The fridge is starting to stink. 

I've spent most of my time after Sandy at the front end of town, near the river front. What has gone mostly unmentioned in news broadcasts is that Hoboken has serious (economic, social, whatever) class issues. There's a book that extracts letters to the editor from the 1980s from the local newspaper, The Hudson Reporter. The book's title is Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime. The yuppies invaded and mostly won. There are pockets of wealth throughout the city now, but the front end of the city, up by Washington, is consistently high value real estate. On the back side of town, however, there are pockets of considerable poverty, especially on the south end.

Some of my building is subsidized housing. The people there do not have the personal networks, nor the technologies to access outside information. They do not know what is going on. The are literally in the dark, and they do not know when it will end.

Last night, my dark building filled with yelling a few times. From what I gathered, one of the families in the building has a member with mental illness. It sounded like a bad case of anxiety, though it could have been something more serious, like psychosis. The man yelling in the hall could not tolerate his family member anymore. "He won't sit still! He grabs at his chest. He gets up and moves from place to place. I can't take it!" He stormed out of the building; I could hear crying in the distance.

Darkness here makes me think of papers by the Jesuit priest, historian of technology, and former editor of Technology and Culture, John Staudenmaier, on what he calls the "Holy Dark." (They are usually available here.) In those essays, Staudenmaier discusses how, since the Enlightenment, we have put tremendous value on the image of light, both as a cultural notion having to do with learning (the light of knowledge) and as a physical reality. Staudenmaier argues that the rise of electric light corresponded with these older cultural notions of Enlightenment to create the practices we know all know: the American household, houses with every room lit up and mother yelling, "Turn the light off." I wonder how his work connects to other cultural histories of lights, including Chris Otter's The Victorian Eye and Jeremy Blatter's ongoing research on streetlights.  Jesuit spirituality is far too sophisticated, however, to pretend that we will only find warm cuddly things if we return to earlier traditions that valued darkness as much as light: after all there is darkness there.

There is darkness here. I heard up at city hall today that people are beginning to run short on food. The temperature will drop to near freezing this weekend. We hear varying estimates on when power will be restored, but several reputable sources have suggested that it might be as late as *next* Saturday (November 10th).

I don't often say things like this, BUT if you have anything to donate to the Red Cross or an equivalent group, please do.

From Hoboken,

Lee

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