By Robert Heide
Hurricane Sandy began its assault on the Eastern coast of the country on Monday, October 22 and ended November 2, 2012 with the full force of the storm hitting land near Atlantic City and New York at around 8:30 PM October 29; combined with a high tide and a full moon, one of the most destructive and deadliest of super storms on record flooded the streets in lower Manhattan and also knocked out a Con Ed substation on the East side which plunged the city below 23rd Street into an utter and complete blackout. There were no traffic lights, nothing was open and there was no electrical power anywhere. Landlines held but cell phones were out. Most of my friends and the folks I knew stayed indoors. Many others, living in high rises and dependent on elevators, took cabs uptown and checked into hotels. The blackout lasted five days—subways and tunnels were flooded—and yet, people were wondering whether New York’s gigantic traditional annual Hallowe’en Parade would proceed, and how—who would even be able to see a parade in the dark? Mayor Bloomberg finally, cancelled it on the very day, October 31. We heard about the official parade shutdown on the BBC news broadcast on the little transistor radio that was our only connection to the outside world.
That night as dusk fell, my partner John and I ventured out onto Christopher Street to see if some people were outdoors wearing costumes anyway. Sure enough, right away, we bumped into a woman, unmistakably dressed as Madame LaFarge (from the French Revolution) stridently making her way to 6th Avenue, her red, white, and blue skirts tucked up in a belt loop to keep her from tripping in the dark. We told her the parade had been cancelled, but she would hear nothing of it, claiming she had heard there was an unofficial parade going on anyway and she marched away down Bleecker Street into the thickening gloom. We turned to see burning candles making a path across the sidewalk from the curb and into the rectory of St. John’s Church on Christopher Street. At the door a sign, illuminated by the flickering light, stated “Enter here for Hallowe’en trick or treats.” How could we refuse? Inside, a large loft-like room was dimly lit by candles burning in glass globes. At a big round table, seated on chairs, a number of people were whispering in hushed tones. On a side table, was a buffet with platters of orange-colored homemade pumpkin and oatmeal-raisin cookies and large pitchers of apple cider, ginger-ale and water.
Pastor Mark Erson and his husband Scott, our hosts, introduced themselves and suggested that everyone might tell a story. I thought it a good idea and told about my boyhood days in Irvington, New Jersey when I went out trick or treating in a clown suit on mischief night, which we understood was supposed to be the night before Hallowe’en. We liked to make trouble, to say the least, such as throwing orange and black jellybeans at other kids on the block. John recounted his favorite scene from Meet Me in St. Louis wherein little “Tootie” played by Margaret O’Brien went out on her own and, in her words, “killed the meanest man in the neighborhood.” She actually had not killed him and he wasn’t a very mean man, smiling as he wiped up the white powder paste she had thrown in his face while the “fiercest” big white bulldog at his feet licked up the residue. Many other stories were told that Hallowe’en night in the Rectory but later we all agreed that the best one came from a strange, very tall man who resembled the Hollywood Horror King of the Horror Stars of the day—Frankenstein incarnate Boris Karloff. He did not seem to be in any sort of costume, probably just his street clothes. In a deep, gravelly voice the man, who did not reveal his name, apologized first for telling a story he had just read by somebody else, F. Scott Fitzgerald, that had been reprinted in the New Yorker magazine. In a slow drawn out manner, he spoke of a girdle company executive in town for a convention. Back home, in an effort to improve her health and increase her stamina she had recently quit smoking her favorite Lucky Strike cigarettes. In a strange, gloom and doom mood, she found herself wandering into a church. It had been a bad day at the midtown hotel where the convention was being held—girdles didn’t seem to be selling. Searching in the dark for a lipstick in her handbag, she was astounded to find an old crumpled cigarette butt. In a fit of anxiety she searched frantically for a match but there wasn’t one in her bag. Utterly frustrated, she was about to scream aloud when from a shadowy alcove holding a statue of the Virgin Mary, a slender white hand reached out, and holding a burning match, lit her cigarette butt. In hysterics now, tears flowing down her face, she fled the church and sobbing uncontrollably collapsed outside on the steps. In that dark night everyone at the Rectory who had listened to this story congratulated the Boris Karloff look-alike who then revealed he was a retired funeral director from New Jersey. Later I wondered, was he himself a ghost?
One day, during the Blackout Week, we got a call from an actor friend Gordon Ramsey who had appeared in several of my plays recently including East of the Sun at Howl Arts on East First Street and in The Bed at Theater for the New City on Second Avenue. He showed up in his van accompanied by Sharon D’Lugoff, the daughter of Art D’Lugoff and their daughter Ace and we drove over to the East Side to see the site of the Con Ed blow-out. There had been much flooding in the West Village and we noted many of the streets in the East were buckled and rippled and realized they had actually been under water for at least a few days. Eventually we drove in the van to an area uptown where the lights had been on all the time to a diner located on the ground floor of the Hotel New Yorker on West 34th Street. The colorful neon lights of the pseudo-deco decorated diner and the blinding white fluorescent lighting everywhere on the ceiling was a wonderful sight to behold and made us all glad and happy. With Gordon and his family we enjoyed hash and eggs, coffee, and hamburgers all followed by ice-cream sodas. Following the most recent monster Hurricane Ida, Channel 7 senior meteorologist Lee Goldberg told many dramatic flash flood stories that were happening in New York, New Orleans and other big hot spots. In New Jersey the rivers overflowed in towns and cities like Newark, Elizabeth, Irvington and Maplewood. He also reported that there were six confirmed tornados. It looks to the world that weather disasters of one kind or another are here to stay. Where it will end or if it will end—nobody can guess; so hold onto your boats and canvas life jackets. As Bette Davis as Margo Channing in the film All About Eve said, “fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”
Robert Heide’s latest publication is Robert Heide 25 Plays, published by Fast Books Press and available on Amazon.