East Coast friends, I'm glad you're dry and safe and I hope your homes and stuff aren't too damaged. Here are some thoughts.
I lived in New York for 15 years and before that was born and raised all over New Jersey. The pictures of flooded places I see on the internet are of enormous personal significance to me: Philly, The Jersey Shore, Hoboken, Jersey City, The Lower East Side, Brooklyn Bridge
Park, DUMBO, Greenpoint, Gowanus, Midtown Manhattan, Staten Island, Connecticut, the subways and the tunnels. I went to college in Montclair, grad school at NYU, was a writer, director, actor, activist, waiter, temp, a teacher at Rutgers and Queens College, and (not quite competent) radio host on WFMU. I biked and walked all over the city and my son was born at Long Island College Hospital.
For years before I left, I'd been ready to get out: I was sick of the crowds, the expense, the constant aggravation, the status-seeking, the unspoken class war (which is happening all over the US, especially here in LA, but in NYC, or at least NYC theater circles, it was and is taboo to discuss it openly). I loved New York and I hated it -- periodically unemployed, I'd spend many days taking my son around Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey, often by boat, experiencing the vast city of my 41 years like a tourist. But I was also constantly stressed and angry, and sick of living there, hit from both sides in Fort Greene, on the one hand constantly kicking teenagers off my stoop and on the other more or less unable to afford living there. I was becoming bitter about New York theater, a sure sign that it was time to go -- you're never bitter about a thing you actually want to be doing.
When I did leave, it was sudden and I never got to say goodbye: I lost my wallet riding my bike home from teaching a Pataphysics lab at The Flea, and a week later I was unexpectedly living in California and getting the contents of said wallet replaced by mail. I've still never fully adjusted to living here: on weekends I'm a Californian, but that's like taking a vacation. During the week I sit for hours in a Downtown building that could just as well be somewhere in the five boroughs, getting paid to dream of a bygone New York. I still get the New Yorker and listen to WFMU and occasionally get the New York Times on Sundays (though I still mostly despise it and never read the arts section). I like it better here, but just as I'd always suspected, one never truly leaves New York City because after you live there long enough the whole world becomes a suburb of it, like in that Saul Steinberg drawing.
Driving home along 3rd Street in Los Angeles last night (I just had to look up whether it was a street or avenue), I felt like I was in a part of New York that was still dry and still had power. I finally understood the people who left Hollywood or wherever they were to return to NY after 9/11 (though I'm not doing that). I felt sad and powerless in the way I did after Katrina, though today we have a more competent president and the mid-Atlantic region isn't Louisiana. But I do feel helpless and angry that this is a sign of things to come, that we are learning nothing, that neither candidate said a word about climate change this election, that we're still forced to choose between our economic well-being and our survival as a species, that one "side" of the debate will respond to these events with the usual weird delusional propaganda and the other "side" will respond with a resigned, cynical "pragmatism" about energy or jobs or whatever. And believe me, I get it -- one of my recent discoveries is that capitalism, when used right, can actually facilitate class mobility, while just under the surface of the not-for-profit system lies an rigid, feudal class structure. But I also know that the "free market" is a myth, we live under state capitalism and always have, and surely we can do better than this.
My hope that the slow drowning of America's oldest and greatest cities will finally spur us to sensible action is tempered by my fear that this will just become an aquatic form of gentrification, with the super-rich in waterproof penthouse fortresses on hills. But I'm also heartened by what I know to be the resilience and generosity of New Yorkers, and the FB and Twitter messages from people in dry areas offering space, food, and warmth to their friends and neighbors. I don't know if I'll ever live in you again, New York, but I'll be back to visit, and I want you to be there a good long time.