It was beautiful, the hurricane. On the website, it was a white spiral as if someone unplugged a drain in the sky and the clouds swirled down. It spun over the Caribbean, leaving a trail of dark battered islands in its wake. I watched the tally of the dead rise; in Jamaica, one dead; in Haiti, 54 dead and Cuba, 11 dead.
And yet, I didn’t take it seriously. It’ll peter out. The window-shaking wind seemed like fun. I laughed with Mom over the phone as the sky darkened and rain scraped the street like a Brillo pad. She was going to the evacuation center but had to waterproof things in her apartment first. And then her phone cut off.
New York stumbled after Hurricane Sandy like someone roughhousing with a friend and caught a surprising elbow to the eye. We flicked useless light switches, turned on dead computers and stared at trees piled in the street. Mom was on Staten Island in a basement apartment near the shore and I imagined her being carried away in the flood. Where was she? Does she have food, water? Did she get to the center in time?
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And then she sent a text, “People who live behind me have died, including two children who were swept away from their mother’s arms. I watched as police boats brought out bodies from my street.”
The next day, I drove a U-Haul van down Father Capodanno Boulevard in Staten Island, eyeing the ripped telephone poles, moldy furniture piled on the street, metal gates twisted like coat hangers. And then I saw her. I parked the van, jumped out and instantly she wept as I wrapped my arms around her.
Inside the carpet squished underfoot, I was stunned at the sight of Mom’s whole life in a dark wet pile. Nothing was salvageable. “Your high school graduation photo,” she said and held up a soggy picture of me smiling in a blue robe.
“Mom,” I sighed, “Let’s say good-bye to this. Let it go.”
“Wait,” she repeated as she picked up photos that crumbled into smaller and smaller pieces. “Wait.”
She takes anti-anxiety pills. Sometimes, she wakes up in the night to watch Netflix until sleep overtakes her again. She blames herself for renting in Staten Island. She feels calm when folding clothes and putting them into my closet. “I can’t sleep anymore,” she huffs, “It’s like everything keeps shaking inside me.”
Watching Mom go through stages of loss, shock, self-blame, grief and the re-assembling of life, I see in her the people I interviewed in 2005, driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. I see again the ragged homeless of Haiti I talked to, living in tents after the 2010 earthquake. Of course, it’s not the same magnitude. She’s physically fine. No broken bones, no amputations. She can stay with me. She has insurance to replace the car. But they share the same panicked face, the same worry, fear and helpless clutching at whatever or whoever is stable enough to hold.
Forty-thousand New Yorkers lost their homes. But they are in a First-World city where resources are closer at hand. Just do the simplest search on Wikipedia, enter “Environment Migrant” and you will read of 42 million people in Asia and the Pacific made homeless by storms that lashed the land, cold fronts that killed crops, rising seas that lapped tides against front doors. By 2050 the number of climate refugees could climb to 150 million people. Immense rivers of people flowing over national borders, lugging rice bags, balancing luggage on their heads, gaunt and bleak-eyed. They’ll follow their hunger, search for safety and be corralled by the military into camps where they will live in legal limbo. Each one, I can imagine waking at night, panicked and trying to find someone or something that is stable enough to hold.
And where will they go? And just as important to ask is, what of their stories? The narrative geography of our imagined community, who we “see” as our neighbor is created by a global media filtering them through an ideological screen. In the left mythos, they are the deserving poor, whose suffering reflects our own subjective position of Good Samaritans. In the right mythos they are undeserving hordes who threaten civilization. And we saw this play out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
New Yorkers solemnly nodded when told about Gotham’s climate refugees. They were victims whose homelessness was not their fault. But beneath the sympathy were long lines of angry people at gas stations, angry apartment dwellers who ate cold food in the dark, families piled on top of each other in small rooms. The city’s nerves were frayed. When Mayor Bloomberg visited Far Rockaway, people cursed him and demanded help. He nervously repeated the litany of the legitimacy of the state. “Everyone is working as hard as they can,” Bloomberg said, “People are not always going to get as many things as they want as fast as they want them.”
They weren’t asking for what they wanted, they were asking for what they needed — water, food, medicine. Bloomberg’s condescending rhetoric repeated the sliding scale of dehumanization that is the tactic of the ruling class. First, frame the people as children who want too much, too fast. Second, if they push too hard, if they take instead of waiting, criminalize them like Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who said in 2005 as the people of New Orleans died of hunger, “I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
What if after Hurricane Sandy the gas lines got longer, store shelves were empty and power never came back? What if we were driven by hunger to break laws to survive? How long would it take for us to rush the stores? Who would we become?
The awful truth is the refugee and the criminal are defined by their need; they share a speculative identity, divided primarily by which side of the law they’re on. As the seas rise and deserts grow like a burn scar across nations, the means of survival will clash with the relations of ownership. The laws that bind the 7 billion people on the planet into a capitalist pyramid scheme will force the poorest across the line from citizens to refugees to criminals. And they will walk straight into the cross-hairs of the military, into the prisons, into the abyss.
Days after the hurricane, I was helping Mom up the stairs when my friend called. He was afraid of putting his car in the garage. “If I leave it there,” he said, “Some asshole is going to siphon the gas out of my tank. It’s
already been happening.”
WE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE
On the night President Obama was elected, Fox host Bill O’Reilly said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore. People want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. …The voters, many of them, feel like the economic system is stacked against them. And they want stuff.”
I thought of O’ Reilly’s whiny tone as I saw the out-of-work guys on my street, slapping hands and yelling, “Obama!” They waved to me; I waved back and yelled, “Obama!” None of us knew exactly what the other meant just that we felt a shared joy. But I also knew that in a few days they would be asking for money from whoever left the bodega. And they asked because, yes, they wanted things.
I felt a sad rage each time I shook my head at their outstretched palms. It is tragic to see them want control over their lives without first taking control of their minds. I mean they just dreamed in commercials. They talked of fancy cars they’d never drive, homes they’d never live in, jewelry they’d never wear.
They were taught to want the Good Life without being given a chance to create their own vision of it. Instead, the capitalism that O’Reilly celebrates flashes in their minds even though it has less and less need of them. It closes factories in high-wage nations and re-opens them in low-wage ones. It forces swollen-eyed women to sew clothes for dimes each hour. It designs robots that work without sleep. Capitalism needs fewer workers with more skills to produce larger amounts of commodities. The store shelves are lined with things the out-of-work guys on my street can’t afford.
Our capitalism. It churns like a hurricane across national boundaries. It freezes nature under the sign of commodity. It forces hungry peasants into the city, where it sifts them for the lowest wage for the longest hours. It lifts up a bourgeoisie, who in turn hire the media to unleash a cascade of ideology that saturates the people. But if workers organize and demand higher wages, capitalism spirals up and away to another place with hungrier people. Left in its wake are men and women who sell their bodies, beg on street corners, who dream of what they can’t have, who want things.
Climbing up the stairs, I heard my neighbor replaying President Obama’s election-night speech. “To the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner,” Obama said as I reached my door, “who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president.”
“The politicians are fucking up,” a tall black woman shouted on the gas line, “If they were on their shit we wouldn’t be here.” Around her, people gruffly agreed. As I drove the U-Haul van, I eyed their red containers, sloshing with gasoline. Against my will, I imagined black streams of carbon rising from my van’s muffler, rising from the cars on the road, rising from the buildings on the street into the sky.
Beyond the horizon, I imagined each city as a chimney of carbon spewing gas that thickened the sky like Jell-O. Under the greenhouse blanket, earth’s white ice caps will vanish; land will disintegrate into desert and hurricanes slam cities. And the tall woman at the gas station will be back on this line fighting over food, gas and water as police guard the neighborhoods of the wealthy. Nature is now the battlefield for class struggle.
Blinking the imagery away, I knew it was the apocalyptic vision of the future that reverberates across the left. And it was troubling. It hung over me like a pastor. So when I parked the van and saw my apartment light was left on, it was a “green” sin. Meat in my refrigerator? A sin. My plane ticket? Another sin. And the convenience is that I don’t have to die to experience Hell. Just wait, earth will become one.
And a whole industry has arisen that — like medieval penances — lets us work off guilt by buying eco-friendly commodities. “Green” toilet paper, “green” dish soap, “green” grocery bags underneath my kitchen sink. The environmental language has even seeped into our romantic lives. Weeks ago, I caught myself saying to my lover that our relationship wasn’t “sustainable.”
But the other is the apocalyptic vision that drives us with fear. For a few of us that’s enough. Driving past wrecked homes in Staten Island as Mom sighed heavily, I was afraid of climate change. When I see her life, ruined, its debris sprawled across my apartment, I know it’s real. But it’s not enough. The change is too slow and the First World will have time to recreate itself into a global gated community, until eventually, the waves breach those walls, too. By that time, it will be too late to stop the earth from dying.
And here is the social contradiction, billions of people are unemployed. They want to be consumers but the very act of consumption drives a capitalist economy that kills the planet. And they won’t stop. Consuming is not just about need, it’s about desire. We buy new selves when we get new shoes, new clothes, new cars and new homes.
I think back to when I felt new. It was always while creating art or protesting. The activists I know also want new selves but instead of buying them, they recreate their lives in the act of recreating the world. They march, sing, drum, block traffic, wrestle each other out of a cop’s vice-like grip, get arrested and emerge from jail with a halo of heroism.
And a speculative identity exists between the consumer and the activist, both recreate themselves but where the former buys experience, the latter creates it. And that will to create seemed to be a seed-vision that was more humane, more needed than apocalypse.
Looking out the window, I imagined what it would look like if we could tax the wealthy and use their money to hire everyone on my block to green our homes. Would trees be planted on sidewalks? Would dust rise as construction crews laid down porous streets? Would the out-of-work-guys come back with hard hats after building a sea wall in Staten Island?
Is it possible to connect our vision of tomorrow with people’s hope rather than fear? My Mom yelled from the bedroom, “Hey did you hear about what they’re doing in Red Hook?”
“No,” I said.
“That Occupy group is giving supplies to people,” she said, “Reminds me of what we did in the ’60s.”