The Tribes of New York: Back to the Future
Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
Oct. 31, 2012
“I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive -- nor will we deserve to.”
As the effects of Hurricane Sandy left much of lower Manhattan (and elsewhere) in the dark, I couldn’t help but recall the events -- and lessons -- of Aug. 14, 2003: the day/night of the Eastern seaboard’s most recent major blackout.
When the blackout of '03 dimmed the mighty skyline, I could suddenly see stars... zillions of them blinking at me from beyond the unlit skyscrapers. Traffic lights were out of commission, but to the southeast, Mars provided the only red light we really needed.
By coincidence, our crimson neighbor was closer to Earth than ever before and the power outage gave us Easterners an excellent view of Mars's southern hemisphere from a mere 34.6 million miles away.
Still, even with the stars twinkling above and little green Martians close enough to reach out and shake my hand, it was when I returned my gaze back down to the streets that I truly couldn't believe my eyes. That clammy evening, one could witness a sight even more uncommon than any celestial spectacle.
Across the darkened city, Big Apple denizens stopped hustling. They sat still and talked to each other. No computers, no televisions, practically no telephones... just face-to-face communication (even if it was too dark at times to actually see faces).
Huddled around flickering candles and eating food before it could spoil, longtime Astoria neighbors introduced themselves, discovering similarities and answering the question of the day: "Where were you when the lights went out?"
This unforeseen solidarity was accomplished without the assistance of e-mails, texts, or tweets. Money didn't change hands, no cell phone radiation was emitted, no air was conditioned. Under a sky full of stars and a visiting red space-mate, it was possible to encounter the sort of life we may have evolved to live back in the "caveman" days.Our modern caves, the subterranean tunnels of transportation known as "the subway," were empty but the concrete jungle above them might as well have been the Savannah. The tribes of Astoria sat around fires -- sharing food and communal stories. Some even beat on drums.
In times like this, it's easier to appreciate that we each possess a physiology that evolved to negotiate the Stone Age. Here lies the rub: we live in the Space Age. We are urban cavemen... overmatched in our daily crusade to navigate an artificial reality because we’ve lost contact with our primal instincts.For one thing, we likely didn't evolve to be surrounded by this many people. Thus, in our futile search for a manageable tribe, we preserve our attention for a handful of fellow humans. What's vexing is how to deal with the millions not in our tribe... but still in our face.
Subsequently, we inventive mortals have cultivated the ability to hastily disregard non-tribe members."In the busy streets, you develop human traffic skills of amazing dexterity," writes zoologist Desmond Morris. "In crowded buses, trains, and elevators, you acquire a blank stare. You have eyes only for those you know. This enables you to enjoy the varied delights of the big city while mentally re-creating a personal tribe existence.
"But what happens when those streets aren't busy... like, say, during the worst blackout in U.S. history? We may have eyes only for those we know, but what about when it's too shadowy to tell the difference?With our vision impaired enough to create the illusion of intimacy and our vaunted technology no longer at our overworked fingertips, we are gifted with a taste of a potentially different culture.
Sure, things returned to "normal" when power was restored, but the experience left some of us wondering just what "normal" means.The last time Mars got as close to Earth as it was in 2003 was some 60,000 years ago... an age when stars were easy to find and one could cause a blackout simply by dousing the fire.The extraterrestrial lady in red will once again be 34,646,418.5 miles away in a mere 284 years. I wonder what kind of earthly culture will be there to greet her.
Mickey Z. is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook.
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