Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fire and Rain

It has rained and rained here for the past three days. And nights. Sheet lightning pulsing in the sky and thunderbolts so huge and fierce they strike panic into people in the street, you can see it on their faces. Everyone in this city is waiting for a loud noise, for the definitive bang or blast or roar, for the next attack...everyone is. And when the thunder here sounds overhead, it sounds for just a moment like the sound we've been waiting for. It's not just loud, it's piercing. It's like no thunder I've ever heard before; it's not a rumble, not a clap, but a crack, a snap, like the sky is made of something solid and vital, and it's just been broken by the lash of an iron whip. The storms creep up in minutes; a blue sky, warm air, and before you get a chance to notice that the sky has turned dark grey, there's the noise and the light and the rain is plummeting down, and on the pavements the water is suddenly reaching up to bare ankles. Despite the almost ridiculously accurate weather forecasts available on TV and radio here, nobody seems prepared for the storms - humidity has started to settle in now, and everyone's in their flip-flops, their linen shorts, their sundresses and string tops. Even when it's lashing down, it's too warm, anyway, to be covered up much - and in this heat, for a moment at least, the rain comes as a relief.

When I came out of the library at Columbia yesterday, there was another kind of rumble in the air. The rumble of the Upper West Side, at rush-hour, discovering that the trains uptown and downtown have been taken off because of flooding to the tracks, and there are no cabs to be had, and there are three hundred tense and wet and grumpy people standing at every bus stop, and it's raining, still, and it doesn't look like stopping. Columbia is at 116th and Broadway, 102 blocks from where I need to be to catch my train back to Brooklyn. It's a long way to walk, but walking was the only option. And it wasn't so bad. In the end, I didn't have to walk so far after all - 30 blocks - and I saw parts of the city I haven't seen so far, because I usually take the subway straight through them, or right beneath them. The Upper West Side is a comfortable part of Manhattan - private schools, private gyms, yoga mums and Hamptons-tan dads, hatted doormen and marble lobbies, river views, strange little shops selling every type of luxury. A stationary shop which seems to have some kind of Irish connection, since it's called La Brea (without the fadas) and displays picture books of Newgrange and the Cliffs of Moher among the leather notebooks and Elmo t-shirts and guardian angel fridge magnets. West Side Judaica, which sells toys and books aimed at Jewish children - the Squeezable Walking Matzah Ball, the Bouncing Boynging Berel, the Passover Bag of Frogs - as well as designer kipas and novelty menorahs (those candlesticks used at Chanukah, versions of which seem to find their way into every Irish, non-Jewish, home as a window decoration at Christmas). Boutiques and gourmet food stores and toy shops. And pet stores. Lots of pet stores. New Yorkers like their tiny dogs, in particular, and pretty much every where you go in the city, you'll see shops with their windows full of puppies sleeping and staring and rolling in sanddust, waiting to be picked up by a skinny blonde for a measly $900 and paraded in a LV carrier for the rest of its days.

I was on Broadway between 97th and 98th yesterday when something else caught my eye. A space that had been covered over entirely by children's drawings and crayon scrawls, pasted together and displayed as though on a classroom wall. I went up to have a look. They were letters and cards about a cat, a cat called Prince, and all the kids were writing letters about how they were going to miss Prince so much, and how he had been their favourite cat, and some of them were saying that they were collecting money, holding table quizzes or something like that, and that they had raised thirty dollars and that they soon hoped to have a hundred. And that they were sorry about the fishes, and Prince, and all the other animals. And then I realised what that smell was, that sickly, smoky smell. This wasn't a display wall, but a board where a window had, until recently, been, and behind it was black and unlit not because the shop had closed and gone elsewhere, but because it had burnt down. And, from the looks of the messages taped to the board, its animals had burnt with it. Most mourned among them was Prince, who seemed to have been the shop cat, and to have served as some sort of guardian to the shop's stock of exotic fish (though you have to wonder, was he just kept in a cage so that he couldn't help himself to breakfast, lunch and dinner from those fishtanks?). Anyway, the messages were from kids who had clearly visited the shop regularly, and who were very distressed about the lost animals, and it was really sad. Two guys who looked like the owners were there yesterday evening, carrying charred junk out through the remains of the doorway, and, though it seems to have happened about a fortnight ago, people were still coming up in disbelief - mothers with kids, kids on their own, old men, old women - and asking what had happened.

I still have a problem with all the tiny dogs being kept in shop windows along Park Avenue (though at least those windows are air-conditioned and protected, to some extent, from the sun's get much less swanky - for which read much less safe - imitations of those stores in the poorer areas of Brooklyn and Queens, in which the animals look close to death half the time), but there was something very touching about this. Poor Cat Formerly Known as Prince.

And it's still pouring down. Hello, June.

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