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I was calm until after the storm. It was then – as the tropical cyclone named Irene departed and the mayor of New York began talking about the way things usually work around here – that my mood darkened.
Like many people in the area, I was glad the storm was not any worse. Irene did deposit a large tree branch on the driveway of my home in the city’s New Jersey suburbs and it took me a couple of hours to chop it into small enough pieces to carry away. But I enjoyed the work; as a newspaper editor, I feel comfortable swinging an axe.
I also came away from the weekend with a higher opinion of Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor. In contrast with his sad performance during a big snowstorm in December, he appeared engaged and informed. Mr Bloomberg also set a good example by dressing like an adult during the crisis, eschewing the disaster-wear favoured by local dignitaries such as Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, who popped up on television in a garment with his name and rank written on it, as if to prevent viewers from mistaking him for some character on that other Jersey Shore reality programme.
But the mayor touched something of a raw nerve in this commuter when he turned his attention from the damage caused by the storm to the conditions travellers would face as they headed to work on the Monday after Irene. “I think it’s fair to say you’re going to have a tough commute in the morning,” Mr Bloomberg said, according to the Associated Press. “But we have tough commutes all the time.”
We have tough commutes all the time. As a description of the actual situation in this area, the mayor’s words were remarkably forthright, especially for an elected official in the US. But below the surface of the mayor’s commentary was a bit of sleight of hand that has been part of the New York political play book for years. Whenever the going gets rough here, politicians try to avoid the issues by appealing to the pride that New Yorkers have in their ability to take what life dishes out – or to suffer, as my grandmother in Brooklyn used to say.
It is a spirit of sacrifice that owes no small debt, I suspect, to the immigrant roots of many New Yorkers. People in most other parts of the US live with the fear that things might fall apart. But people in the New York area live with the certainty that things do fall apart. Otherwise, we would have stayed in Bialystok or Castellammare del Golfo, County Cork or Cali.
In the face of adversity, it is not unusual for New Yorkers to grow more relaxed because events have confirmed all the bad things that we have been worrying about and the only thing left to do is deal with the logistics. In the FT newsroom last week, I was asked several times by colleagues from other places in the world about why I was not getting more nervous about hurricane Irene. The answer in my case – as with many other products of the New York area – probably involves a lack of additional capacity.
The problem with our ability to put up with life’s indignities is it becomes counter-productive when we have a chance to do something to improve life in the area. Each day we laugh about “tough commutes all the time” is another day we fail to build another bridge or tunnel to help make life easier for the waves of people (including me) who pour into Manhattan every day looking to make a living.
In fact, this governor from New Jersey with his name written on his clothing has become a hero to some people – even a potential presidential candidate – because he blocked plans to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson river that would have increased commuter train services to Manhattan. Mr Christie argued that our state lacked the money to pay its share of the costs of the project and whether that is the case or not, I have not heard much talk from the governor since then about how he proposes to make commuting any faster for residents of New Jersey.
In the meantime, people like me spend a lot of time on the road when we could be writing software, micro-lending to the poor or engaging in other world-flattening exercises. Door to door, my house is 15 miles from my Manhattan office, but the commute often lasts an hour and a half or more. I typically take a bus (the train does not seem any faster) operated by a company in New Jersey that began as a stagecoach line and as I sit in traffic, I sometimes close my eyes and wonder whether it would be faster to just ride a horse into town.
Hi Ho Silverman!
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