IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD," they yelled and raised their hands as the music reached into their bodies, driving them with the fear and rage they felt since hearing about the storm. Muhammad saw couples grope and kiss, break apart and latch limbs with new partners. A man thrust a bottle of rum to his mouth and Muhammad gulped the liquor that hit his gut like a sunrise.
"Happy End of the World buddy," he hollered. Muhammad gave him a wobbly salute, stepped out of the dancing and picked up the scattered flyers on the ground. Walking away from the street party, he read the pamphlets that repeated the headline on every news site — SUPERSTORM TO HIT CITY. More flyers like the white footprints of a ghost, led to the far side of Tompkins Square Park, where a loud rally shook the air.
People quickly crisscrossed the park. Families pushed food-heavy shopping carts as kids aimed flashlights at each other and laughed. On the street, cars inched forward, stopped, honked at the car in front and inched ahead again. Drivers got out and argued. A glinting river of vehicles, loaded with suitcases hummed in an long line.
Muhammad watched them, knowing that the police were closing the bridges after tomorrow night and whoever could get out was getting out. But those who didn't have cars or had to stay and work, like himself, were being left to defend the city. And if the city survived these same people would come back like worms.
He swigged more rum and walked to the rally. Over the crowd, a large booming voice shot vivid images into the air. Muhammad stood on his toes and saw Loli, spokeswoman for the Free Earth Movement on stage, dressed in all black with the tell-tale green armband. "Look at them run," she shouted and pointed at the cars. Everyone turned and stared at the drivers. "The middle class and wealthy are leaving. But we who run this city, we who made this city — we stay. And you know what I say?"
The crowd yelled for her to say. Muhammad eyed them, took another swig. "They created this storm! They created this economy! They created climate chaos! They are killing the planet and they are the ones killing us," she yelled, "We have to cut them out of our lives, cut them out of history!" She crossed her arms above her head, "What time is it?"
Everyone crossed their arms above their heads as if brandishing a thousand pairs of scissors. "Time to cut, cut, cut…" they yelled. Muhammad raised his arms, crossed them and made a cutting motion and yelled with them.
CITY ON EDGE
The street was a like a shaken beehive. People buzzed in front of stoops, handing planks of wood to board up windows, spools of duct tape and red jugs of gasoline. Members of the Free Earth Movement fanned out across the sidewalk, walkie-talkies crackled on hip belts as they handed out directions to emergency shelters.
Muhammad felt like he was floating through an old-school 20th-century disaster movie. He had studied them in a college film class, laughing in the back with his friends at how big every actor's jaw was, from Kirk Douglass to Kurt Russell. He even wrote a paper on it, "Big Chins: American Imperialism and Cosmetic Surgery."
"I am the hero of this disaster movie," he said to the Free Earth members, "Do you see how big my chin is?" They shook their heads and went back to handing out flyers. Muhammad gulped more rum and his skull felt like a bobbing balloon. Memories of his first superstorm, Hurricane Sandy, filled his eyes. It hit the city in 2012 when he was 12 years old and the past slid in his mind like a watercolor painting. He saw again the same panicked faces, felt the same buzz in the street, the same euphoria at the edge of disaster.
After Hurricane Sandy passed, his uncle took him to see the tree that had smashed a car like a roller that hit dough. He saw rooftops peeled like cans and streets carpeted with branches and torn-down leaves. At night his family grilled food on the stoop and fed neighbors. Biting into the hot meat, he felt at home in the dark city. Everyone laughed easy, everyone wallowed in the free time.
More memory spilled and he saw again the slides a professor showed him in an ecology course, it was fall 2020 and he was learning about climate change. Muhammad gripped his chair during the lecture on global warming as on screen, a temperature-scale map of the earth turned from blue and green to yellow and red. It looked like the planet was catching fire, like it was a hot coal burning.
He remembered flipping through textbooks, diving into science, seeing the wind that blew on his face as the exhale of plants and trees, seeing it driven across the planet in a jet stream, seeing it knot into giant whirlpools in the sky that landed on earth in hurricanes that ripped apart homes. And the warmer the planet, he saw, the more violent the storms. A genealogy of disaster stretched before him — Hurricane Katrina and Sandy and then in 2020 was Hurricane Oscar, the first Category Three storm to hit New York.
The memories became vivid and more torrential, like someone was pouring them into his head. In 2020, Hurricane Oscar churned the sky; clouds like bowling balls smashed into the city; rain needled his face when he poked his head outside. After the storm he waded in the dark rivers flowing through the streets. He climbed a submerged car and sat on the roof , which was just above the water. Sitting on top he listened to birds chirping in the silence as if it was after the biblical flood. And then people emerged, shocked and weeping at their destroyed city. For weeks after the storm, hundreds of bodies were found, homeless people stranded in the street, elderly stranded in the homes and those too brave or too foolish to stay inside.
Long lines stretched around supermarkets, Muhammad remembered his mom getting into a tug-of-war with another woman over a basket of groceries. At the height of the panic, he got a text from friends — SAVE THE CITY, SAVE THE PLANET: MASS MEETING ON CAMPUS. When he arrived, he saw hundreds of people in the auditorium: activists, environmentalists, doctors, nurses, a few retired cops and firefighters. They created a command structure, broke into groups and fanned out across the city to coordinate food and gas delivery and erect cell phone charging stations, and everyone wore a green arm band.
The movement didn't have a name — just action. Muhammad remembered the beautiful joy at bringing food to people abandoned by the city, by FEMA, and the people wept when he and the others came with groceries. New York was without power for two weeks and the last night of darkness, he climbed the stairs of a tall apartment building, knocking on doors. In one he heard a soft moan, knocked louder but nothing, then another moan. He slammed the door until it broke open, went in and saw a skeletal old man on the floor, his face gaunt, eyes wide and swiveling in their sockets, pleading silently for food and water. Muhammad called 911 for help, cradled the man's head, opened a can of soup and fed it to him as the wail of an ambulance echoed in the street below.
When he went back to school, he kept wearing his green armband, not caring if people made fun of him. But at the college, it seemed like every other student wore one and had their story of helping people after the storm. When he got to class, the professor walked in, took off her jacket and she also had a green armband, and then the slides of the earth affected by global warming glowed on screen again.
After Hurricane Oscar, wearing the green armband was a status symbol; he got free drinks at bars, caressing looks from strangers, but also desperate, near panting stories from people still reeling in shock from the storm. And everyone who didn't wear one asked what was going to happen next. The first mass meeting was called in Central Park; he arrived and ran his palm on the trees stripped of bark. It was as if the hurricane was a giant Brillo pad that scraped every leaf away and left spindly trees like twisted coat hangers. It was a sad sight and everyone picked up broken branches like evidence of a crime.
Thousands of people showed up. The ground was soggy, so people climbed a hill and joked how only the rich can afford to stay dry during a flood. The joking became wild and was recorded, going viral on social media. In it a young radical named Loli laughed as she described a methodical plan to mobilize people, seize control of the city bureaucracy, even the police, until the ruling class was cornered and then cut them off. She called it Climbing the Mountain. "It's like Into Thin Air meets Freddy Krueger meets Karl Marx," she guffawed and made a cutting gesture with her fingers like a scissor.
As he leaned against a tree, a voice said, "Looks like we have our Lenin." He turned to see a woman, short with arched eyebrows. "But he won didn't he," offered Muhammad. "Sure," she cut her eyes, "And with victories like that who needs enemies?' His face twitched then broke into laughter, she giggled too and they held the smooth no-bark tree guffawing.
"I'm Ooni," she offered her hand. He took it, "Muhammad." They traded stories of the storm and she invited him to an art opening. Weeks later he went to it, an exhibit of contemporary art about post-hurricane New York. Activists with green armbands challenged Ooni about her new work, "Climbing the Mountain," a painting/photo collage that showed debris and bodies from the hurricane shaped like a mountain and slogans from the movement pouring out of it like lava. They shouted that it played into ruling-class aesthetics. She shot back, "And violent political rhetoric is the aesthetic of the future ruling class."
Muhammad grew with the movement. He remembered when it got real activists, elected to real positions of power. A tax was levied on Wall Street to fund climate change "proofing" the city. The thousands of new employees were unionized, added organizational muscle. A carbon tax was levied on industry and that money was used to green the energy grid. The more workers owed their jobs to the Free Earth Movement, the more political power it had to create more jobs. Each new election cycle more progressive policies were enacted until welfare was enhanced and renamed Basic Income, free health care was offered and drugs decriminalized.
But scientists kept saying even with CO2 capped and cut, we now lived on a wild, changing planet. Muhammad remembered how the summers got hotter and hotter and the tropical storms harder and more frequent. In July, sweat-drenched New Yorkers borrowed the language of the Free Earth Movement and blamed the ruling class for wrecking the earth. His neighbors fanned their faces on the stoop and imitated Martin Luther King Jr. saying, "I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the Promised Land. And the wealthy own it." The other one leaned in, "Yeah and we got to push those motherfuckers off before they kill us."
Blinking the memories from his eyes, Muhammad looked at the city. It was 2037 and New York was transformed. He scuffed his shoe on the street; it was made of porous material to sponge up flood water. He looked at the subways and spotted the metal covers installed to keep the water from gushing into tunnels. At the city's edge were new wetlands and oyster bays to soften the storm waves. But what shielded the city was The Wall, the nickname for the huge nearly mile-long storm surge sea barrier that spanned from Staten Island to Brooklyn; like a giant jawbone it sat behind the Verrazano Bridge.
Tomorrow, he had to report for "Wall Duty," and like an ant crawling on a fence he would be among the crews maintaining it when the hurricane hit. Muhammad had worked for the Metropolitan Harbor Authority since he was 30, often he took his daughter on The Wall and she'd wear his hard hat and order his crew around as they drank illegal beers. A week ago, they were called into a meeting as a meteorologist showed a video of a huge foamy wheel of clouds spinning in the Atlantic.
"It's a Category Four," she said, and the words landed like a bad joke. Muhammad and the crew glanced at each other with scrunched eyebrows. What the fuck was she talking about? Isn't that impossible? "It's a Category Four," she repeated, "one week, you have one week." In the projector's light her shadow on the screen was surrounded by a giant hurricane spinning toward New York. A man in a suit took her place and instructed the workers to read and sign the release forms saying, "We expect fatalities. In the case of death as stated in the second paragraph, your families will be compensated to the amount…"
BETWEEN THE TIMES
"Dad when are you coming? Love you," she asked. He pressed repeat. "Dad when are you coming," she asked again, "Love you!" He played her message over and over until her voice echoed in his head.
He told her he'd be on the first flight to Seattle after the storm passed, he sent her there to be with her mom, his ex-wife. Never said he'd be on The Wall, never said he signed a release form so that if he died, the Metropolitan Harbor Authority would give her enough money to be safe forever. In a few years, when she was of legal age, she could buy a home in a Safe Zone, the unaffordable neighborhoods sealed off from Climate Change. Muhammad read the science journals avidly, he knew it was going to get worse; the storms harder and more frequent would smash the city, the summers hotter and dryer would starve the people.
He was lost inside his own thoughts so long, it surprised him to see Seward Park and a two-story-tall art installation made by his friend Ooni. It was the gutted, stripped-down frame of a room draped in white linen that flapped back and forth; inside he saw a fire encased in a tube of glass that cast warm light against the orange walls and floor.
He read the sign — "Between the Times is an examination of the emotional map of space that goes unnoticed in any official narrative; it seeks to ask questions about the too easy answers that conceal our experience of architecture."
Someone wrote in angry graffiti: "Abstract art is elitist masturbation." Laughing at the message, Muhammad sat next to the glass tube of fire, his head ached, his legs ached; his whole body felt as if was crumbling sand.
"Hey stranger," Ooni said as she walked in with paint, he guessed to cover the graffiti. He swigged the rum again and said nothing. "Sorry," she murmured and turned away. "The fragile self," he waved his hand at the installation, "When the social context for our lives breaks down, a person feels fragile, feels like their mind is a loose as this fabric." He pointed at the torn beige muslin billowing like flashes of forgetfulness around him. He drank again. "It represents the fragile conscious of a liberal," he gestured at the flames inside the glass. "If it was the conscious of a radical that fire would be free."
"Well this is awkward," she said.
"Can we make it more awkward," he asked and they both laughed. She sat down next to him. "Good to see you again," she extended her hand. He shook it. They were about to jump into words when a wind rustled the muslin, twisting it in the firelight so it looked like a shredded rainbow. It reminded him of the flood story in the Bible.
"Bourgeois abstract escape artist," he said.
"Drunken Philistine dogmatist," she retorted. They both fell out laughing harder than before. "Well there you have it," she chortled, paused and looked at the darkening sky.
"Everything is falling apart," she said, "Including us but not the movement, no, never that. So how is our merry band of self-righteous fascists?"
"We're not fascists," he grumbled, "We're not scapegoating an ethnic group, we're not targeting people; we are trying to destroy a system."
"And the people in that system," she asked, one eyebrow raised, "What happens to them?"
Shouting rang in the street, they looked up and through the billowing cloth they saw a few hundred people marching by, arms upraised, making the scissor-like motion as they chanted, "Cut, cut, cut, cut."
A marcher jogged to the art installation, peeked in as Muhammad raised his arms and made the cutting gesture. The Free Earther smiled and left. "So tonight there is more than one storm," Ooni said and took his bottle of rum and drank the last of it.
"If Wall Street lives, the planet dies and we with …" he began, but she cut him off, waving her hand, digging into her back pocket and pulling out a flyer. It was one they handed out at the rally he was at earlier. It had the addresses of every bank and financial institution left in the city.
"You're not worried about the police," she asked.
"Most of them are in the movement to," he chuckled.
"Climbing the Mountain, right," she prodded.
"Climbing the Mountain," he agreed.
"People aren't stones. They hurt when you step on them," she said, "unless only politically appropriate pain is recognizable?"
"People hurt when they are abandoned," he grimaced, "and that's what happened to the people by the ruling class. If it wasn't for the movement we would have been abandoned to a dying planet. At least now we have a chance, at least now we have a wall."
She eyed him, saw him struggle with an inner tension. "What's going on with you?"
He lowered his head, shook it, "I don't know. I feel so fucking numb." He palmed his chest, "I know a hell of lot more about politics than I do about myself." Muhammad quietly looked at the room and its off kilter walls. It felt like he was in a dream. "My daughter called. I heard in her voice how much she loves me but I don't reach out to her. She always wanted me to be a real dad but I didn't know how."
Ooni held his hand and asked, "What do you want to say to her?"
"That I'm sorry," Muhammad felt every weight inside snap, every unnamable force gush out, "I'm sorry for treating her mother so bad, I'm sorry for letting our family fall apart." Ooni held him as he talked then mumbled and fell asleep. He reeked of rum. His face tanned and grizzled, he was worn out. She covered him with a jacket.
When he woke, Ooni was gone. "It's okay," he said, "it will be okay." He brushed himself off, looked at "Between the Times" and hugged the tube of fire saying, "I'm an abstraction too."
Hurrying through the city, he got to the Metropolitan Harbor Authority office. "You look like shit," his boss said.
"I feel like it too," he laughed and they hugged, playfully punched each other's shoulders. A grim morbid humor flowed between them. Muhammad buckled himself into one of the seats in the tugboat as it went to The Wall. His gut bobbed up and down as the boat heaved through choppy waves. He dialed his daughter's number, hung up, dialed again and hung up again. Ahead was the Verazzano Surge Wall, rising above him like series of towers that stretched beyond his eyes to the far reaches of land on either side. It connected to a long series of smaller sea walls that wrapped around Staten Island and Brooklyn. Muhammad wondered what the future seas would be like, would they topple these walls?
People gathered on rooftops to watch the storm come. Some shot firecrackers into the air, bright sprays of color. Some just shot their guns.
The sky darkened like dirty water was poured into the clouds. Wind ruffled trees and then bent them like bows snapping after an arrow's release. Children stuck their heads out of windows to feel the soaking rain before being yanked back.
News sites showed the last cargo ships of food supplies coming through The Wall. Millions of faces leaned into millions of screens to see the long surge barrier close, its individual walls come down like giant teeth and its swinging gates snap shut. The last of the large ships passed through, already rocking on breaking waves when the lights cut out and night fell like a curtain over the city.
"What the fuck happened," they shouted back and forth on the intercom. Muhammad watched as the tugboats lit the harbor with their lights. The bright beams slipped over The Wall, which was wide open as the power failure stalled the gates. Dark hills of sea water poured in and pounded the wetlands and sprayed the buildings of lower Manhattan. In the blackout, New York looked like a series of dark cathedrals.
"Cut, cut, cut, cut," the man repeated on the radio. Ooni turned it off and leaned out of her window. Next door, a couple put their radio on the windowsill and cranked up the volume, "Cut, cut, cut." A police car shot through the street below, lights spinning, then another, then four of them a in bright stream of wailing.
Rain hammered them. Steering the tugboat through sliding hills of sea water, Muhammad yanked the controls one way, then the other. They had a dozen boats against the gate and were driving forward in unison to shut it.
The Wall, slowly, achingly moved. Muhammad stared through the rain-splattered window at the giant swells racing by the still-open gate, knowing they hit the city like a hammer. Finally, after sliding up and down the roving valleys of sea, he felt it shut. The message came in that they could back away but Muhammad saw his boss, his long-time friend, on a ladder bolted on the outside of the Wall being bludgeoned by rain and wind.
He drove his boat close, slung rope over a hook, grabbed the railing and shouted at his boss to unbuckle from it but he was tangled. Muhammad climbed rung by rung next to him. For a brief second, he looked out at the storm as a jagged bolt of lightning flashed; it was like a photograph was taken of a vast mountain range of crashing sea.
"C'mon," he shouted as he fumbled the lock and rope. His boss was shouting too but the wind ripped the words apart. Another lightning bolt struck and he saw a dark wave rising around him and for an instant it rose so high, so fast he thought he was falling into a pit.
And then darkness hit. Muhammad spun as the cold weight of water filled him. Flashing against the blackness he saw his daughter, wearing his hard hat, holding a walkie-talkie and ordering him to breathe. I can't, I can't breathe honey — he thought.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
The day after the storm, Ooni watched candles waver in windows; in the shadows people passed, faces lit by flashlights as they pointed at buildings. Soggy families, dripping and cold, stumbled by asking for help.
A few came in to Between the Lines to sit near the light of the encased fire. She watched a woman rub her hands, blow into them and rub them again. Another person came in, squatted, but said nothing. The silence was a shocked numbness. She looked at them, staring at a fire that gave light but no warmth, and went back to her office, grabbed a hammer, told them to get back and smashed the glass around the flames.
A searing heat singed her face; she jumped back as it rose and spread. "Goddamn it," she said, "This is why social realism sucks."
People scooted close, thanked her as they turned their faces side to side to warm their skin. As Ooni swept up the glass shards, more silhouettes stood at the outside then stepped in, gingerly for the heat, the light and the communion in the chaos. A grill was set up, the fire used to light it and food simmered.
While Ooni ripped down a curtain of muslin to wrap around a shivering couple, a patrol of Free Earth activists walked by, barking orders into their walkie-talkies and stopped at Between the Times. They had guns on their belts and torches in their hands. Stepping inside, they searched the faces of the people and looked at Ooni, who pointed at their torches. One of them handed it over.
She dipped it into the fire, curling it as it blazed bright and handed it back. They nodded and went back into the night.