The Machine Stops

Emily Witt

New York City is the greatest public works project in the USA. It is a city of tubes, grids, circuits and networks. We are organised by numbered floors and numbered streets and numbered apartments, fed and watered through great pipes and tunnels and bridges, shuttled to and fro in shifts along lines. On Monday night the magnificent machines were revealed to us, as they failed one by one.

American newscasters hyperventilate about everything, and foam at the mouth when the subject is weather systems over the Northeastern United States, so there seemed no special reason to pay them any urgent attention in the days leading up to Sandy. The storm only became real when the governor announced the closure of the subway system on Sunday morning. The process takes eight hours. Employees moved train cars, removed tracks that might be damaged by salt water, primed pumps, cleaned drains, evacuated stations and cleared rail yards prone to flooding.

That night, the Metropolitan Transit Authority posted photos of Times Square subway station, empty. Penn Station, empty. Grand Central Station, empty, and a shot of the last train out of town. Through the ventilation grid outside my building, an automated voice recited, like a ghost: ‘There is a Brooklyn-bound... express train... two stations away.’ Then she fell silent.

Alan Weisman, the author of The World Without Us, was recently asked what would happen to New York City if ‘all humans vanished’:

Within two days, without pumping, New York’s subway would impassably flood. Within twenty years, water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side’s 4-5-6 trains would corrode and buckle. As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Plugged sewers, deluged tunnels and streets reverting to rivers will conspire to waterlog foundations and destabilize their huge loads, toppling structures. Gradually the asphalt jungle will give way to a real one.

On Monday, the Staten Island Ferry was suspended, the trains to New Jersey cut off, the airports closed and Amtrak canceled its trains. The power company, Consolidated Edison, closed the steam energy facilities that provide hot water and heat to large swaths of high-rise Manhattan. (I had never heard of the steam energy facilities before.) As the storm approached landfall on Monday afternoon, the government cut off the bridges. The Statue of Liberty’s torch went black. Around 7 p.m., as the southern tip of Manhattan was engulfed in floodwater, ConEd flicked the switch and Lower Manhattan went dark. The darkness crept north. From uptown in Harlem we watched on YouTube the video of a transistor exploding somewhere on the east side, and the city fell dark as far north as 39th Street. City workers evacuated hospitals where back-up generators had failed.

Some beacons remained. We looked at the photo of the carousel with water lapping at its edges in Brooklyn Bridge Park, still somehow floodlit. At the tip of Manhattan the lights at Goldman Sachs headquarters in the waterlogged financial district burned alone through the night, powered by some sort of off-grid generator that was too big to fail.

Water cascaded across the city, although it had barely rained. The power in Harlem never went off, and we watched on our computers as water flooded the tunnels, the edges of Manhattan, the construction site at Ground Zero, the avenues of Alphabet City, where stranded taxis bobbed like rubber ducks. In Frederick Law Olmsted’s city parks the stately trees fell down. The emergency phone system was overwhelmed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charismatic sign language interpreter, Lydia Callis, became a celebrity, and Bloomberg’s custom of closing his press conferences with a summary of the most important points in mangled Spanish seemed suddenly heroic.

The day after the storm, the subways still closed, the lights still on, I read George Oppen’s poem ‘Of Being Numerous’:

We are pressed, pressed on each other,
We will be told at once
Of anything that happens


  • 1 November 2012 at 6:23pm
    loxhore says:
    i'd lose the comma in the last sentence of the first graf

    • 3 November 2012 at 11:44am
      mfbrandi says: @ loxhore
      If that's right, why is it?

      Because 'as' implies subordination of the clause it introduces, where 'for' does not? If so, substitute the conjunction, rather than eliminating the comma.

      The sense wanted is 'since' or 'because', not 'at the same time as', right?

      I write not as a puncuation Nazi, but as one utterly baffled by punctuation, as my constant misuse of the comma shows.

  • 1 November 2012 at 9:47pm
    jaywalking says:
    Lovely piece. 'Too big to fail' made me laugh out loud. As did the bizarrely pedantic 1st punter comment.

  • 2 November 2012 at 5:35am
    gotnotruck says:
    "Foam at the mouth and hyperventilate?" Which newspaper, please? Of course papers are always a day late unless you read online. I liked the Polo playing, idiotic Romney endorsing, New York Observer's headline, "City to Sandy: Blow Me!" A parody of previous headlines, especially "Ford to City: Drop Dead," from the seventies. Sounds as if you read tabloids like a good Brit. And if it's The NY Post, it's straight from Rupert's fevered dreams of money and right wing politics, out maneuvered here by Roger Ailes, Republican operative who runs Fox Snooze. Strange you'd fall for him. If you'd turned on a Tee Vee you'd have seen an unusually scary storm, blocked by Canadian air. hot air probably, from letting Sandy go out to sea to the north east. I'd been down to the battery last summer and saw the water five inches below "land". Years ago, I'd listened to bickering families designing the WTC site and museum, thinking it'll all be underwater soon any way. Fortunately, I live on the Yupper West Side, land of hot water, heat, light, not like the subterranean depths of downtown. But it will be back. Sooner than we think. No point in rebuilding. People always build near river's flood plains and volcanoes. Both have such rich land, the seduction of denial beckons.

    • 18 November 2012 at 1:36pm
      Mikirk says: @ gotnotruck
      It's a poetic comma. It performs its purpose perfectly. It gives one pause.

      And I agree, the "too big to fail" gag is all-time.

      Just in case one is unaware of the reference, "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster (1909) is a perfect online read.