Normal but Watchful in New York City
>> Prior to September 11th, the most dangerous thing people visiting New York City faced was spending too much money. Sure, comedians joked about muggings and newsrooms stressed the bizarre and unique, but for the majority of people here, life was good and safe.
Then came September 11th. Shortly after New York was bombed, our leaders told us that we should go about our lives "normally" but "watchfully." Unfortunately, they didn't elaborate on what "watchfully" should be.
Based on my experience at ground zero and observations from continued expeditions around the city, here is what "watchfully" means to me. Many of the 24 watchful things listed below will help you no matter where you are. Some, however, are specific to New York and are important for you to consider:
- Remember Manhattan is an Island: During an emergency, all bridges and tunnels leading out of Manhattan are shut down. This means if you live elsewhere, you will not be able to get out. Further, subways might be shut down and whatever buses and cabs that remain running will be jammed. Your travel options, then, include standing in a transportation line for an excessively long time and/or walking great distances. Several suggestions that follow address this problem, especially the "eat, drink and shop" strategy.
- Wear Walking Shoes: Forget about Sex and the City strappy sandals. A major cause of injury to women on September 11 was bloody, sliced up feet caused by walking (or running) in unsubstantial shoes.
Note that because public transportation becomes unavailable during an emergency, you'll walk more than normal. On September 11, some women abandoned their dress shoes and ran, then hobbled barefoot. Some had to be carried because their damaged feet could not carry them further. Keep in mind that injured feet not only inhibit travel, they leave you venerable to infections. If you must wear dressy shoes or sandals. be sure to carry "walkers" with you for the times you must take to the streets.
- Wear Socks or Nylons: While men usually wear socks, women are caught up in the no-nylons look. The problem with this fashion statement is that when you walk fast and far on pavement, the resulting heat causes feet to sweat and swell, causing rubbing and huge blisters. If you must be bare-legged, carry emergency socks with you.
Note that many New York women actually carry bandages and moleskin which they apply as needed to their feet in order to avoid blisters. Unfortunately, adhesive products only stay put for shot distances and at slow walking speeds. Fast, long walks cause adhesive products to drop off. (Been there, did that. Ouch.)
- Carry a "Courier Bag" (or big purse or backpack): I recommend that everyone in New York carry a big bag with shoulder straps. This provides a place to keep essentials, plus the random things you need for the day. During an emergency, it is better to walk with your hands free, having stuffed everything else in your bag, than it is clutching a number of small objects that can easily be dropped or left behind.
- Pack a Half Pint Bottle of Water: Keep a small, unopened bottle of water on you at all times, in addition to the one you are drinking. The new shorties (half-pints) of water are great to keep in your bag.
- Don't Stand in Line - Instead, Eat, Drink and Shop: On September 11, as I walked the length of Manhattan, I realized that I'd not be able to quickly leave the island to return to my home in Weehawken, New Jersey. Lines queued for miles to NY Waterways ferries, and other transportation was either shut down or overfull.
I also learned that no one would rent a hotel room to me, a suitcaseless traveler. Many hotels posted security guards at their doors, barring everyone but existing guests.
I noticed, however, that most restaurants and bars remained open. Based on this, my recommendation is that if during an emergency you have to stand in line for hours waiting for transportation, do some shopping instead, then go to a good bar or restaurant and just sit until the lines subside. Don't get sloppy drunk, but what better occasion for a slight buzz or to snack on way too many fabulous deserts?
- Listen For Unusual Sounds and Emergency Vehicle Sirens: Keep your ears open. If you think something doesn't sound right, it isn't.
If the sound of emergency vehicles is steady or growing after five minutes from onset, something is definitely wrong. Having misinterpreted nearby dangers on September 11th because the sounds were somewhat associated with celebrations in the New York Harbor, I believe that sirens should be ban from parades.
- Carry a Small Radio: If you feel like something is up, or you know for sure there is, tune into a good news station, such as 840 AM (New York Public Radio), for information. If you don't carry a radio, your anxiety level is guaranteed to increase and you won't know what to do next. You might also want to invest in a shortwave radio to keep in your home, car or hotel room, for broader coverage. www.BePrepared.com has a hand-crank model for $35 (November 2001).
- Carry a Flashlight: Be aware of the potential of power loss in buildings or problems at night. Consider carrying a small flashlight, plus extra batteries, at all times. Test your flashlight on a weekly basis to make sure it works. Also consider hand-cranked models that don't need batteries. See www.BePrepared.com for a selection, or shop at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
- Instinctively Use Stairs: If you are in a building and you think there is an emergency, even if not exactly at your location, use stairs to exit instead of an elevator to avoid problems in case of a power failure.
- If You Have Back Problems or Are Weak, Carry a Portable Stool: In the late 1980s, I sustained a serious back injury that limited the time I could stand. This didn't keep me from strolling around Chicago, however, and to make those strolls comfortable, I carried a folding camping stool that fit in my courier bag.
Fortunately for me, my back has since healed, but if you have a physical problem, or are traveling with elderly people, consider carrying a stool when touring Manhattan. Stools are handy at all times, but they could become particularly useful if transportation is disrupted and you find yourself standing longer than normal.
The stool pictured weighs under 2 pounds, is about 2.25 feet long and is available at many camping supply stores. To open, just release the Velcro strap.
- Buy a Restroom: If you find yourself on a long walk and no public restrooms (like those wonderful stalls at the NY/NJ Port Authority at 42nd and 8th Avenue) are available, go into a restaurant or bar, buy a drink and then use the facilities. Don't quibble about the cost.
- Carry a Cell Phone: On September 11, I left my cell phone at home. Unfortunately, public phones were queued up with long lines and after a while, all local circuits were busy. If you do not have a cell phone account, buy a limited-use cell phone where you prepay several hours and confine your phone to emergency use. Of course, in case your cell phone battery is dead, also carry a prepaid phone card and at least ten quarters.
- Calling Strategies: In case of emergency, all Manhattan and Brooklyn circuits fill up quickly. Even New Jersey gets jammed. If you must call your family, call just one person and have that person call the rest.
In addition, don't be like me and hundreds of others on September 11th who called home to say that we were safe. If you are right in the middle of a dangerous situation, but are still alive enough to talk about it, get the hell out of there, then make your call later. If you can call while walking, fine. If the call keeps you tied to a ground zero, the term "get a life" takes on new meaning.
- Carry Your Phone Number List: On September 11, people were queued up at pay phones. About three hours into my walk up Manhattan, however, I actually found a vacant one. Unfortunately, I didn't have my phone number list and had to call information which, because of high traffic, was unavailable. A word for the wise: keep a printed list of important phone numbers on you at all times.
Carry this printed list even if you have your numbers programmed in a cell phone or PDA. Remember, if you lose battery power, you also lose your list! Equally important is providing your numbers to emergency workers when you need help. If you are unconscious, they may not be able to retrieve these numbers from your cell phone or PDA.
- Carry Prepaid Transportation Tickets for Subways, Buses and NY Waterways: Always carry prepaid subway/bus, Path and NY Waterways tickets. This is recommended no matter what, but during an emergency, it's faster to board with prepaid transportation tickets than it is to stand in line buying them.
- Carry Cash: If at all possible, carry at least $50 in small bills at all times. How much you actually carry is up to you. Avoid relying on ATMs to help you out when your pocket change shrinks to your last nickel. If there is an interruption in banking services or if credit card terminals are down, you'll need folding money.
- Carry a Scarf: Whether you are male or female, carry a light-weight scarf that you can tie across your face to protect against dust or smoke, should any of these be present. Note that on very cold, windy days, having a scarf handy to use as a shield greatly improves comfort.
Note that small, paper "paint masks" can be helpful, too. These are designed to shield against microscopic particles that float near construction and are helpful in low temperatures, too.
- Carry a Small Umbrella: Native New Yorkers generally carry small umbrellas or know enough to buy one the minute it starts raining. Today, for under $10, you can buy mini-umbrellas that tuck into small places and for under $5, small umbrellas that fit in most courier bags. During a rainy emergency, it's better to stay dry, than be wet and anxiety-ridden.
- Carry Pertinent Medicines and Extra Glasses or Contacts: I recommend that you always carry a small amount of whatever items are important to your health and happiness.
- Keep Identification On You: If you have a passport, carry it at all times. If not, carry your driver's license or other official identification. Don't leave these important papers in a hotel room or at home because you want to travel light.
- Know Where Exits Out of Manhattan Are: Know where all Manhattan exits are located and the types of transportation that these exists support. If motorized transportation is restricted or completely shut down, you might have to walk out of the island, or take a boat.
If you need to get to New Jersey, only the George Washington Bridge has a foot path which may, unfortunately, be shut down during an emergency. Several of the bridges to New York boroughs, however, have accessible foot paths. Also note where NY Waterways operate. You may need their ferry services for an indirect route home.
Don't necessarily head for the shortest distance between two points. If you want to get to New Jersey, you might be better off heading for Brooklyn or even Queens, and then figuring out how to get home from there. Any roundabout overland route is better than swimming across the Hudson.
- Help Others: Under all circumstances, lend a helping hand. Service comes quickest to those who offer service. You may think that in an emergency, your first course of action is to save yourself, but you'll find that if you group with others, you'll have a more satisfying and I think far safer experience.
- Use Common Sense - don't hang around troubled areas! And last, remember: you are not a news anchor or photographer. If you are around a troubled area, get the hell out of there. This is not a Kodak moment.
Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 11/23/2001. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.