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What Happens If The Lights Go Off?

Just before leaving New York to return to England, I went with my family to visit a former journalist colleague who lives with her partner and two gorgeous young boys in a very pleasant duplex over on the East Side. I’ve lived in apartments with small children, and I know it can’t be easy. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live with children; others share their lives with pets – some that never see the light of day. Believe me; my friends’ children are remarkably well behaved. In fact it is difficult for me to think of any other friends’ children who can step up to this particular plate.

Like all children they run around, and at about 8pm there came some loud banging of the ceiling from downstairs. This was apparently a neighbour who has taken to hitting the ceiling with a pole or broom handle every time the kids make a bit of noise. So far, so ordinary – and so intolerant. But when I asked about the clearly rather surly individual downstairs, my friend said “One of those weird New York shut-in people!”

What an image was conjured up in my mind! Clearly this was an individual, perhaps two individuals who didn’t go out, who never left their apartment. What did they look like? What did they do all day? How on earth did they remain sane? Perhaps their skin was grey and pallid, their hair unkempt, like Howard Hughes. Maybe they sat staring at the television all day and doted over an exceedingly fat cat? Perhaps they only answered the door to the laundry man or the take out delivery girl? Possibly they spent the whole day surfing the net, never venturing out because they didn’t have too.

Infirmity, incapacity and age will keep many city dwellers behind closed doors for long periods of time. I used to live near the Tisch Hospital in Mid town, Manhattan, and never ceased to be amazed by the advanced years of some the very elderly folks who used to occasionally appear.  Quite a few were obviously in their Nineties, and frankly, when everything is on hand, who can blame them for wanting to live in warm, well appointed apartments close to excellent healthcare facilities?

But there is something about New York, as opposed to London or Paris for instance, that makes that phrase “weird shut-in people” more fitting. That there is great and often hidden wealth in New York there is no doubt, but there is also a level of service that simply isn’t as available – or as cheap – in other cities. It is quite possible in other words to be “shut in” and never emerge, as every whim and need is taken care of, often by an army of Hispanics, Bangladeshis and Latinos.

Which is all very well, but what if it all goes “pear shaped”, as they say over here? Never mind a few days of being blocked in by uncleared snow, what if something far more serious was to happen? Of course this may be unlikely, and may be the realm of futuristic films, but there is a question for every “weird shut-in person”, as there probably is for many ordinary city dwellers that go for weeks without even noticing a tree or a bush. What would they do if the power failed or the internet packed in?

The truth is that millions of us are now so utterly removed from growing or hunting for food, we wouldn’t be able to survive for very long at all. How many could light a fire and cook food from basic ingredients? How many can grow and harvest vegetables? Who would be able to snare or shoot animals to eat? Not many is my guess. And certainly not in the city.

The truth is that many of us are so cosseted that any real technological disaster or reverse would leave the most pampered, the worst off. In such circumstances I rather fancy the chances of the hunter gatherers of the Amazonian rain forest over the “weird shut in people” of New York city.


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