We like to talk about how resilient New Yorkers are in the face of catastrophe. Which is a nice way of saying that New Yorkers face catastrophe the same way we face everything else: by turning potential tragedy into promising trendlet. During Hurricane Irene, Mayor Bloomberg, who understands the magic lines of New York social perception better than anyone, knew exactly what he was doing when he gave panicked Gothamites their evacuation map: Everyone immediately recognized the redrawn grid as an opportunity to reshuffle the caste system. Suddenly, we’d each acquired a “Zone” (A, B, C, or unzoned “high and dry”), along with an altered social identity, in the familiar New York version of Risk. The night before the rain came, storm-defying carousers along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn—dividing Zones B and C—were selecting their bar crawls based on sea level. (It was, of course, much cooler to be drinking in B, in the shadow of an imagined tidal wave.)
Every Gothamite’s brain has a postapocalyptic movie playing at all times, and although the first act is always titled “Get Me Out of This Deathtrap,” the second and third acts vary: When the Rapture comes, where will the real-estate deals be? When’s the best time for celebrity-spotting at the open-air feral-cat-meat market? The 2011 heat wave was all about landing a table at the right café (just air-conditioned enough, never Wal-Mart icy). Then came the Great NanoQuake of ’11: How high up were you when you felt it? Last winter, it was Snowpoca-drift one-upmanship: Whose were higher, Nolita’s or Boerum Hill’s?
If this sounds like denial at best, total social detachment at worst, I’d argue the opposite. We’re not fiddling while Rome burns; these little games are how we keep calm in the face of doom. It’s how we achieve the sangfroid that allows, say, a mass evacuation of entire neighborhoods in barely a day, with no shots fired. Triviality beats anarchy any day.