When Hurricane Irene hit New York last August, it caught the entire Northeast off its game. Natural disasters are anathema to the bustling lifestyle of a city, and an abeyance to the flowing blood and tears on which it runs. Public transportation grinds to a halt. Supermarkets are depleted of supplies just as quickly as they are flooded by frantic consumers. Cabin fever hits apartment-dwellers staggeringly hard, creating microcosms of Stockholm syndrome in between the floorboards.
And we were all pretty prepared for Irene’s potentially devastating effects. With the memory of Hurricane Katrina looming large in the background, New York’s five boroughs shut down in advance of the foreboding deluge. With no subways running and airplanes grounded indefinitely, the impending storm offered a moment of precarious contemplation. Cue the end-of-the-world music, and wait for the rain to begin to drip from your balcony-cum-fire escape. Most people obeyed, and spent the following 24 hours indoors, dry and away from the mess.
But what about the automotive journalists, whose collective livelihood depends on gratuitous burnouts in the parking lot of the grocery store? We are a stubborn and contumacious bunch. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of our mandate to drive, report, and decide — hurricanes included. Few people are aware of the asterisked clause in Murphy’s law that applies directly to professional drivers: On the week that you are scheduled for a high-performance machine, disaster will surely cut short your fun.
I tried to trick the forces of nature by booking a two-day trip to Los Angeles right before the storm began. I was scheduled that week to drive one of the last Mazda RX-8s in the Northeast press fleet, for a column I used to write about cars not sold in the Middle East. I planned to drive the RX-8 for the first five days and simply garage it for the storm.
Then came the email that my flight was canceled, and L.A. was on hold. The sweet, rip-roaring, Wankel-engined powerhouse was sitting patiently outside while I retooled. Irene’s approach was definite, though dubious in timing. Hours after the New York Daily News and others predicted the worst, a drop of rain had yet to fall. If rain was slated to come down in Noahide proportions, time still remained. I flirted with the idea of using the RX-8 to execute a heroic story of rescue: “Rotary to the Rescue,” in which the mighty Mazda would outrun the 110-mph storm winds on a quick jaunt to Washington D.C. I had all but reserved a night at a red-roofed, lit-up motel, when it began to rain. The Mazda and I retreated to the safe, high ground of family outside the city for the night.
It rained, and it rained hard. New York sat silently, and no one dared leave the security of their own dwellings. Even the deliverymen, who represent an unstoppable force of nature known only to the First World, parked their electric bicycles. Like all storms, Irene left a path of devastation in her wake as the city slept, cutting power and blowing down shelter. Luck was on my side, and my home lost no power and was only barely affected.
Curiously, I set out the next morning toward familiar haunts, which were all closed. No bagels. No coffee. There were newspapers, but they told a story I wasn’t believing. Was New York City really knocked out and powerless? Against much caution, protest, and warning, I fired up the RX-8 and drove back in.
It was as close to starring in an end-of-the-world movie if I’ve ever tried. The outermost lanes on the parkways smelled dank from the stagnant floodwater. I decided to take the western approach, along the Henry Hudson Parkway, to observe the view along the Palisades and confirm that the superstructure of the George Washington Bridge was still standing.
The road was eerily quiet. For the first time in my life that I could remember, I saw not a single other car on the road. The toll takers at the Henry Hudson Bridge saw my sinuous, red RX-8 pull up and nodded quietly as I handed over the fare. As I changed for first gear, I noticed the road ahead littered with leaves, but little debris or moisture. I awkwardly adhered to the 50 mph speed limit, anticipating a blocked entrance to the city that would forestall my effort to survey the city.
The approach to Manhattan, through the Bronx, was transformational and empty. I lowered the windows and let the RX-8 howl and scream its way to the 9000-rpm redline. On any other day, an empty stretch of highway would entice reckless hoonage. I felt cosseted by the Mazda’s telepathic steering and unflappable chassis, and refused to try anything funny — though, like a superhero babysitter, I knew the RX-8 would ultimately save me, should I err. Unlike a Miata, which prides itself on unflappability on the track but feels light enough to be swept away by a hurricane-scale wind, the RX-8 remained solidly planted.
The Upper West Side was still when I began to make my way southeast through a maze of streets. I picked up a friend — who often joined me on press car adventures — who dared to bravely prowl the city streets with me in the RX-8. Our discussions, which usually centered around the car itself, turned to the motionless city. Suddenly, I had no taxis to pass, or pedestrians to gently warn with my horn. Humankind was hibernating.
We made it from 96th Street to Lincoln Center in a matter of minutes, and hit Union Square just shortly after. The city became my playground, and offered multiple, consecutive excuses to spool up the engine at the stoplights to hear the engine roar. I threw concerns of single-digit fuel economy, and the toils of owning an RX-8, to the omnipresent wind. It was the day before the day after tomorrow, and I was riding out the storm in the most noble way possible.
I turned on the radio to learn that the brunt of the devastation had hit the lowest-lying areas of Brooklyn. I dropped my passenger off at her apartment and considered proceeding out there just to see if anything had really happened. I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a mother and two children leaving their apartment for the first time in what appeared to be days.
My mission, though ill-defined and questionably executed, was complete. When all else grinds to a halt, I firmly believe in the saving power of the automobile. What I had planned as a review of the last of Mazda’s rotary-engined halo car had taken on new meaning, before the RX-8 itself rode off into the distance, with no plans to return. It would be a suitably excellent car with which to spend the final hours of the ending of the world.