Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Going Dry

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Going Dry

Article excerpt

Another week without rain, more pictures of reservoirs at low tide. New York is facing a summer of brown lawns, short showers, dirty cars, and guilty flushes, amid predictions that even a regular storm diet may not be enough to stave off drought. What is to be done?

In 1964, during the city's worst drought to date, Gold Medal Books published a paperback novel entitled "The Day New York Went Dry," by Charles Einstein. "It's 1967 in New York, and if you want a drink of water--get out of town," the cover copy read. "Don't wash your sidewalk. Don't wash your car. In fact, don't wash yourself. Why not? It's the law."

In the book, which deals with civil-rights as well as water issues, a handful of prominent citizens try to rescue the city from a catastrophic water shortage. They jockey to get the debauched scion of an old New York family, DeLesseps Martineaux III--Delly, to his friends in "the jet set"--to support their pet initiatives. Whatever his faults, Delly has influence. A senator from Alabama persuades him to back a scheme to ship New York's black residents to Africa and thus reduce pressure on the water supply. But a New York congressman and a wire-service editor named Marlowe eventually get Delly to endorse more reasonable measures--among them a campaign urging citizens not to drink liquids with their meals, and waterless Tuesdays and Fridays. (This imagined drought is severe enough to force a parched Pennsylvania to invade New York.) In the end, thanks, in part, to Delly, the city is saved. It is a quaint notion: that a dissolute socialite's public pronouncements could inspire New Yorkers to change their ways. But, if that is what it takes, then that is what it takes.

Fortunately, we're not there yet. The reservoirs are half full. Still, New Yorkers are starting to think about drought. One evening last week, the city held a seminar for property owners who are interested in conserving water. Attendance was sparse. Four civilians sat glumly, like habitual speeders condemned to remedial driver's ed, in a small conference room on the sixth floor of a government office building on Gold Street. At one end of the room there was a mail cart loaded with kitchen and bathroom fixtures: showerheads, faucets, filters, the innards of toilets. The leader of the seminar was a Department of Environmental Protection project manager named Rick Gunthorpe, a stocky, freckled man in brown corduroys and a giant sweater. He spoke rapidly, with great enthusiasm. …

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