Lights. No lights. Shower. No shower. Hot food. No hot food. Uptown. Downtown.
On Monday night Sandy struck downtown Manhattan leaving us without light, water, or access to Duane Reade. It was that inner Girl Scout experience I have been longing for.
Sandy was really here for me when at around 9 p.m. the YouTube video I was watching of Linda Richman kvelling to Barbra Streisand that her legs were ‘like buttah’ went blank. No more YouTube. Now, we were in survival mode, but humans need purpose and action so I went outside to check out the storm. It was pitch black dotted with a few official vehicles. Some neighbors in our 18-story building at the corner of 15th and 3rd Avenue adventured across town, but I went back inside and sat around the lobby table with others like a campfire. Characters changed places as neighbors tired out and went upstairs and the new restless ones came down. As the hours passed the table soon looked like a bartender’s shelf with people bringing down wine, glasses, Svedka vodka, and various mixers.
This went on until two the morning. I knew I’d never recognize any of them again except for maybe Ocho Emay, the dad from apartment 8M whose light on the side of his sons’ toy construction hat he was wearing lit up his face. The conversations, like most campfires, were intimate, free flowing, and without agenda like comparing flashlight brands, the status of the couples’ relationships, and thoughts on Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish accent. But then came along the woman in apartment 12S. I met her because she overheard me brainstorming with 17J about an interesting new piece of video content I wanted to create. She cut me off from the across our urban campfire and began to ask me 20 questions about my work and networked me like a gopher digging a hole in the ground–unwavering and focused. Do I have any availability and should she give me her card she asked me while I was in my fuzzy jammies. It was so dark in the lobby I could barely make out what corner of the room her voice was coming from. Ok 12S go run upstairs 12 flights and I will put your card in my fuzzy pajama pants that, wow, has pockets sized perfectly for business cards.
The neighbors again communed in the lobby Tuesday morning collaging bits and pieces of news together. We understood power would be out for at least another four days. Uptown, I thought at first, sounded great. My car-owning neighbor dropped me off uptown at a friends’ with power and hot water, and on the way up glimpsed the footage we’d heard about on the news: The Dollhouse, The Crane, and the Uprooted Tree near Central Park. After showering and enjoying power for a few minutes my uptown friend and I declared it would be more fun and useful to head back downtown and give people lifts with our Hertz rent-a-car. Downtown was the new uptown for me. It was electric even without power. Restaurants with generators or gas ovens opened serving food in the dark, like Lombardi’s and Criff Dogs. People gathered around Starbucks’ and Esperanto in Alphabet City dodging dead air to catch that sweet spot–the wireless signal. We sat down at Ten Degrees on Saint Marks to have some Don Julio around hundreds of candles.
Workers from the bars, restaurants, and rental car places chose to come from all over the state and even New Jersey to work instead of staying home with their families. When I asked one why they came to work, they said, “Why should I stay home when I can be at work helping people?”
New York, I love you more than ever. How is that even possible?
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Michael Polacco and Jack Hazan contributed to this article.