NEW YORK -- Blackouts in lower Manhattan have revived an ancient practice: talking to other people without repeatedly looking at your smartphone.
When her dorm in Union Square lost power on Monday night, Elise Michael, a first-year student at the Cardozo School of Law, joined more than a dozen others in the cramped, candle-lit quarters of her friend’s room. There, they practiced the analog art of telling stories and paying attention.
“It was really nice to walk in and see a big group of people in a small space not looking at phones, not watching things,” said Michael. “I was close to most of the people there, but it was different. We shared more stories and more intimate stories than we would have otherwise.”
Once considered on the verge of extinction, face-to-face conversation, reading books, playing board games and even stargazing saw a resurgence in New York City this week thanks to spotty cell phone service, dark apartments and gadgets constantly in need of a charge.
Matt Field, who works at a Manhattan tech startup, acknowledged that the first 20 minutes he spent mingling with his roommates after the blackout were “awkward.” Left without TV, Wikipedia or anyone to text, Field passed the rest of his night doing something he joked he hasn't done since he was 5 years old: playing cards.
“We ended up staying up until 2 a.m. and spending five hours huddled around a coffee table with candles, talking,” said Field. “With the power on, we never would have bonded like that.”
Stopping at a diner to get hot chocolate, one 20-something Brooklynite even said she had migrated into Manhattan’s dark zone to enjoy the quiet that comes with being out of touch, expressing relief at the chance to “get a break" from the pressure of constant contact.
Strangers were also pulling out their earphones, leaving their phones in their pockets and speaking to one another again, New Yorkers say, with more than a few drawing comparisons to the fellowship following 9/11. Even after four days without power and a crippled transportation system, camaraderie, not anarchy, was the prevailing sentiment in the city. People were sharing cabs, friends were volunteering their homes, those blessed with a functioning phone were lending it to people they'd pass on the street, and everyone, it seems, had a hot cup of coffee to spare.
“That's how New Yorkers are: When something important happens, they start talking to each other,” said a host at Veselka, an East Village eatery.
The lack of cell phone service and power south of midtown Manhattan has turned smartphones into virtually useless camera-cum-address-books. Lost? You actually have to ask a person for directions. “Yelping” means seeing if a passerby can recommend a restaurant in the neighborhood.
Manhattan apartments that were pitch black and cold once the sun set drove people to friends, family, restaurants and bars in search of entertainment. Netflix and Time Warner, after all, weren't an option. On the Upper East Side, where a hostess at The Crown sniffed that “all the people downtown are moving uptown,” many restaurants were packed elbow-to-elbow. But even 70 blocks south, the few bars lit by candlelight, and playing music from battery-run radios, said they’d seen a steady stream of customers hoping to hang out with others and, on the whole, a festive mood.
Hurricane Sandy has also produced a kind of early Thanksgiving, forcing some New Yorkers to spend the week with relatives who have heat, water and electricity.
“My dad made a comment that while it’s obviously under strained circumstances, the benefit is that he feels like he’s seen me more in the last week than in the last year combined,” said Field, who ventured to his father's apartment uptown when the lights stayed off in his.
The quiet of a world without devices that buzz, glow and ring offered time for some introspection, as well.
Eric Borb, a bar owner who, in another life, worked 600 feet underground digging water tunnels and boring through earth to build subways, spent two hours sitting on his fire escape just staring at the night sky.
“It made me realize how beautiful it is,” he said. “That’s one of the few times in my life I’ve ever done that. And it was so beautiful.”