Streams

For One East Villager, A Lesson Learned in the Dark

Friday, November 02, 2012

The East Village was plunged into darkness for days after Sandy struck the city. (Courtesy of Sue Jaye Johnson)

On day four of Sandy, I cooked a hot meal for a neighbor who hadn’t yet left his apartment, dropped off the last of our candles with friends, loaded the car with a bag of clothes, a transistor radio and the remains of our freezer and headed out of the dark zone.

Within 30 minutes, I was fighting with Upper East Siders to get into the turning lane, stopping at red lights and gaping at shops with lights on and shoppers inside them. Shops that sold running shoes! Frozen yogurt! Coffee!

During my four days without power, I had glimpses of this other life – I downloaded a Facebook feed when I stopped by a bicycle-powered hotspot on Avenue C. I had invitations to movie premiers and photos of friends' Halloween cleverness. It was disheartening. Not that life was going on, but it was going on without us. While they were getting back to work, we were surveying the damage to our basement, gathering with neighbors on corners to share information ("The hardware store on 1st Avenue still has batteries," "There's coffee on 2nd Avenue") and cooking by the light of the Chanukah candles.

We got off easy. The East River rose mightily with the surge, crested over the seawall a few blocks north and came rushing down Avenue C, reminding us that before the landfill creation of the projects to the east of us, it was once the river’s edge. We stood on our stoop watching the water rise, step by step, until it was over the tops of our rain boots.

“Never in my entire life have I seen anything like this,” our neighbor gasped.

She’s 11.

Our basement was chest-high in brackish water, our boiler and electric meters submerged, appliances floating. But our building was standing and we were all intact.

On Friday, FEMA was distributing food and water on our block. And the National Guard was knocking on doors in highrises to make sure the elderly have water and food. But if you could get out of your apartment, here is a list of what you could find: Cheetoh Macaroons (they needed one of the city’s last generators?), lobster rolls and fresh pressed juice (food trucks), croissants (day old), avocados and mangos (very ripe), wine and beer. Here’s what you couldn't find: ice, gasoline, generators, pumps, radios, water, flashlights.

Civilization was just a few miles away, so why not head to the land of hot water and broadband? Traffic going uptown was gridlocked. The only people I knew who had made it out bicycled or walked. I was daunted by the task of leaving and also feeling the pull of home and neighbors in need. We stayed as long as we could and I am grateful for the chance to live not just among the “have nots” but to be one. Here is what I gleaned from just a few days of living in the dark zone:

At every meal I overate. It felt deeply primal to make sure my belly was continually full and I thought about how hard it is to eat properly when food is unreliable.

On day three, I stood at the sink washing dishes in the cold water. I thought about students trying to take standardized tests while worrying about their safety.

The parks were closed and without traffic lights it was dangerous to cross the avenues on foot. Toxic puddles of oil, septic and storm water made obstacle courses of the sidewalks. Suddenly bereft of outdoor spaces, I thought about the kids who don’t kick balls, play baseball not because they don’t want to, but because there is no safe place to do that.

Frayed from worry about fires and staying warm, I yelled things at my kids I swore I would never say (the most benign being “stop practicing piano!”). I shamefully remembered all the times I had judged parents for threatening and berating their children in the streets.

I considered meditating or exercising, or even taking a few deep breaths, but it was too cold and I was too stressed. I thought about how hard it is to break that feedback loop of stress, especially when it’s been hard-wired in from years of worry.

And late at night, after I got the girls to bed and the work of the day took it’s toll, I drank a glass of wine, then another and then another.  And I thought about how difficult it is to face reality when it’s hard edges can so easily be softened with drugs and alcohol.

A decade ago, my husband and I lived in South Africa. The N2 highway is the only route from the Cape Town airport into the city. Traveling the nine mile stretch, the uninitiated will notice a sea of tin shacks, makeshift toilets and hijacked electrical lines until that gives way to Jacaranda-lined boulevards and modern high rises.

During apartheid, the government hauled in truckloads of sand to bolster the sand dunes lining the highway to spare travelers from the sight. The sand dunes had long ago blown away (it was too expensive to keep replacing them). But even 20 years on, it was hard not to be shocked by the disparity. The yawning gap in South Africa is visible by color line and geography.

As I stood in the dark in our 6th floor walk-up in the East Village, I thought about those dizzying afternoons in South Africa where we would travel between the dusty roads of the townships to the pristine beaches in 20 minutes. Across Avenue C, my neighbors pumped out their basements and offered each other hot meals. My own sand dunes had washed away with the storm.

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Comments [3]

Selena Mendez from East Village

What an arrogant piece of writing. Romanticizes and victimizes.

Nov. 03 2012 06:02 PM
still not myname from East Village

I live here, too. We were in an information black hole, cold and in the dark.

Only texts could get through, intermittently. I kept my phone powered off, and then would bundle up and go in search of a pod of people holding phones up for reception, power up, and see if I had any texts. Crossing the avenues was very dangerous because the cars drove as though they had a green light. I imagined dying, literally, for information.

I work in tech and have scores of apps, twitter, etc, but who had bandwidth or power to load each information source, follow links, or even figure out which new hashtag is being used to disseminate information? I had to text my brother in Vermont and ask him to find out when the power might come back and which subways were running.

For the first 3 days I gamely trekked uptown in search of hot food and candles. On my way home I stopped in everywhere for candles, and there was severe price-gouging ($5 for a single taper), and the buses were so full people were almost fighting over the back doors. I walked.

I read a NY Times overview article. One comment from a down-towner was about dire conditions in his building, no water and many stranded elderly. A reply suggested he stop whining and "walk 20 blocks" where supplies were plentiful and bring back some water for neighbors while he was at it. The implication was of our entitled selfishness and the relative ease of procuring supplies. But it was, for me, and for most of us, at least 40 blocks each way, with the necessity of penetrating much further because competition for power, water, and food at the line of demarcation was overwhelming. Then make sure to head home before twilight when the avenues became killing zones.

Why were we being forced into an every-man-for-himself trek, hundreds of thousands of us?

On Wednesday, 23rd and 3rd ave I see a National Guard encampment. Guy says to the bus driver "When the violence starts, they'll cordon of the whole area."

I volunteered at Ground Zero and Katrina, walked 70 blocks each way during the transit strike, and sat tight during the blackout. I felt so much more alienated and afraid this time. It has to do with the severe contrast of uptown and downtown, the pure disconnect of supplies and information, and the way we were all on our own in figuring it out. There was no analogue Plan B. No groups of people on the street listening to the radio together, no bullhorns or flyers, none of all those National Guard guys directing traffic so we weren't playing chicken with multiple lanes of cars in the dark, no Officer Friendly on the block. That night, with a short-circuited alarm in an unoccupied apartment in my building blaring, the Super AWOL, wearing my winter coat over 2 hoodies under a quilt and still bone-chilled, and without either cell reception or working landline, the building deserted by anyone with better options, and having had chips and hummous for breakfast lunch and dinner, I felt absolutely marooned and hopeless.

Nov. 03 2012 10:35 AM
not myname from East Village


Yesterday morning I thought about the trek to the office, the sense of alienation as I would head back downtown...and I just couldn't do it. I felt like letting my battery die and remaining under the covers until help arrived. I did text my mom to ask if FEMA would be anywhere, with gloves, hot soup, candles, a mobile charging station, anything. She texted there would be food on 10th between C and D. I bundled up and headed over. As I went east, instead of west and north, east where it had clearly flooded and entire floorsworth of apartments and full refrigerators were out on the street, supers and business owners grim and working, and then the huge line at the supply area, I finally felt at home. I had found my people. Not the mayor at his press conferences or the twitter posts of "where people were checking into 4square before and after sandy infographic!" but the people who also felt how I felt. I stood outside the staging area, watching volunteers bustle, and it was dislocating to be a potential taker instead of giver. It was at that point I realized I could, if I wanted, walk to Whole Foods in Union Square where they'd seemed to have generators and buy some gourmet soup, but that these people in the huge line truly and always live in the sort of estrangement from the cozy amenities and information sharing I had experienced crossing the power line.

There was a woman who had a full cart and 2 huge bags of supplies exiting the enclosure, and I helped her bring the haul way east, to the FDR, deep in the Avenue D projects. They were using hydrants for water. 2 infants in the 7th floor flat and 5 adults. Finally some diapers. She told me an acquaintance had been raped the night before by men who knocked on her door claiming to be firemen. When I asked about police protection, she said there was no cell service to call and what could they do anyway, it had been pitch-black and the woman could not identify her attackers.

It is hard to explain, the disconnect between the light-hearted Times features about hipster "power refugees" and Tribeca loft "glamping" and this forgotten horror-show in another galaxy. I had read (at work) that people were live-tweeting their eco-friendly bicycle commutes. And a vignette piece about bar-hopping in the East Village on Halloween. Spooky! But what I found on Avenue D was a validation of the undercurrent of real fear, of paralysis-inducing adrenaline-exhausting uncertainty of animal survival and scarcity and real danger, that I had been experiencing.

I reaped karma immediately, on my way home there was a Verizon truck with outlets built into the cab. No hipsters; a power strip had been brought out by a young hispanic girl from the projects who was equitably overseeing its usage.

Three hours late my power came on.

I can read about all the lovely crowd-sourced volunteer efforts now. It turns out restaurants had been giving out hot food blocks from me, but I was literally in the dark about it.

Nov. 03 2012 10:13 AM

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