For One East Villager, A Lesson Learned in the Dark

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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.