I’ve lived in the East Village, in lower Manhattan, for twenty years— in a narrow railroad apartment that I like to think of as quaint, where the living room is only eight feet wide. My walls are lined with bookshelves from the living room to the kitchen, because I’m a critic and a translator. If I’m home, which I often am, I’m either reading or writing. When Hurricane Sandy approached last October, and the skies darkened and the wind started howling, I rubbed my hands in anticipation, remembering the tornadoes of my Midwestern youth. This one, I thought, unlike Hurricane Irene, was truly going to hit. Curling up in an armchair by the window, I started reading, listening as branches thrashed and trash cans clanged like cymbals on the sidewalk below. And then the power went out. It stayed out for five days.
The next morning, most of my neighbors went to stay with friends in areas that had power, but I stayed put. I loved the way the amber candlelight painted the spines of my books, softened the hues of my Turkish carpets, and made my old wooden floors gleam. I felt as if I were revisiting an earlier phase in my building’s life, when it was a 19th century tenement, each apartment shared, somehow, by three immigrant families. Now that there were no overhead lights; now that the computer was just a black, empty frame; now that the refrigerator had stopped its perpetual whir, I could see how little the bones of the place had changed in a hundred years. There was no sound but my steps creaking on the floor; my cat purring; a page turning; the wind moaning. It was restful, blissful, and strange.
Then again, Sandy or no Sandy, I had a couple of stories due; and once I could no longer write, because my computer had run out of juice, I walked north through the ghost city, twenty, thirty, then forty blocks, past intersections whose stoplights had gone dark, looking for a place to recharge. Even Grand Central Station was closed. Where could I go? Might the Yale Club be open? And if it was, would they let me in, though my membership had lapsed? It was, and they did.
Entering the carpeted sanctum of the library, plugging my computer into an outlet by a leather armchair, I reveled in the queer sensation of inhabiting a city in which past and present, history and futurity, intermingled. This venerable old club now felt like the hottest spot in town. Once my Kindle had revived, I posted on Facebook that I was a surreptitious refugee in the Yale Club. A friend replied within minutes: she had phoned the front desk and got me a guest pass. A volley of posts followed hers, and within an hour, three friends joined me for a riotous lunch in the tap room, which was crowded with others who’d been stranded by Sandy, and felt like an enormous, chandeliered lifeboat.
For once in our busy New York lives, all of us were able to meet up for an impromptu lunch, liberated by the hurricane, and enjoying our freedom all the more because we knew it would only last until the power came back on.
Liesl Schillinger is a journalist, critic, translator and author who lives in the East Village. Her book of neologisms, Wordbirds, comes out in October. Schillinger was one of three authors commissioned by WNYC to write essays about Sandy, six months after the storm.