Six Months After Sandy: Calm in the Storm

Monday, April 29, 2013

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.


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [7]


No matter how beautifully written, I must castigate both its author and WNYC for choosing to use this as part of this series on life after Super-storm Sandy. Shame on both of you, with a sprinkling reserved for Mr. Larkin, Jr. who, apparently, can no longer palate the misery that persists after so many lives were devastated. I respectfully request the author and her lunch companions volunteer to remediate mold in Staten Island or Far Rockaway, or cook for the residents who are crammed into a single room of their former home, unable to rebuild but with no where else to go. Perhaps they could simple donate some of their beloved books to the libraries destroyed by the lashing winds and rains the author so fondly anticipated. Perhaps it is the case that this essay was included to help contrast the extreme devastation experienced by so many with those emerged from their Sandy experience relatively unscathed. You are one of the lucky ones, Ms. Schillinger. I can only hope you appreciate your good fortune.

May. 05 2013 10:32 AM
Miguelito from Brooklyn

I heard this this AM, expecting to hear some harrowing Sandy "water rising, living in misery in the red hook projects no power freezing cold" story like i'd heard earlier in the week.

Instead it ended being a "so yeah I went to the Yale club and totally got in without paying and was status updating and having lunch with friends" -

I was sort of dumbfounded. First I was like, wow, is WNYC/the author trolling to get gawker hits/linkbait/publicity?

Second, if WNYC commissions me, I can write about having to totally WALK across the Queensboro bridge all the way from Brooklyn during aftermath Sandy - those inexperienced bikers were very jerkish!

Third "busy new york lives"? C'mon, if I'm a freelance writer in an East Village (presumably rent-controlled) railroad s, "our busy New York lives' is probably a massive overstatement. I know strolling down to Veselka and sitting at your laptop for a few hours sounds like frenetic, busy work to you, but it it isn't to most of the rest of us.

May. 03 2013 04:03 PM

Really, why didn't those people in the Red Hook housing projects think to take their Kindles to the Yale Club, where they could have shared a riotous lunch in the Tap Room with friends?

May. 03 2013 12:09 PM
David J. Larkin, Jr. from Upper West Side

Having first heard (as I showered this morning) and then read this beautiful, haunting, thoughtful piece on one person's unique reaction to Sandy, and then having read and digested the above comments, I really think everyone should take a deep breath, step back, and exhale for a while. There are many kinds of people on our earth. Each of us has as much right to be here, and to be heard, as the other. None of us asked to be born. We are here because of a biological act our parents committed. We have inherited, in part, the lives they made (or didn't make) for themselves, whether that included living in a New York City project or attending Yale. In either case, the life we have lived is as valid for us as the life someone else has lived, whether comparatively impoverished, privileged, or shaped by good luck or misfortune. When someone from a privileged background writes of an eight-foot-wide living room, and after a five-day power outage, notes that “[t]here 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[,]” I think we should take it for what it is: a record of one human being’s experience, intended to take us outside of our everyday lives and show us the power of nature to alter the ordinary constructs of human behavior in our “modern” world. That one person was able to find peace and joy in what for others was a catastrophe does not mean that the person who experienced the joy is in any way disparaging or minimizing those who found harm in the same event. (The author may well have felt deeply for those whose lives were upended by Sandy. Did anyone ask?) To the contrary, the willingness of others to jump on Ms. Schillinger, as though she had, at a minimum, no right to speak of her gratifying experiences when others had suffered not only explicitly disparaged her and minimized her reaction but offered visceral proof of the unwillingness to focus on another person’s plight, of which she is accused. I found her piece heartfelt and touching and refreshingly effervescent—a welcome respite from the admittedly gut-wrenching experiences others have recorded.

May. 03 2013 11:26 AM
Laura from New York

I absolutely hated this piece! Last week there was one about Daphne Murphy who lost her home and partner in the Six months since Sandy. She's now trying to start a new life and it's a struggle. That was a heartbreaking yet true story and I was stunned by her perseverance and ability to look ahead. How nice that this suthor was able to meet friends for lunch and escape from reality under the dining room chandelier at the Yale Club. Im grateful that Sandy didn't affect me or my loved ones but I'm aware of the great losses of others. Maybe this author has done something to help those truly affected and if so that should have been her focus. This is a selfish piece of fluff and WNYC should be ashamed of itself for publishing it. Disgraceful on all counts!

May. 03 2013 08:20 AM
GramercyZZZ from manhattan

Laptop out of power? Yale Club membership expired? Sorry, in light of the suffering and loss experienced by so many, how did WNYC choose to highlight this Very First World problem story?

May. 03 2013 07:36 AM
Firenze from Brooklyn

The privilege that runs through every bit of this story, however, beautifully written, takes my breath away. Is the author unaware of the suffering of so many (usually poorer) others, or is she simply choosing not to focus on it?

Apr. 29 2013 07:37 AM

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