“If you imagine an ordinary moment at an intersection of New York City, and there’s a pause at a street light and some people are stopped and others are in motion….if you were to put that into film terms and a freeze frame and hold everything for a second you would realize that there’s a universe there of totally disparate intentions. Everybody going about his or her business in the silence of their own minds, with everybody else and the street and the time of day and the architecture and the quality of the light and the nature of the weather as a kind of background or field for the individual consciousness and the drama it is making of itself in that moment. And you think about that, that’s what happens in the city in that somehow the city can embrace and accept and accommodate all that disparate intention at one and the same time, not only on that corner but on thousands of corners.” – EL Doctorow
There are times when I really can’t stand New York. The harshness of the city coupled with the nonstop competition to be first in line for everything- your job, at the ferry, waiting for the doors to open on the subway car, at the bar to order your drinks, crossing the street- leaves me exhausted and irritated most of the time. I was born and raised here but with each passing year I feel a growing detachment and disillusionment with my hometown. Just the other day I told a friend that I was considering leaving the city altogether. “I can’t take this place; it’s making me hard and I don’t want to feel like that anymore,” I said. Then Sandy happened.
To say that New York has had its share of hard knocks is an understatement. In its 400 year history, the city has been a laboratory for American society, testing the limits of what we’re capable of by providing a stage where extraordinary challenges were met and overcome. There have been setbacks and tragedies, and through it all there was a sense that a unique one-of-a-kind character grew out of this chaos. The resilience of a New Yorker has its roots in that history and it’s built into each person that calls this place their home. This gets lost in the daily hustle and bustle and really, it’s not something we stop to think about. The seemingly casual indifference to what makes New Yorkers so different often gets misinterpreted as rudeness. But like everyone else, we’re not one-dimensional and there is no better way for us to demonstrate our grit then when we’re faced with a challenge that shows the world who we are as a city.
I live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at the heart of the blackout zone in the middle of the most vibrant and energetic city in the world. When Sandy hit, I was shielded from major damage by the height and sturdy structure of my high-rise building. Then I witnessed the explosion of the Con Edison power plant outside of my window and knew that this was something different. My blasé attitude Monday morning while baking brownies shifted. I had an inkling that maybe I was wrong and this could really affect New York much more deeply than I anticipated. Even still, by the time the power went out, I was convinced that this was a one day affair and that it would take even more to stop the city in its tracks. Besides, I’d lived through the massive blackout in 2003 where I’d walked over 20 miles to make it home in scorching summer weather only to face two days without power and water thereafter. This was nothing.
Two days later and still no power or hot water, and dwindling batter power, I had to revisit and revise. This was something. A major something. I looked out my window at night and it was like there was a shroud covering all of lower Manhattan. There was the Empire State building, an imposing lighted figure in the sky, along with the Chrysler and all the rest of midtown and beyond. And here was Chinatown and the Village with its mish mash of recently built luxury rentals pushing into the older tenements that once housed the likes of the great Governor Al Smith and immigrant families a century before, all cast in darkness. No streetlights to illuminate the way. There’s nothing quite like viewing that juxtaposition of uptown and downtown, light and dark all visible in the frame of my window. Each night I stared out towards the lighted half of New York and felt a growing resolve that I needed to see what it was like out there for everyone else. I couldn’t handle the cabin fever any longer and decided to brave the pitch black in my apartment building, walk down nineteen flights of stairs with a flashlight, to stretch my legs, hunt for supplies, and see what was really going on in the streets. What I experienced will stay with me for the rest of my life. That sounds utterly dramatic, I admit, but there are no words to properly describe what I saw or how I felt.
This is an unfiltered account of what went on from the point of view of one downtown girl.
I ventured out through Chinatown and took in the enormous generator parked in front of my building on my way out. Mentally thanked the emergency responders who acted quickly to get the water pumps running so that we could at least get water through the taps which was a welcome sight after two days. I passed the small businesses and their owners checking damage, people young and old roaming the streets, carefully navigating the crosswalks as there were no traffic lights to speak of. I walked through Foley Square and the massive courthouses that saw no midday bustle that you’d expect to find on a Wednesday afternoon at lunchtime. Avoided getting run over by hoards of bike riders making their way off the Brooklyn Bridge, glanced at City Hall to find it empty presumably because the Mayor and city staff have their hands full, and then kept going towards the World Trade Center and my office building. Everything was closed, as expected, but still it was good to get confirmation firsthand.
I decided to shift directions and walk up Vesey Street and straight up towards the Freedom Tower construction site. It was a shock to see its lights go off the night before. After seeing the void left behind by 9/11 outside my bedroom window, it’s been reassuring to see lights in the sky in that part of the horizon again. The building stands solid and firm against the backdrop of eerie silence. There were a few tourists walking around, taking pictures, enjoying themselves. They had all of downtown to themselves, so I guess I could see the appeal. But then again, they’re not New Yorkers. They don’t live here. I see beneath the veneer of the gloss and skyscrapers. And what I’m seeing is loss. A vacuum of sound and life. As I walked through Tribeca, it was this absence that struck me most. Businesses were shuttered, a few people scurried about. There’s usually an energy that’s thrumming beneath the surface. It vibes and shakes to its own crazy rhythm with each person contributing their own beat. This was gone. I felt like I was walking through a cemetery. Pulling out a camera (as I almost did on several occasions) and taking a photo could never capture that feeling. Besides, I’m not a photographer; I’m a writer and what I saw demanded words not images.
I headed north determined to find something on my list, especially batteries, but really I just wanted to see where the life of my city went. Where did this blackout zone end and what would I find on the other side?
I roamed through Soho and watched humvees and Red Cross army trucks roar down Broadway. Walked up through Noho, and then realized that I wasn’t going to make it on foot. I stopped at Astor Place and took whatever bus I could take that would get me north past midtown, which was where I was told the blackout line ended. Once we made it past Union Square I started to see signs of my beloved city coming to life. There were more people on the streets and they seemed to walk with purpose. I can’t tell you what a difference it is to see people moving with a direction in mind, especially when they’ve got that patented New York hurried stride. It was a relief to witness after seeing the dazed wanderings of my neighbors downtown. Then came the emotions. Ah the drama of anger and frustration! I watched groups of people prepare themselves to get on my bus only to shake their hands in exasperation and mouthing expletives when the bus wouldn’t stop because we were too full. The controlled chaos of New York streets began to appear as we made our way uptown and then it was like a switch was pulled. The world tilted on its axis and everything was upside down.
I happened to be on the M1 bus which I’ve never taken before in my life but its route is up Madison Avenue. Not my usual route. I barely make it past 14th street on a normal day and I’m definitely not rubbing elbows with the high rollers on Madison and 5th Avenues. The scenery outside my window on the bus changed from the tenement low-level buildings downtown to the storefronts for Chanel and Christian Louboutin. There were dozens of people running around, sipping Starbucks, out to lunch, shopping, doing whatever it is people do on a normal day, because for them, it was normal. I felt uncomfortable, like I’d stepped through some portal and found myself in a bizzarro world where the hurricane never happened. What were these people doing?? Didn’t they know what was going on downtown? We’re on the same island; how can you be shopping right now?? I was insanely jealous of their ability to carry on and turn on the lights like it was any other day. I am not a part of this uptown crowd and this was a big reminder of why I stay on my part of the island. Sure, it’s irrational but there it is. I wanted to get out of there fast but the bus was inching along and I still needed to get supplies.
After I got off the bus and walked to my destination, I realized that I’d forgotten it was Halloween. The kids with their costumes and baskets tipped me off and then I felt off-kilter again. Kids trick-or-treating with their parents seemed so far off from what I left behind at home. There was no Halloween for the kids in the Lower East Side.
I made it. I found batteries in the fifth store that I checked, some dog food for Gizmo, and I got apples and non-perishables from the grocery store. Then I got a major score by catching my bus back downtown just in the nick of time. It felt amazing to run and even more amazing to know that I was headed home, albeit a home without power, but home nonetheless.
We moved at a snail’s pace. The public transportation system has been completely shut off for days and people clogged the streets with their cars. It made me think of all the cliché New York traffic scenes I see in movies which I always thought were ridiculous because it’s never that bad. Until Sandy anyway. Everyone had someplace to go and cars were the only way to get there. So we crawled downtown. The scenery shifted back to my normal. The bus filled with people weary after days of the same, on a similar hunt for supplies or a free outlet to charge their phones. You could read the exhaustion on their faces.
Tensions run high in these kinds of situations and they can boil over for some people. I saw this firsthand as two men decided it was time to vent out their frustrations by yelling at each other across the crowded bus. Accusations of racism and prejudices against people with disabilities were hurled back and forth as were threats of violence. I shared weighted stares with the other passengers who like me knew better than to intervene and to just wait out the battle of words with patience. Eventually someone gets tired and backs down, which is exactly what happened. I glanced at the older woman standing in front of me and we both just shook our heads. This is that vicious bite of New York that can leave me feeling stung and overly annoyed with the whole lot. This constant display of anger and moodiness casts a shadow over the city on the best of days and here we are trying to get back on our feet and these two jerks decide to duke it out on a bus surrounded by dozens of tired people who’ve been through the ringer. It was like someone snapped their fingers to shake me out of my post-Sandy daze and reminded me that this is what makes me push New York away.
My world flipped again ten minutes later. The bus was filled to capacity. People attempted to make their way on and off and had to shove and adjust themselves to get around. Two Asian women stood in front of my seat on a narrow aisle and another woman tried to make her way through the crowd to an empty seat to my left with her small suitcase. These two Asian women and everyone down the aisle made a passage and helped push and pull this woman along to get her to this seat, even carrying her suitcase and helping her get settled as the bus moved and jostled everyone forcefully forward and back. No one spoke the same language. It was a flurry of what I was assuming was Chinese, Spanish, and English but they all worked together with smiles and gestures to get everyone to their place. The woman kept saying thank you over and over again with genuine gratitude and everyone nodded and just went right back to whatever they were doing beforehand.
Two bus rides brought me uptown and back downtown and I felt like I saw the very essence of New York reflected through both journeys. The harried and tired, the excited and nervous laughter, the silent disinterest, the anger and conflict, the kind and generous, children and seniors, students and workers, Latinos and Chinese, poor and affluent; we all color the city with our diversity, our energy, and our actions. There are always hiccups along the way where people clash and the very thing that makes our city so great can cause strife, but when New York’s back is up against the wall, New Yorkers find a way to make it all work somehow. Harsh words are exchanged but just as quickly people are fast to help those around them, shoot a reassuring smile, or share a thought wordlessly across the aisle. It riled me to see the disparities between life uptown versus the void of life downtown. Downtown, the very birthplace of this incredible city and the site of so many tragedies especially in our recent history, handles these disparities the way it always has; with a profound resilience that each generation inherits even as the communities have changed to accommodate immigrants and emigrants from all over the world. I came back home hours later, no more tired than anyone else, but lost in thought as I tried to process what I saw.
I’ll admit that I belong in the lucky column on this one. My apartment wasn’t destroyed and we were surrounded by supplies thanks to my mother’s lifelong hoarding habit. We received several offers to escape to other parts of the city that had power but we stubbornly refused. As long as we had the essentials, we would see this through. It’s this obstinate steadfastness making us dig our heels in and face night after night of darkness and cold that may be called crazy by some, but I embrace it with pride. This was our town and we had faith that things would work themselves out in time. That said, I have to acknowledge that Staten Islanders, Long Islanders, New Jerseyians and others in our area didn’t have the luxury we had and have been forced to try and find help in desperate circumstances. They’ve lost homes, others have lost loved ones. It makes me feel awkward to sit here and talk about my experience when there are others out there who are going through much worse. I can’t begin to imagine the loss people are coping with as they begin the recovery process.
Throughout it all, I’ve heard the beginnings of a battle cry across the tri-state. Volunteers are out in force and mobilizing though the front lines of disaster to reach out with their concern, and most importantly with supplies and aid. We were visited by two officers who were doing verticals not for the usual purpose of crime watch-dogging but to reach out, hand out water, and just to see if we were alright. New York Cares volunteers followed later that afternoon. There are hundreds of thousands of people in lower Manhattan, most in high-rise buildings reaching twenty-stories and up with no elevator service and to receive this kind of individual attention in the midst of this chaos was astounding. Even now, as I’m typing, City Meals-on-Wheels is handing out blankets and food in my community center to those most in need. I watched the elderly carry their new supplies with smiles on their faces, urging others to go and collect their own before it runs out. As I understand it, the recovery efforts have not been perfect across the city. When are they ever? But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I’ve seen the work of our government in action on the streets of New York this week, and they’re doing a magnificent job.
We save up our gratitude for November and Thanksgiving, but really there is not enough said for the efforts of first responders, the NYPD, FDNY, city workers, and the volunteers who work tirelessly to both resolve emergency situations and to extend their hands and connect emotionally. Thank you to every single one of these brave men and women. Thank you to my brother, a police officer, who worked hours on end in the evacuation centers on Staten Island in the middle of the storm and is still working throughout the city to reestablish order. Thank you to my friends who reached out to me to keep me sane and check in on our status. Thank you to my family who banded together to share this experience in harmony with laughs and good humor in spite of the challenges. We sat together around our kitchen table, played jigsaw puzzles, and attempted to cook what was left in our fridge in candlelight. Being without power urged us to reconnect without the distractions of the modern world and I have to be grateful for this impossible situation to remind us all of the power of family.
Sandy is another chapter added to the city’s history. Another scar marring the face of New York. In the end, she always picks herself up, lifts her head proudly, showing that face to all who come here, and she smirks defiantly as if saying, “we beat this too, what next?” I look around at my hometown and I see people who won’t stay beaten down for long, who rise to the occasion to help others without a second thought, and who prove time and again that a New Yorker is like no other. Life will eventually resume and I’ll get frustrated with the city again. It always happens. And I may leave one day for a fresh start elsewhere. But I’ll always be home because in my heart I’m a New Yorker through and through. And I’m damn proud of it.
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