Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dispatches from The Dark Zone

If you listen closely you can practically hear the hum: Swarms of unkempt and unshaven creatures closely resembling human beings make their way in a northern direction, trekking up the darkened Avenues, arms outstretched, cell phones in hand: these are the Lower Manhattan masses struck by prolonged power failure; pale, lifeless zombies in search of two basic needs: a functioning electrical outlet, and cell phone service.

I am among the disheveled crowd. Sitting at home in the dark and cold – without Internet, phone service, radio, television, or access to anything resembling modern life – was becoming unbearable. In what I now consider a stroke of luck, I suddenly remembered that my old iPod Nano has a built-in FM radio tuner, and thank GOD it was fully charged! Tuning in to hear Brian Lehrer’s soothing voice streaming on WNYC’s 93.9 was one of the greatest comforts I have known in a long time. If not for his nonstop coverage of Hurricane Sandy, I may never have known that power, light and all things relatively normal still exist above 39th Street. Thank you, Brian.

And so along with this crowd of unlikely comrades, I slog away from my sodden East Village neighborhood, where trees have come crashing down, streets and basements rot in standing flood water, car doors hang open as rivers of sewage stream out, and a handful of corner bodegas operate with a bouncer on line control and a flicker of candlelight.

But the East Village neighborhood is an old community, one where people come together and help one another out when times get tough. As I toured the area earlier this morning, once the rains had passed and the winds died down, I was heartened to come across the Italian restaurant 11B, where a husband and wife team had opened the doors to their cold and hungry public, and were busily serving up slices of freshly baked, piping hot pizza… for FREE.

They moved fast and efficiently: he toggled quickly between tossing dough in the air, filling the massive gas oven with four to five pizzas at once, and telling a reporter from Spain “this is my neighborhood, my community, people need us right now and we have the ability to give back” – as his wife greeted every single customer with a huge smile, a jolly laugh and a warning: “It’s very hot, don’t burn your mouth!” They never stopped smiling and never lost their unbelievable attitudes, but kept those lines moving and their neighbors fed for several hours that day. Never before much a fan of pizza, I inhaled 2 slices practically without chewing. I will now be a dedicated customer of 11B for life.

Well fed and armed with multiple phone chargers, the first place I find a functioning outlet is about 2.5 miles away, where a 7-11 store on 5th Avenue has set up a makeshift charging station on the sidewalk, running about 8 power strips from inside the store for anyone to use. This will become a common sight in the long, dark days ahead: temporary power centers all over midtown, people huddled on floors and streets and anywhere outlets can be found, desperately charging devices as they try to make contact with friends and loved ones.

The eeriest part of this experience is witnessing a city quite literally cut in half: from 39th Street on down, Manhattan is none other than a blacked-out No Man’s Land. Above 39th, however - though Central Park is closed down, shops dwindle in their supplies and traffic is backed up for miles - life goes on as though nothing has happened.

Having grown restless, spooked and incredibly lonely, I have found temporary shelter with a friend on the Upper West Side.  As I curl up on her air mattress, I consider how this experience feels all too familiar: it was little over a year ago I was similarly displaced by an uninhabitable home, bouncing to friendlier apartments in search of a hot shower and some companionship, and uncertain when this bizarre new reality would come to an end. But this time, I am hardly alone. And – considering the utter tragedy that my neighbors in New Jersey, Queens and Staten Island will continue to face for days and weeks to come – it really isn’t all that bad.

At the Starbucks on 5th Avenue at 33rd Street, the lights remain off and doors locked, but the cafĂ©’s WiFi is miraculously still operating, and so masses of disconnected people press up against the windows to pick up the surprising signal. WiFi operating in a hurricane’s aftermath: the modern-day version of the Hanukah story…

So I look like hell, I’m exhausted from troubled sleep and endless treks in search of power, and grow more agitated as time passes by and the hours feel wasted. But these long days of darkness and rotting dairy products in the fridge may be the worst I face in the otherwise horrific aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and for that, I consider myself one very lucky zombie.

One of many fallen trees in the hard-hit East Village


Downed trash cans and newspaper stands

Cars pushed around by flood waters on Avenue C

FDR Drive the morning after

NYPD takes on a flooded FDR Drive

Almost doesn't make it

Free pizza at 11B!

Serving up pizza by candlelight - and a massive gas stove

A flooded garage on Avenue C

Fonda Restaurant serving drinks and guacamole by candlelight 

A Staples store becomes a gathering place for the power-hungry

Manhattan streets looking like the countryside. Note: this isn't normal.

You said it, Spider Man!

1 comment:

  1. Great that the storm brought you back to writing! Great post!!!


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