The morning after Hurricane Sandy, not everything in my downtown Manhattan neighborhood was closed. A slew of people suffering from cabin fever meandered around outside, seeing if the nearby evacuation zone of Battery Park was still flooded (it wasn't — some people were already out jogging). The small corner grocery store was open, accepting cash from people who shopped in the dark. Most had flashlights — my boyfriend and I were carrying the one we had needed to descend more than 30 flights of stairs from our apartment to the world below. One fantastically prepared gentleman made his way around with a headlamp! Of course if you were looking for nonperishables — unless you wanted novelty cookies or the last of the stale bialys — you were out of luck. The bread shelves were cleared, and even the prosciutto that had been without refrigeration for more than 12 hours now was almost out.
Some people were not interested in carbs but had emerged from their hurricane lairs in search of just a bar or two of cell service to check in with loved ones or — in all likelihood — the office. People stopped total strangers on the street to ask them if they had reception. "No, unfortunately — we're looking for it too!" we'd tell each other. Next to the darkened Whole Foods, I found reception and later directed grateful neighbors to this spot.
I've lived below 14th Street in Manhattan for nearly a decade, and I can't remember engaging with strangers — often tourists — other than to provide directions. New Yorkers keep their heads down and to themselves, absorbed in iPhones or headphones or both, uninterested in talking to people other than those they know. But now, people are helping one another however they can, bonding with those they've lived alongside for years but have never bothered to know.
New Yorkers like to keep their favorite spots — restaurants, bars, clubs — secret, but now people with hot cups of coffee happily directed desperate caffeine addicts to the one café around running on generator power with a line out the door. Hipsters waiting in line to charge iThings at generators on the street bonded over the bizarre situation of, you know, having to charge iPhones at generators on the street. I communed with neighbors in my building when we passed one another in the stairwell at, like, the 28th floor. My building's maintenance staff was working to tape glow sticks to the the stairwell wall — the emergency lighting management had promised turned out to be more fun than we expected! — and we chuckled with them over the rave-iness of it as we thanked them for their hard work.
People who had lost water in addition to power were looking for cabs to take them uptown, where life has been mostly normal since the storm. We bought crumpets, tortillas, and a Diet Coke, checked in with as many family members (and office people) as we could, and hiked back up to our apartment, where we had no cell reception, but played two games of Bananagrams and watched Monty Python on the one laptop that still had some power. We went to bed at 9 p.m. and wondered what people did with their time in the Middle Ages. Or, like, the '90s.
This morning we lost water, but the buses were running and we could see taxis on the street, so we descended the stairs once more to try to relocate uptown to stay with relatives who had power and, more importantly at this point, a shower. The buses, which are free today, were stuffed with people. Long lines had formed at all the stops before 9 a.m. Everyone looks like they are going to yoga with their puffy vests, Uggs, and packed gym bags, but one look at the blackened street lights reminds us they just want to get somewhere where they can work, charge things, bathe...text.
Within the half hour, we managed to find a cab. Without traffic lights, I actually felt safer than I ever have in a New York cab since everyone was driving extra slowly and carefully, stopping frequently and without resentment for pedestrians. We stopped along the way to see if anyone wanted to ride with us, and picked up one man who was on his way to his office uptown. He thanked us effusively for stopping, and we told him it was nothing, we're all in this together. We exchanged pleasantries about cold showers, shitty cell phone service, and not having any good food to eat. He told us that Whole Foods was giving away frozen items the day before, and he had figured out how to cook frozen pizzas in a pan on his gas stove. (Apparently, if you ever find yourself in this situation, folding the pizza in half like a sandwich helps.)
The streets of SoHo that are normally clogged with people in workout clothes and fedoras were completely empty save for a few wayward tourists with maps and nothing to do but absorb the bizarre emptiness and darkened shop windows — but also heightened friendliness — all around them.
We know we are not the worst off following the hurricane. Our homes have not been completely destroyed or even very damaged. But it's wonderful to know that, mired in the odd array of nuisances we currently find ourselves in, we're there for one another. If things ever get worse — if I'm trapped in a flood, in a wrecked car, under a felled tree — I know the people I ignore most of the time all around me will stop and help. I know I'd do the same for them.