When The City That Never Sleeps Refuses To Sleep
Despite the power outage in lower Manhattan, businesses have been running as best they can to serve the neighbors who need them. Even when power returns, things won't get back to normal for weeks.
Power is finally, gradually being restored to lower Manhattan Friday evening, where it's been out since Hurricane Sandy tore through the east coast Monday night. But though lights come back to life in an instant, many businesses in the area won't. Owners and managers of bars, restaurants, and stores lucky enough to have sustained minimal damage in the storm are letting the financial reality of lost inventory and customers sink in as they ready to open as quickly as possible once power returns.
A few businesses remained open this afternoon. At 21 Park Place, Jamie Lipman Abish had set up a "sidewalk sale" outside of her store, Tent & Trails, which sells camping and climbing supplies. Most who have been coming by have been picking up flashlights, headlamps, and batteries — supplies that are hard to find anywhere downtown — which were arranged on a table in front of the store.
Abish estimated she'd had about 50 customers on Friday. "I'd say I've sold around 25 headlamps or flashlights — but mostly headlamps. It's an unusual amount," she told BuzzFeed. "Storms always bring out people for headlamps — they suddenly get prepared. But we've been giving them an easy check list for the next time," she added, pointing to a bright orange flyer with a list of emergency essentials (it included things like biodegradable soap, a quick drying towel, and folding saw, not all of which were included in the sidewalk offerings).
If things were normal, "I'd be doing ten times the business," Abish said. "But at least people know I'm still here. People know that I haven't been put out of business by the power outage." She can only accept cash, though she made an exception when a customer wanted to barter with donuts and hot coffee.
Abish was surrounded by a handful of staff members, some of whom have been working for her for more than 25 years. She said she would have paid them whether or not the store managed to open at all during the power outage. It was "the only thing to do," she said. "It's ethical. It's not their fault. I might get paid by a grant but six months down the line — I'm going to wait that long? They have families. They've got rents to pay."
Around the corner on Murray Street, Takahachi Bakery was closed and darkened, but manager Kimie Kobayashi had set up a cart outside to sell cookies and coffee to passersby (she's been getting around 25 customers a day). Inside, the shelves and cases where cakes and other food normally sit were almost completely bare. Kobayashi decided on Tuesday to open for a few hours on Wednesday, and then to do the same Thursday and Friday. She wasn't sure how much food was lost in the power outage, but estimated more than half. "I don't even want to ask my boss. It was a lot," she said. But she's been able to sell cookies and other things that had been in the freezer, along with a rare and much sought-after commodity: hot coffee.
"First I didn't sell coffee. So many people asked, so I said, okay," she said. She managed to make coffee with espresso and had a gas stove with which to heat water.
The past week has been hectic for Kobayashi. Every morning she bikes from her East Village apartment to a hotel in midtown where she can charge her phone and laptop and talk to her boss, the owner of the bakery who lives in New Jersey. Then she goes to the bakery for the day, before returning to the hotel to charge up again. "Then I go home in the dark."
She didn't think the bakery would be up and running as normal for about two weeks, once power was restored, since cakes and other items take time to make. And some menu items made with ingredients shipped from Japan via a distributor in New Jersey. "We have to give up some of the menu which is okay, it's not the end of the world," she said. "I have one customer who lives just around the corner and they have a market in the seaport — gone." (The seaport farther south in Manhattan was subject to some of the island's most severe flooding.)
Down Murray Street, the Dark Horse bar was open, powered by a generator. Its owner, Gavin Doherty, had spent the past three mornings at Home Depot in Queens, trying to purchase one. "There were so many people there looking for generators," he said. "Yesterday morning I managed to get one at 6 o'clock. So I came in, got everything set up." But even so, "We're far from normal."
Doherty had to throw out a lot of food, which was a painful waste as well as a considerable financial loss. In addition to the lost food and generator, he had to worry about fuel costs — and finding gas. "I spent about three hours in Queens looking for gas yesterday," he said "I could only get one gas container as well because they're in high demand." A cab driver tipped him off to gas at 44th Street and 10th Avenue, where he fueled up after an hour wait. But it "only lasts for so long" so he had to head back out to Long Island to refuel. "We were driving around the town and saw a big [line] and said this has to be for gas." It was — the wait there was three hours.
Doherty didn't have to go to all this trouble to reopen. He said he's "definitely losing money." But he knew he had to get the generator to open the bar instead of waiting for power to return because friends in the neighborhood kept texting and calling to ask if he was up and running. "They said there's nothing down here, we're sitting down here, when are you going to be open? I said I've got no power, but that's what made me go looking for a generator," Doherty explained. "Basically we wanted to give a few people some food."
He's seen the neighborhood clear out over the past two days, as residents tired of not having power, in many cases running water, or anything to do. But he wanted to be there, open and feeding people who couldn't leave the neighborhood. "You see this couple down here, they didn't have any friends or anywhere to go, so they had to stay. They had no choice," he said. "Regulars become friends when you see them a few times a week. We have a lot of friends in the neighborhood."