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In Sandy's Aftermath, A City With An Identity Crisis

Half of Manhattan is bustling, while the other half struggles in the dark.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

On Wednesday, after spending some time in downtown, dark New York, the sun was setting, and the traffic was gridlocked. I spent 30 minutes on a bus heading up 3rd Avenue, which moved only four blocks — not even a full stop. We couldn't even get off until a middle-aged woman started screaming at the top of her lungs for the driver to open the doors. Realizing it'd be hours until I could reasonably find a way back to where I'm staying uptown, I resigned myself to passing the time in Midtown. First mission: I had to pee.

From the street, Everyday Gourmet Cafe, at 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, looked like a good spot to pick up a coffee and to cross my fingers there'd be a bathroom. I saw people ordering omelets at the grill station and ladling soup into paper cups; it was the kind of place office workers pick up lunch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ragged paper sign that said "Free-WiFi & Bathrooms" next to a flight of stairs. I walked up to the second floor, which isn't visible from the street.

I found an unlikely refuge for tourists and New Yorkers alike — a spacious room with couches, tables, computers, public access computers, and most peculiarly, a full bar. It looked like an airport lounge filled with people whose flights had been cancelled for the third time, but in Midtown, just a few blocks above the border that has split Manhattan into two worlds. It had all the appropriate fixings: two young guys in Rangers hats drinking Jack and Cokes at the bar, tourists playing Gin Rummy, slightly disheveled older guys in khakis Googling things at the public access computers, and a long line for the bathroom. For reasons I can't at all fathom, there were also waiting room–type spaces with couches surrounding the room. Families sat in those. Little kids watched TV shows on iPads.

People were happy to have found it. Myself included.

Dorey and Tom Wolf, a couple from Wisconsin, were among the bunch. After their flights to return home were cancelled, they found themselves stuck in New York to wait out Sandy. Their hotel in the East 30s had heat and water, but no lights. They'd spent the day sightseeing — "Times Square with all the lights still on was very weird to see" — but now they were just happy to have somewhere comfortable to sit. "It's great here. We love the hot sandwiches," Tom said.

As they played cards and drank beers, they really seemed like they were waiting for a flight that might take off soon. It was easy to forget that actually, we were all sitting in a peculiar place on top of a deli.

After I left, I walked further west across Manhattan in the 40s. Along the border of dark and light Manhattan, I noticed more examples of a city in the midst of an identity crisis. At the swanky Andaz Hotel on 5th Avenue and 41st Street, I was told the bar was closed. There was no room service. In the lobby, a group drank red wine, while another woman checked her laptop. She was looking at a New York Times slideshow of storm damage photos.

Friends of mine who stayed downtown described the scene as "creepy" and "right out of I Am Legend." One said coming to Midtown was like traveling from the destroyed 12th District to the glitzy Capital in The Hunger Games. People turned to movie analogies because the situation downtown was unlike anything they'd witnessed in real life.

But in Times Square, there was little indication of a city in distress. A man fought with a food cart vendor about the price of his falafel ($4): "I live in this city and I eat in this city every day! It's too much." In the W Hotel, tourists sipped on blue martinis at the bar. And a man in a Star Wars mask laid out a chess board on top of a USA Today newspaper box outside Toys 'R Us. Oh, right, it was Halloween.

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