It’s odd when you find yourself living through a historical moment. Being in New York and experiencing Hurricane Sandy this past week, I felt deeply aware of a consciousness foreshadowed — of knowing this was a “where were you the day of?“ moment, knowing this was happening., this was important. It added an undercurrent of anxious tugging, as there was a very human need to make holistic sense of what was happening. There was a need to get your head wrapped around the thing before the thing had even passed. And that was silly. The overly-cognizant, almost lofty analytical element to it. Philosophies and the future tense are a luxury when you’re watching homes in Staten Island being swallowed up into the ocean. It’s like an animal alert in the thick of a ticker tape parade.
I spent Sandy partially in Upper Manhattan and partially in Lower Manhattan. Because of these two different experiences, during the storm and week that followed, I felt that all of my feelings were important to note, all of the news was important, all of my observations were vital for recording — and at the same time everything was overwrought and ridiculous. I could not see one more newscaster in rain boots at the scene, on the job, we’ve got you covered!, news at 1, new on-the-dot, our reporter’s dared to walk further underwater than the other channel’s reporter, every minute you’ve got power we’re on you’re power. If you were uptown, your head was reeling from this media influx. And of course, if you were downtown, you were at the central nerve of it all.
We return to our humanness very quickly in times of crisis. Once you and the people you love are safe, the rest is just stuff or an inconvenience. And then you turn to those who were not as fortunate as you were, and do your best to help.
I live in the East Village, far enough east to be Alphabet City, decidedly in Zone A. I was lucky enough to spend the worst of Sandy on the Upper East Side, with family, power, and even a working gym in the building. But I came back to my apartment as soon as I was able to get to it, through a very, very long bus ride downtown. I came back to get more clothing, to throw out the contents of our fridge, and really, to see the state of my apartment and my neighborhood. I made arrangements with a friend who had a car to pick me up around 10pm that night, essentially rescuing the East Village vagabond I had just become. I quickly found out that our building reeked of sewage and that we had not left any flashlights behind. My only option was to head outside until 10. That was how I came to spend several hours on the streets of the East Village, before returning to power once again.
I want to write at some point more about my specific experiences in my neighborhood. But that is for another time. For now I want to give a rounder summation of the whole as best as I can.
What I took from my experience of upper and lower Manhattan, of power and powerlessness (literally and figuratively), was a crisis that cast two distinctly human perspectives. People with power knew so much about the storm, they’d learned the basic science behind northeasterly wind patterns and surges, they’d considered if our society was too dependent on technology, they’d talked about Romney and Obama, they’d read all about the problems with the subway lines and when they could possibly be running again. That was my experience. But when I got off the bus at 14th Street, everything was closed and everything was dead. Downtown Manhattan had no clue what was going on. They had no idea about the subway system, they just wanted to take a shower or make one phone call or find water.
In Upper Manhattan, we considered the macro perspective of a storm and its outcomes, while Downtown Manhattan dealt with the intensely personal micro level concerns. Downtowners cared about their makeshift sidewalk communities, what they could do just to stay warm for the day, just to charge a phone, or if anyone nearby wanted to make some conversation to pass the time. It felt very strange to me, having spent a few hours in this situation with my neighbors, to then leave and adapt instantly to life again with electricity. When I was picked up from the East Village and arrived at my friend’s apartment, we cooked dinner, listened to music, and even had time to carve a pumpkin for Halloween. The feeling was something like awe. How quickly we can adapt to our comforts! And it was something like guilt, for why do some have such comforts in life when others do not. Experiencing Sandy for a day in Upper Manhattan and a day in Lower Manhattan was such a stark contrast. I am still trying to reconcile the two experiences in a way that becomes understandable to me.
I do not want to make some grand statement about income disparity or class. And I certainly do not want to imply that a macro or micro perspective should be pitted against one other in some moralistic scale of better or worse. What I want to iterate is that in my individual experience with this storm, what stood out to me was the empathy and outpouring of help. And the experiences of Upper and Lower Manhattan, while different, were something that united everyone.
And that’s the thing about New York. We have a reputation as a rough place, with vast economic disparities and a melting pot of ethnicities. And yet, everyone in this nutjob city manages to come together somehow. New York has singularly faced some of our greatest national tragedies. And when you take a city with a history of such violence and a reputation for such crudeness, it is amazing to see what happens here when societal sugars are boiled away and you are left with people and their souls. I’ll never forget the group of homeless men and women on Avenue C who pulled out two grills, set up a lopsided table, and offered a free hot meal to a crowd of hipsters, businessmen, the elderly, and children. I saw strangers paying for strangers in Evelyn’s bar, which had just finished pumping out water from its basement and opened its doors to a neighborhood with nowhere else to go. I saw strangers asking what could be done for strangers, when they themselves had nothing to give.
And I also know that those who had something to give, did give. Those with power were glued to the TV’s, were anxious to help those in trouble, to donate their time or their money. And may I add, we’d be a very rich city right now if money was measured in couch surfing offers.
What I’m trying to say, however clumsily, is that what I saw this week was something important. What I saw this week was human nature glowing its best glow. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but I don’t know what else you call it.
I am always humbled by the way words are so inadequate when trying to tackle the most important soul-stuff we’re all always trying to get at. It’s hard for me to be a Shakespeare about it, or even a Bukowski, when I just want to say that I had this experience, and it moved me, and I wanted to get it out in some way and share it. These seem like some of the most important things we can share with each other. Because what I experienced was the best of people. What I felt was real human connectedness.
In terms of the Big Apple, now. It’s always seemed to me that once you step foot in New York, you are instantly a New Yorker. I don’t think that’s true of every city. Throughout Sandy, I felt like we all knew we were truly New Yorkers, together. And even though the common pulse was thrust upon us, it was still the same pulse.