Cushy Camping in the Lower East Side

Many friends have expressed concern (thank you!) about how hard it must have been for us in NY’s Lower East Side without power for a week. It all makes me feel sheepish, because in fact, we were the lucky ones in Sandy’s impact zone, even amongst downtowners. We had cold but fresh water, a working gas stovetop, no flood damage, and our usual 5th floor walkup.

Pop-up sausage, Grand and Lafayette

Ralph Lopez, a 73-year-old Red Hook resident who had it much, much worse than we did, put it best: “It’s just an inconvenience. Half the world does not have electricity,” he told The NY Times. Read the full article here; despite Ralph’s sangfroid, it describes what the week was really like – hellish, isolated, and frightening – for people who had real problems.

All that said, camping downtown, cut off from all power, cell, or 4G for 4 days, is an unusual experience. And so, for the curious, here’s the unedited story of how we spent the days and nights.

If it entertains you in the least, or even if it bores you to death, head to the Red Cross to make a relief donation, or if you’re local, sign up at https://lowereastside.recovers.org  or https://statenisland.recovers.org to see whether you can volunteer.

Day 0, Monday:

Around 4, we receive a vague voicemail warning from ConEd that at some point, power might be cut off in some parts of Manhattan.

I cockily drain our iphone and laptop batteries to provide evening entertainments.

Meanwhile, the hurricane blows. Occasionally we hear crashes and screams. At some point there’s the flash of light and boom of a giant explosion. We don’t know what to make of it. The lights dim.

Thirty minutes later the lights go out.

Day 1, Tuesday, no power:

Mental state: Fairly optimistic.
Boredom level: 1 – books to read, things to cook, novelties aplenty.
Personal Hygiene Level: 9 – still pretty clean.

As soon as I get up on Day 1, I leave the house to see what’s what. Streets have a dull quiet despite the fact that many are out as I am out, assessing the damage.

Immediately I see what made most of the crashing noises: Giant 12 x 8 wooden panels that had topped two nearby construction scaffolds. Four or five of them on two different blocks are down.

Chinatown, where I thought I might find some commercial activity, is totally shut down, other than a giant crustacean fire sale. Lobsters and crabs need to get sold, boiled, and eaten, but I’m not brave enough.

Back at home, we have a pot of stock and chicken from the roast I made the day before. Since the stove is working (though not the oven and the burners must be lit with matches) I turn it into soup, using a package of Chinese herbs – sea coconut, jujubes, ginseng, and mysterious other ingredients – that have been sitting on my shelf for months. It promises “efficiency” that ranges from clearing phlegm to curing insomnia to solving impacted bowel. In fact, we have none of these issues, but we’re sick of plain chicken, and so it goes.

During the first day, I actually work, my industrious self still intact. One of my projects involves me reading and note-taking from an actual hardcopy book. Intermittently, we listen to the transistor radio that I used to hate (it’s tinny, and Dan uses it to listen to sports broadcasts) and now love: It’s our one connection to media, news, information from the outside world. ConEd reps say we could have power as early as Wednesday.

We decide to set out north, to see if we can walk to power. It is strange to walk the streets in an area that usually whirs with energy, both human and electric. Now it is a dead zone, empty space with a few bodies shuffling through. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s weird. As the days pass, it quickly sucks away my will to find some way to work on anything but finding food.

In the East Village, we pass a pizza shop that’s selling leftovers. At 6th and 2nd avenue, we can see that there are no lights on the horizon in any direction. Later the view from our roof confirms it: All of Lower Manhattan is still out.

We buy samosas from an Indian pop-up stand. They’re clearly selling off old inventory, but they’re lukewarm, at least, and we’re happy to have them. We go back to the pizza shop, but now they’ve run out. We need to shift to a war-time mentality: When there are rations, jump on them.

We’ve realized by now that ATMs don’t work when there’s no power, and so we spend the last of our cash on pitas from the Souvlaki GR truck, which is blasting music and cheer.

In the evening, I attempt to cook a pumpkin pie on the stovetop, since the oven won’t work. It is relatively successful.

As the sun sets on Night 1, we open the Italian “special occasion only” wine, bust out Abba and turn our living room into a candlelit dance hall. Just Dan and I, but it’s good and silly and romantic.

The cat seems somewhat concerned by our behavior, most especially all the small fires we’ve lit around the apartment. But he endures.

I pass out, tipsy and happy, around 9:30. The good times without power have reached their zenith.

Day 2, Weds, no power:

Mental state: Cagey.
Boredom level: 3 – no more work to do, but still things to cook.
Personal Hygiene Level: 5 – starting to get concerning.

After 12 hours of sleep, we awake and eat more eggs. Eggs don’t require refrigeration, and it’s pretty much the only thing we feel safe eating from our fridge at this point. Having eaten soup all day yesterday, I’m completely grossed out by it, and it doesn’t help that it looks like swamp juice, courtesy of the Chinese herbs.

Now the ConEd guys are saying we likely won’t have power until Saturday. This is not good news. There’s not much to do about it. I think about making some kind of plan, but give up quickly. We can’t call anyone. Even if we could get somewhere with service, I don’t have any numbers since they’re all stored in my dead phone. Could we text someone? Tweet them?

Sending the cat with a message around his neck seems the only option. He declines.

We try to clean up the apartment. Starting to feel the restrained energy of cabin fever, we do prison-style exercises in the apartment: push ups, sit ups, running in place.

Next we head to Chinatown. The second roast chicken that was in the freezer is defrosted, and I’m going to use a recipe from the one hardback cookbook I have, for Coconut Curry Chicken. In Chinatown I find exactly what I need: Onion, cilantro, cauliflower, and ginger. I pay in quarters, from Dan’s coin jar, the only money we have left.

Dinner is delicious but its damned difficult to see what we’re eating, even with all our candles lit. I am finding myself sick of candlelight. I never thought the day would come. We finish the wine.

Bored, we change into nicer clothes and take our sack of quarters down to the bar downstairs. Casa Mezcal is one of the several bars nearby that are serving alcohol by candlelight. We ask if we can pay in quarters. They kick us out on our ears. We don’t protest.

Back upstairs, we pop popcorn and I burn it badly. We eat it anyway, while using the last of Dan’s iPod battery to watch Return of the King. It runs out of power just as Legolas slays the elephant – in other words, in the middle of the movie’s most intense battle scenes. Champagne problems, I realize.

I go to sleep.

Day 3, Thurs, no power:

Mental state: Isolated and craving light.
Boredom level: 10 – No charge left in anything, including Dan’s various devices.
Personal Hygiene Level: 2 – Dire straights, requiring action.

I wake up and laugh when I see how burned the popcorn pan is, and how covered the floor is with stray, burnt kernels.

I drink some black coffee, reheat the chicken that’s sat on the stove all night (discernable decrease in standards) and make the executive decision that we need to charge our devices and communicate with the world. Dan is groggy – he was up much later than me, listening to his little transistor, but game. We will go uptown.

I boil the giant soup pot full of water and add it to cold water to make a bath. It’s effective and I’m proud of my pioneer-like resourcefulness. We do the same for Dan.

Wetheaded but fresh-faced, we get a cab immediately, and make it to 47th street, the Diamond District, in record time. It’s surreal – all these people up here have power! It’s like nothing has happened! Coffees and food are sold everywhere, lights flash, horns honk. People are hurrying. Hurrying! Downtown doesn’t even know what time it is.

We’ve decided to start our adventure there so that I can finally get my ring resized. They are very kind and accommodating, and 30 minutes later, my engagement ring fits perfectly on my size 5 ¼ finger. They’ve buffed it up and I am temporarily blind to everything in midtown but my own sparkling finger.

Next stop: Five Guys. We both have orgasmically delicious burgers and for once, I eat my bun. Then to the bank, to pay rent and get CASH.

We head to a Starbuck’s that Dan thinks will be less crowded than everywhere else; every coffee shop is overrun with power-hungry downtowners. He’s right, and I set up shop on the floor next to a power strip that someone has cleverly brought from home.

I joyfully reconnect with the world through email and Facebook. My spirits are high.

We set off on foot, buy salads and pizza, and after some degree of trouble (shift change!), get a cab at around 28th and 3rd. Back in the ‘hood, I stop at September Wine, which has stayed open throughout. I revel in my newfound ability to participate in the cash economy.

We eat pizza and salad and drink wine. It is delicious. Now that we’re charged, we’re able to watch the last hour of Return of the King.

In the darkness, I become tortured by fear of my eventual nonexistence. Is it all this darkness and quiet weighing down on me? No longer distracted by life’s minutia, am I finally facing the bleak truth? I don’t know, but I distract myself by being dismayed and annoyed that we still may not have power tomorrow and fall asleep relatively quickly.

Day 4, no power:

Mental state: Listless and disempowered (literally).
Boredom level: 11 – we don’t bother getting out of bed for much longer than is healthy.
Personal Hygiene Level: 10 – we’ve mastered boiled-water bathing.

The radio is constantly chattering about New Yorkers’ uncanny ability to bounce back quickly. It’s true, but as I listen to stories of people waiting hours for packed buses from Queens, I think that it’s less inspirational than just miserably hard. People bounce back because they have to. They have to get to work to continue to scrape together the means for a life here.

It’s been a cold few days, with a lot of creamless coffee and boiled-water whore’s baths. We’re getting pretty sick of it.

Concerned by my mental low and tired of feeling cold, I suit up for a run. I almost give up after 5 minutes, but get a kick of energy when I find that Randolph’s, a bar at Broome and Bowery, has a generator set up and is cooking hamburgers and hotdogs on a grill setup on the sidewalk. We’ll be back.

At Randolph’s later, I have my second delicious burger of the week, and once again, I eat the bun. I have a beer. It means nothing to me that it’s noon on a Friday. We wander around the neighborhood and buy a second meal to take home from a coffee shop @Grand and Lafayette grilling sausages on the street, using charcoal. This coffee shop normally just does bagels, but has gone the distance to feed people when everyone else is closed.

Back at home, with the sky gray and windy whipping through 45 degree air, our apartment has gone very cold. Dan and I crawl into bed to read, and form a giant huddle with the cat, who wedges himself next to me. Occasionally he gets up for water or food, but jumps directly back into bed every time.

We are still in our huddle when, just before 5, suddenly our apartment is full of light.

LIGHT!!

We leap from bed and join an audible cheer rising from the streets! I plug in and the 5 minutes it takes my cell phone to charge enough to use seems endless. I relish the fact that time once again has meaning, now that we are reconnected to the world of the Busy.

If my Facebook status update hadn’t made it official enough, the call from ConEd five minutes later sealed it:

“Power has been restored to Lower Manhattan. Thank you for your patience.”

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