Danny Peters · Wednesday November 7, 2012
We take so much in life for granted. We really do.
In this super modern 24/7 always on, never off world of high-tech gadgets and space-age technology, just the simple act of flicking a light switch on and expecting the power to do its thing is something that never registers so much as a flicker of a thought. Being able to relax with a frosted beverage (from your cold fridge) and watch the NASCAR race on TV Sunday afternoon is another example.
The simple stuff – you know what I mean.
A week last Sunday, I settled down to watch the Martinsville race. At that time, Hurricane Sandy was about a day from making landfall from my home in the West Village neighborhood of downtown Manhattan. The MTA and bus service would shut down at 7:00 PM and our church had to cancel evening services. The last complete New York City mass transit shutdown occurred, of course during Hurricane Irene in late August 2011. That storm last year did, indeed, cause major havoc in pockets of the Tri-State community but for the most part, Manhattan was untouched. New York carried on just as before.
Back in 2003, during a sweltering August summer evening the great Blackout hit the city with power going out across the five boroughs. That air con-free evening was like throwback New York. Restaurants dragged out barbecues onto the streets and cooked up their produce, old-fashioned block parties sprung up every corner, with New Yorkers sitting on deckchairs and hanging out on the street rather than being cooped up in the scorching heat inside.
The outage lasted a mere 24 hours. New York carried on just as before.
The buildup to Sandy was altogether a different animal. The weather experts used phrases like “the perfect storm” and “the storm of the century.” And from days out, it was clear that this tamely named hurricane was very much the real deal.
As I made my way home from the supermarket early that Sunday, there was much panic buying with lines five times as long as anything I’ve seen before. The dire predictions seemed to have worked until you started to analyze the content of most people’s shopping carts, but that’s another story (and a joke you’ve probably already seen on Facebook a half-dozen times.)
The storm really began to roll through the city Monday afternoon; all you could do was pray, wait, wonder and watch Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel reporting from Battery Park City at the very southernmost tip of the island. Around two hours before the blackout a crane, some 90 stories up atop a new apartment complex, came loose, dangling perilously over the streets of Midtown, just south of Central Park.
In the final few minutes before the power was extinguished, around 8:30 PM, the lights and the TV had begun to dim. We knew it was coming. There just wasn’t much we could do about it. At this point, our preparations sprang into full effect. The inventory was as follows: half a bottle red wine, two bananas, some muesli and a candle that smelled like Christmas. Some solid planning there, you’ll not deny. The first night was easy enough. Strange, sure, but it was just a question of waiting out the storm. Plus I got to meet my neighbors (at long last) as we huddled around a radio, accompanied by flickering candlelight, listening to Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo give updates on the storm and the blackout. My immediate neighbor (who I had met) even gave me one of her two flashlights.
The morning after, I walked down to the water on the West Side of the island. The Hudson River is not typically that turbulent, but that morning it looked like the Atlantic Ocean with roiling grey whitecaps dotting the typically tranquil river. Parks department personnel had closed the path and quickly shooed us away and back across the highway.
My next thought was coffee and the only place in the neighborhood that I found that was open was my 24/7 local Deli. They had somehow managed to brew large supplies of hot coffee and the line was out the door. It was worth the wait; it was the best coffee I had tasted in a long while. They had already put signs on the window reading “WE OPEN.” They never even thought of closing once during the entire blackout. They just improvised and did what they could for the community.
That afternoon, we walked north to the area with power. And it was almost as if nothing had happened. Life was carrying on as normal: all except, of course, for the coffee shops and places with power outlets in the immediate fifteen blocks into the “power zone” which were packed to the rafters. I ended up charging my phones in the vestibule of a Citibank ATM building in midtown. As I sat there powering up, along with four others similarly afflicted – someone had thought to bring a power strip — folks stopped to take pictures of us and gawk like we were zoo animals: Bizarre, to say the least.
And then, it was back downtown with the shadows of another evening lengthening along the sidewalks. The contrast with the new powerless downtown area of Manhattan — the neighborhood ephemerally known as SoPo — as we headed home for the second powerless night couldn’t have been more marked.
Since I moved to Manhattan, eleven years ago in the aftermath of 9/11, living in the city is something that I’ve truly cherished; something I consider a true privilege. Yes, the city is crowded, dirty and at times rude, insane and inhospitable but there’s something about New York City, warts and all, that doesn’t just dig under your skin — it digs deep into your soul. If you know what I mean, you’re nodding your head in agreement.
Home base for me is the West Village. It’s an eclectic, vibrant mix of bars, restaurants and stores – a mighty fine place to live even with the exorbitant real estate costs and matchbox size apartments. But under complete darkness, it was eerie, spooky and at times quite scary. I joke a little and say it was a little like something out of the Will Smith movie “I Am Legend” — set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan — but without the blood-sucking infected zombies.
Funnily enough, the zombies did make an appearance out the following night as a group of around 200-250 folks, complete with a band, celebrated the Village’s long-standing tradition of a Halloween parade. On a regular evening, the event attracts tens of thousands. The official event had, of course, been canceled but it didn’t stop these revelers from enjoying the moment in truly unique circumstances.
You certainly can’t fault their ingenuity. New York did its best to carry on.
By this stage, more and more local businesses were opening and operating the best they could. Some resorted to writing chalk messages on the sidewalk; others papered the local streets with printed flyers offering “Hurricane Specials”: old school marketing tactics at their best. Pizzas were cooked up in wood-burning ovens; simple candlelit dinners became a SoPo staple.
I took my first hot shower on Day Four. It was fantastic. That afternoon we went out to a local restaurant with our friends (with the power and the hot shower). Our server, who had taken a bus three hours from Staten Island just to get there — transport was a serious problem at that point — told us both her Mom and her brother had completely lost their homes. The entire family was staying in her tiny studio apartment. Her story was far from unique, making it all the sadder. She was just getting on with it, though showing true New York spirit; it makes me even prouder to live here when I see that sort of character.
Early on the morning after night five without power, and on the exact eleventh anniversary of my move to Manhattan, power returned in full. By the following afternoon the neighborhood was back as it was before. This time, though, there was a slight difference. The SoPo street marketing remained, but instead it was all in aid of those in parts of Queens, Staten Island, New York and New Jersey who have been so heavily afflicted by the storm with local businesses taking collections and making deliveries to those in need. Last Saturday, around 150 people from my church went out to Queens to volunteer as best they could.
Take a look at this video and you’ll see the sort of devastation there is out there. NASCAR, while an obsession for many clearly takes a back seat when you see this type of catastrophe firsthand.
Like I said at the top, we take so much in life for granted. I had five nights without power. Sure, it was inconvenient at times and yes, it’s going to be a good New York anecdote – another story to add to the list. And yet so many thousands are much less fortunate than . I write this column, too, as a Nor’easter (named Athena) rolls through the city, laying a blanket of the first fresh snow of winter.
For so many NASCAR-connected people in this area, racing is the last thing on their minds right now. May God bless all those affected in the coming days, weeks and months.
Millions are grappling with the effects from one of the more devastating hurricanes to hit the United States. If you’re in an unaffected area, please consider donating to help others who will spend months rebuilding their lives and their homes after Sandy whipped onshore with winds of 80 miles an hour. Call 1-800-RED-CROSS, visit redcross.org or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation today. Every little bit helps.
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