Monday evening I was watching the hurricane coverage on TV while reading my Twitter feed on my laptop and talking to my friend Workhorse on the phone. It’s getting crazy out there, we agreed, but he said he was making pasta and about to watch some stuff on his DVR. Then the lights flickered. “Uh oh,” I said. “The light just…” He interrupted: ”Oh my god. Oh no.” And then the phone went beep beep beep and we were disconnected. I texted him: Is your power down? are you ok? He replied: lost power… you? The tweets on my timeline came fast and furious: “all the power just went out below 34th street.” Workhorse, like many of my friends, was now in the Dead Zone. My lights, my TV, my computer, my power was still on. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d become a “have” in a city of have-nots.
The wind howled all night, and I stayed up texting people, checking Facebook, obsessively retweeting information, and it was looking like it was bad. Really bad. I kept my phone plugged in, worried I would lose power at any moment. In the morning, I woke up and the world was in chaos: People were underwater, Breezy Point had burned to the ground, the website — how I make my living — was down, and there were people I had not heard from. Yet in my apartment, everything was the same: the TV was working, the heat was on. I sent the same text to my downtown friends: if you can safely travel uptown you are welcome to come here and charge electronics or whatever. I have power. By 1pm, Workhorse texted: “I’m downstairs.” He’d ridden his scooter through the dead zone, where there were no traffic lights, uptown to my neighborhood — the Upper East Side.
I grew up in Manhattan and lived on the Lower East Side for 12 years before moving uptown in February, and lately I’d been complaining about it: I was missing downtown, missing the narrow streets, street art, young people, black people. I moved here because I found more square feet priced lower than the downtown equivalent, and I like being able to host a party or hang out — something I longed for the ten years I lived in a 240 square foot studio. As the hurricane was approaching, I joked that nothing would happen to me since, instead of Zone A or B — my old hood — I was now in Zone Bloomberg. He lives on the Upper East Side, too. I was just kidding, but when it became clear that I hadn’t lost power and wasn’t going to lose power, suddenly I was happy to be uptown.
But it felt wrong to lie around watching TV while my friends were walking up stairs in the dark. I felt stupid and pointless, wasting all this energy, having so many electronics on, when people I knew were walking a mile to find an extension cord on a table outside of a 7-11, like my friend Stephen. He showed up a few hours after Workhorse left, having charged his phone and laptop, made some phone calls and sent some emails. He would have stayed, but his elderly dog was at home alone in the dark. In the dead zone. Stephen, like me, works for an online company. Like mine, his office was closed; his coworkers scattered. We had a stiff drink together in my apartment Tuesday night, watching sad footage from Staten Island as the air mattress inflated.
Wednesday, Halloween, as Stephen and I were both working from my apartment, my friend Poogene arrived. His apartment is near Avenue C, which had become like a river during the worst of the flooding. I set him up on a table, where he charged his laptop and phone. Called his mom. I was so glad to be helping. It felt good. It felt better than watching the horrifying images on the TV and feeling helpless and hopeless and wondering what can I do? I tweeted, “I have two cute downtown boys using me for my power right now, and I LOVE it!” I meant it. The good part about having was sharing.
After work last night, Stephen and I went out scouting for a meal. “Up here, it’s like nothing happened,” he marveled. But it wasn’t really true: Even though there was power, even though were streetlights and stores open and people walking dogs and kids in costumes, there was an anxious, chaotic vibe in the air. Traffic was bumper to bumper, especially on Second Avenue — most likely because eventually, the street runs into the Dead Zone, where there are no lights. The sidewalks were crowded. The snack shelves in the drug store and the grocery store were all empty. All of the restaurants were packed. We passed two twenty-something guys in front of a popular Mexican restaurant; one was yelling at the other: “I’VE BEEN EATING TUNA OUT OF THE CAN FOR TWO DAYS AND I’M FUCKING HUNGRY, I TOLD YOU THERE WAS GONNA BE A WAIT, WE SHOULD HAVE CALLED AHEAD.”
We found a place to eat, but they weren’t making margaritas, which we’d specifically been hoping for. The menu was limited; they were running out of things, having not received any deliveries. Stephen told me that a friend working in midtown claimed it was “like the Hunger Games” down there — a bunch of aggressive banker-types trying to find lunch in an area with limited resources. As we ate, we talked about how reliant on smart phones we’ve become, how no one knows anyone’s phone number by heart anymore. How, it used to be, if you were trying to reach someone, you could look in a phone book or ask the operator. All you needed was a last name. A gorilla, a sorcerer and a witch took a table near us, and I couldn’t help but stare. I kept forgetting it was Halloween, and the costumes seemed more weird and scary than usual. After we finished eating, a restaurant employee cleared our plates, and about 2 minutes later, he returned with a salad and a burger. “That’s not ours,” I said. And as he walked away, I joked to Stephen, “maybe we should have taken it…” Stephen laughed. “This is the Hunger Games, Katniss.”
After dinner, we went to a local bar. It was lively, people were laughing, a guy in one corner was dressed as Thor. It didn’t look like a bar in a town in the middle of a disaster, it looked like a bar on a TV show where everything is a little too perfect. On one wall there was a rococo painting of a woman holding a severed head — St. John the Baptist? I thought about the news segment I’d seen earlier in which a woman in Staten Island said she’d driven by some cops holding up a sheet in front of a flooded street and she’d seen a foot in the water.
We went back home. A little before 11pm, my sister’s friend Zach arrived. He’d walked from Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn to Houston street in Manhattan. Across the Manhattan Bridge. Then he’d “caught a ride” up into midtown, and walked thirty or so more blocks to my building. He’d been assigned to work in the Bronx today, and asked if he could spend the night on my couch, thinking it would be easier to get there from my apartment than from Brooklyn. He told me and Stephen it was strange walking through the Dead Zone — so dark, so many people on the streets, so strange — but that he was “glad” he’d gotten to see New York like that.
The three of us watched some more storm coverage before going to sleep. The words and phrases being used — “worst disaster” “unprecedented” “millions in damages” — washed over me as I sipped a gin and tonic. I felt lucky, happy, depressed, safe, warm, anxious, sad, worried, dazed, overwhelmed. Guilty. Sad. So sad. This is my hometown. I grew up here. For me, there’s no “back home.” It hurts me to see my city broken and destroyed. I feel actual physical pain hearing sirens racing down the avenue, toward some unknown trauma. I lived downtown before, during and after September 11th, and fully embraced Milton Glaser’s attitude:
I woke up one day, a few days after 9/11. I thought, you know, “I love New York” isn’t the story anymore. Something happened. And I realized that what had happened was an injury, like when a friend of yours, somebody you love, gets terribly sick. You suddenly become conscious of how much you care for them.
He created the original I ♥ NY logo, and after September 11th, made a revised edition: I ♥ NY More Than Ever.
And that’s how it feels, for me. I want to do what I can, I want to see my town patched up and feeling better. I feel guilty that I am one of the powered when so many are powerless. But if I can give away electricity, offer up an air mattress and a couch to sleep on, if I can show my city my love, well, easing its pain eases mine, as well.
— Dodai Stewart