Instead of Bread Lines There Are Power Lines

Outside Bobst Library, WiFi is precious. Inside, students attend a Sandy soiree. Photo by Sandra Borri.

“On the Upper East Side, it’s like nothing happened,” Andrea tells me. Post-Sandy, it’s a different story downtown. Electricity is power. So is WiFi. The power lines are the new bread lines. At NYU, across the street from Washington Square Park, folks gather to charge their iPhones, smart phones, cell phones, laptops, Google tablets, and iPads. Simple cell phones charge quickly. Smartphones can take up to four hours. This is my new day job, charging my Samsung Galaxy so that it has enough power to last the night.

Every day we camp out around the extension cords and electrical outlets at Bobst Library, to share news and NYU guest passwords.

When I first walk up to NYU, it’s a Tuesday afternoon. I am looking for my son, who is a freshman. Cell phone service is down. There are no ingoing or outgoing calls. Texts turn up hours after being sent. Standing in the lobby of my son’s dorm, I ask to see him.

The RA on duty looks overwhelmed. It feels surreal when he tells me that I can’t go up to see my son, and he’s can’t send anyone upstairs to tell my son that I am here. He suggests that I can leave a message in my son’s mailbox. I don’t even know if my kid knows he has a mailbox. I scribble a note that I will wait outside, but the gates to Washington Square Park are locked. Rain is falling steadily. I notice people milling in the lobby at Bobst Library. I text my son that I will wait for him there, and hope he gets it.

Once inside, I notice a man trying to plug his laptop into a broken socket. Then I spy a college student charging his iPhone at an outdoor electrical outlet. Within half an hour, there’s a crowd around us. Jean, a parks worker, brings his own extension cord. It’s a generous and popular gesture. The next day, I start carrying an extension cord, too.

Nearly 3 hours later, my son gets my texts and joins me. He’s upset because nobody told him I was downstairs. We’re both thinking the same thing: if lower Manhattan had been plunged into darkness and chaos, that might have been my last opportunity to see my son or move him to safety.

When Hurricane Sandy first hit, I had enough supplies to weather three days but not seven. By Tuesday, I was like the Little Match Girl, trying to figure out how to make three matches last a few more nights. By Wednesday, I replenish my one fat candle–a waxy wonder that smells like a banana split and burns for long hours each night. A stationery store gives me a box of matches. I pick up two cheap lighters with a picture of the Twin Towers on the side from a souvenir store. They work. On Mott Street, north of Canal, I find apples, carrots, broccoli, and bok choy. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a gas stove and running water. I also live on a low floor. There are people who have to walk down 16 flights of stairs to walk their dog.

Information is a precious commodity, as are candles and matches. We are an isolated, eclectic lot, bound together by a fundamental need to connect. The prospect of diminishing supplies and the lack of internet, cable, and TV news, force us to go outside and be nice. Screenwriters, therapists, fortunetellers, photojournalists, college students, and tourists all mix and mingle alike.

I make new friends at the electrical hubs every day. It gets cold sitting on the granite outside. We keep ourselves warm by telling jokes and stories and laughing. It’s a considerate crowd. Everyone asks politely, “May I?” before pulling out an adapter or cord or device. There have been no fistfights.

So far I’ve met Howard, a former gift shop owner who now sells expensive purebred puppies in the Village. Then there’s Carmella, whose rock star looks and bawdy sense of humor could give Keith Richards a run for his money. We are joined by Paul, an architect with a very dry wit, and John and Mario, who bring news from South Street Seaport, where Water Street is under water and looters have gleefully scooped up J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and SuperDry merchandise after Hurricane Sandy graciously blew down the storefront windows. “I could have jumped from the patio and gone for a swim!” exclaims Mario, after patiently waiting on a coffee shop line for two hours to get us all cups of coffee. We share peanut butter sandwiches, and talk about the best way to take a cab to Astoria now that the subways are down. We don’t know when the blackout will end, and wonder if we should stay with friends elsewhere.

When a news reporter asks Carmella what brought her here, she quips, “Well, I was sitting in the park just feeding the squirrels…” to loud guffaws from the rest of us. “Well, obviously, we come for the power,” Carmella explains. “And the WiFi. This is a hot spot. Yeah. And I’m hot!” She tells us about her houseguests, who will be arriving soon to run in the New York City Marathon. Talk circulates about cell phone service (there is sporadic service from Verizon and none from AT&T), the more than 100 houses that burned down in the Rockaways,  a grocery store on Bleecker that charges reasonable prices for candles and bread, and Grand Bo-Ky, a Chinatown restaurant that serves hot noodle soups, beef stew, and duck on Grand Street. (The owner hauled in a generator from New Jersey.)

Bike riders, like Diana, a preschool teacher, bring us precious news from north of 25th Street. “There are lights there!” she tells us. And we all know what that means: working ATMs. She tells me about her hand-powered washing machine, WonderWash, and a manual dryer that works like a salad spinner. I listen appreciatively. I will try to get those as soon as my internet service is restored. Now that the bridges are open, we notice more places to get food and supplies, restaurants, small grocery stores, and delis, and we add them to our collective consciousness, till we have a working map of useful places to go.

NYU students, professors, and other ID-bearing personnel can charge up their devices inside the library, but it’s not unusual to find people plugged into outlets in the restrooms and watching a press conference from Bloomberg. I know, because as a non-NYU person,  I am allowed to show my identification to security and use the bathroom downstairs.

The first few nights after Sandy, there were so many police vehicles and ambulances that I hardly needed the flashlight or candle. On Halloween, the moonlight looks like snow on the ground. I don’t hear any dogs barking and few cars are on the streets. At home, with my day’s haul of apples, broccoli, carrots, bread, and candles, I arrange four tea lights in the bottom of a stainless steel frying pan. I wonder, “What would Martha Stewart say about this?” and for the moment, I feel grateful. Lucky.

The next day brings more new faces and stories. We are so immersed in charging and downloading and updating and sharing passwords, that we almost don’t notice that dusk has turned to darkness. A sequined performer on stilts beckons waves of students inside to a Hurricane Sandy soiree. Big band orchestra music wafts out of the library.

And so life rushes in and continues after the storm.

I walk home on dark streets, following the lights of hot dog vendors and food carts. Clicking my flashlight on and off, I look like a drunken firefly as I make my way in a city that resembles an abandoned movie set.

On Canal Street, traffic cops attempt to slow down cars by waving signal wands that look like light sabers. Maybe they’d have better luck if they hired ravers to dance with glow sticks. “Aren’t you afraid?” I ask one. “These streets are dangerous even when the traffic lights are working. Has anyone been hit?” “Not yet,” she replies. “That’s why we try to stand off to the side.” I nod knowingly. My son and I have sat with pedestrians who’ve been struck by cars and SUVs, and waited with them until the ambulance arrived. And that’s when it’s been light outside.

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