When the lights go out, New Yorkers become Iowans
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Looking south from 25th & Broadway at the Flatiron Building in New York City. All of Manhattan south of 39th Street was without power. Photo by Peter Salanki
NEW YORK CITY — I’m writing this on my Underwood 250, a manual typewriter from the 1960s, surrounded by candles in the kitchen of my lower Manhattan apartment. It’s day four of the blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy, the largest storm ever to make landfall in New York City.
Our home was lucky.
We live in Evacuation Zone B—about a third of a mile away from the Hudson River—and the mandatory evacuation orders only covered Zone A, the areas closest to the water. Both the Hudson River and the East River overflowed their banks, flooding homes and businesses, submerging the subways, and knocking out the power station on 14th Street, which powers all of the island from 39th Street downwards. Our building, however, was spared the floodwaters by a couple of blocks, and the burglar bars on our windows kept any flying debris from breaking the glass.
Others, of course, were not so lucky.
Many people lost their homes, their possessions, and, tragically, some even lost their lives. New York, however, is a hard-working and surprisingly efficient city, and the round-the-clock efforts of police, firefighters, hospital workers, and others have saved many lives and prevented a far greater disaster.
All that remains now is the blackout, leaving several square miles and hundreds of thousands of people living a temporary 19th-century lifestyle. I’ve been through one blackout in this city before, in 2003, but while it covered most of the northeastern United States, it lasted for just one day. This time, New Yorkers have had a chance to get past the initial novelty and almost party-like atmosphere that comes with the first day of a blackout, and settle into routine as they live for days without power, or any certainty about when it might return.
Offices and stores may have been closed all week, but humans adapt quickly, and a spirit of community and versatility has kept Manhattanites working. Restaurants, bars, and cafés in the parts of the city with power have thrown open their doors to laptop-toting nomads, offering Wi-Fi and power outlets. Grateful displaced office workers have kept up the community spirit by bringing in their own power strips to ensure others could share the electricity.
This spirit of coming together in a crisis is something that has been remarked upon before in other times, in New York as well as many other places. I won’t list them all here, to avoid comparing one event to another. Every hardship is unique in its own way, but each seems to be accompanied by a coming together of neighbors and strangers alike. What I’ve seen in this blackout, though, is something more transformative. It seems that with each test New Yorkers go through together, neighborliness increases a little bit, carrying over and compounding from the time before, and the time before that.
With the power out at home, I’ve been out walking the streets at night to look at the darkened buildings and take in the strange experience of a silenced Manhattan. I know the police have been out in force—a friend of mine who’s a sergeant in the NYPD has been pulling 12-hour shifts all week, including two in a row — but they aren’t a particularly visible presence on our own streets, most likely because they haven’t been needed. No looting, no fighting, no vandalism, not even traffic problems. It seems that as controls weaken, civility, ironically, is increasing.
What’s causing it, I wonder? Is it the relatively empty streets that have a tempering effect, or is it some recognition of the humanity in others that arrives when we ourselves are under duress? Do our own troubles make it easier to empathize with others?
I’ve noticed, outside of this current situation, on any average day, something similar with the homeless of the city. Like any large city, New York has its fair share of people who spend their days on the street, asking passers-by for spare change to survive. You would think that the more money a person had to give, the more likely they would be to drop a quarter in a cup. That’s not how it actually works, though. By and large, the closer someone is to poverty themselves, the more likely they are to give to others on the street. I’ve even found this to be true for myself. When I’ve just experienced a loss, I find myself giving the most.
So now, I’ve been out strolling through my neighborhood and the ones around it at night. In a city that never slows down, never dims the lights, never gets quiet, it’s hard to overstate the attraction of dark, silent streets. Besides, it’s 40 degrees inside the apartment as well as outside, so I might as well go for a walk, since I’m bundled up already.
When you step out into the streets, normally illuminated by the lights of tall buildings on all sides, the long black canyons are a visceral surprise, even though you’re expecting them. The darkness reminds you of nothing so much as a forest, with the sky the only source of light and nothing to see in front of or beside you. Soon, though, your eyes adjust, and the moon and the stars, and the glow from nearby powered boroughs, give shape to the buildings, and midnight feels like dusk. Quietude surrounds you, and you feel calm, at ease, at home.
Walking from block to block, when a light does appear, you resent it. Whether it’s a lone car, a corner store with a generator, or just someone carrying a flashlight, it pierces and spoils the dark. At the same time, it’s those few people who do bring the lights that most visibly illustrate how New Yorkers become a community in the blackout. At a bodega that would normally close around 10 p.m., the doors were open well past midnight, and a diesel generator kept enough lights on for people to shop for necessities late into the night. No price-gouging here; everything was for sale as normally marked. While I was waiting to pay for a bottle of water, the clerk gave several packets of aspirin to a woman who had no cash because there were no working ATMs available, trusting her promise to return another day with money.
A few blocks later, I came upon a scene of dancing lights in the middle distance. When I reached them, it turned out to be an impromptu hip-hop video in the making. Several people were waving flashlights at an MC, who perched on some scaffolding while a cameraman crouched below, capturing his performance. I asked if I could watch, and they gave me a flashlight to join in. Between takes, we were laughing and having a good time, as familiar as good neighbors. We parted with a chorus of “Be safe!” and “Have fun!” as I left them filming and rapping.
Heading up towards Union Square, the lights of food trucks and carts became more common. With stores and restaurants in the blackout zone unable to open, the taco trucks and halal carts have been feeding much of lower Manhattan. I approached the first cart I saw to order some falafel and rice, but the vendor wasn’t at his cart. He evidently felt he could trust people not to walk off with any of his things, and I decided to wait for him to come back. While I waited, a college-age couple came up and tried to order a lamb gyro from me. When they realized I wasn’t the vendor, we had a decent laugh and waited together. When the cart’s owner returned, we all chatted about our respective homes, how the hurricane had been where we each lived, and how we’d been dealing with things. The halal vendor lived in Queens, and told us that his power had only gone out for a day, but it had been a cold night when it was out. I told him my own trick, a hot water bottle at the foot of the bed, something he hadn’t heard of and which he said he’d definitely be getting for himself. That led to a conversation about my grandparents who grew up in the Great Depression, and his own childhood in rural Pakistan.
Wherever I’ve been during the blackout, it’s been like this. People say hello as they pass each other on the sidewalk, strangers chat amiably about things large and small, people smile just to smile. It all takes me back to growing up in Carroll, Iowa. People would nod and smile as they passed each other shopping at Sernett’s, or chat about anything with whoever happened to be working the counter at Casey’s. The habit of waving from your car at anyone you recognized, with a finger or two lifted casually from the steering wheel, was so ingrained in me that it was some time after I moved away before I stopped checking to see if I recognized anyone else driving down the road.
Iowans are famous for our friendliness and our neighborly attitudes. Seeing that same Midwestern sensibility take hold in Manhattan, even for a few days, has been a treat. It’s also set me to ponder just where that “Iowa nice” comes from. Does the history of Iowa inform the neighborliness that exists to this day? The immigrants who came to the Iowa prairie in the 1800s faced constant hardship as they settled the land and built farms and towns in the fertile but harsh environment they found. Surely the shared struggles and ordeals they faced had a binding effect on them, building the empathy and benevolence that would become Iowan hallmarks. Whether your ancestors came to Iowa in covered wagons or pickup trucks, you’re heir to a legacy of hard struggle and sincere goodwill.
It’s been nice to see a simulacrum of “Iowa nice” appear as “NYC nice.” I’m sure that once the power is restored, I won’t be getting waves from bicyclists or as many “good mornings” walking down the block. I might try handing out a few of my own, though. Who knows, maybe we can keep this thing going just a little longer.
(Jayson Elliot Rogers, a 1988 Kuemper Catholic High School graduate, lives in New York City where he is co-founder of Preferio, a technology start-up.)