Two New Yorks

I MOVED to Manhattan during the crack epidemic of 1988. The heroin epidemic of the early 1970s produced CBGB, Studio 54, punk rock and hip hop. The crack epidemic produced crack addicts. If we complained loudly enough to the police, they would chase the crack dealers away for a few days. Crack-addicted hookers replaced them: children in nylons, propositioning corner deli owners—a blow job for a pack of Newports. We’d complain to the police again; they’d chase away the hookers, and the crack dealers would return.

When Rudolph Giuliani practically wiped out street crime in New York, I enjoyed our new safety, but worried that we would lose our toughness. I needn’t have. September 11th and a half dozen subsequent catastrophes have made clear that we are still plenty tough.

For the past week, my eight-year-old and I have traipsed up and down eight flights of stairs in the pitch dark every day, shivered in the lightless cold of our apartment, and “bathed” by running Baby Wipes over our stinky parts. School was canceled. Our fresh food went bad immediately. For a few days we lived on pasta. Then cookies and popcorn. For an eight-year-old girl, it was paradise. I loved hanging with my kid, and enjoyed roughing it.

This morning at 1:48 AM, our electric power came back. A few hours later, cellular and cable internet service was restored. I walked my daughter down to her mother’s place (she goes back and forth between us), kissed her goodbye for a few days, and busied myself buying bread and water.

My super worked all night restoring cold running water, granting us the unimaginable luxury of a flushing toilet. We will not have heat or hot water for at least another week, though, because of an explosion at a Con Edison plant.

Phrases like “explosion at a Con Edison plant” seem normal in my new New York, but there is another New York, where they never lost power, or water, or heat, or internet access, or fresh food, or refrigeration, or elevator service, or subway service, or, frankly, a damn thing. I confess that I am starting to begrudge this other New York its good fortune.

At first I was all about gratitude, patience, survival, a calm willingness to do whatever was necessary. Sliding way down Maslov’s Pyramid can be good for the soul. I was grateful for my first week of deprivation with my kid: the closeness it brought, the fun we had surviving together. I pitied the other New York, whose citizens did not get to experience the bonding joy of plunging into the dark, wet, nineteenth century. My daughter, her mother, and I actually experienced the hurricane. Folks lucky enough not to suffer any deprivation had maybe kind of missed something.

That was my feeling until I learned that we would have to endure at least another week without heat or hot water. And started noticing that some of my acquaintances in the lucky parts of New York hadn’t even asked how I was doing.

A friend and I are going to the theater tonight thanks to the incredible generosity of a colleague, a man I barely know, who emailed me two tickets to tonight’s performance of The Book of Mormon. Filthy or not, I am going to enjoy the hell out of this luxurious theatrical experience … before slouching back to have-not New York.

15 thoughts on “Two New Yorks

  1. Here in India, we have so many such days if we leave Mumbai and go to interiors.

    I am surprised to hear about the dependency that you people have on electricity.

    But good to hear that you have it back. I hope you get hot water running in your house soon.

    As it is always said “It shall pass”.

    Our prayers are with people who were affected by Sandy.

  2. So glad you’re back on the grid, Z. It was a relief to see you tweeting throughout, even when things were bad.

    The things I’m going to say next aren’t intended to diminish anything you’ve said. If anything, I want them to be an extension.

    There’s a part of the city that continues to be missing from most of the media conversation about NYC, and which has received a fraction of the attention given to the (very serious) conditions in Manhattan. A third New York, maybe. Or a fourth.

    I just got back from the Gowanus Houses a few blocks over from my apartment. It’s a public housing project, and apparently has been without power or water for a week. Ad-hoc volunteers—a handful of neighborhood people, as far as I can tell—are handing out food and toiletries to residents, and to be carried up to the elderly and disabled people who can’t get down the stairs. Milk for the kids, canned food, batteries. Adult diapers. I live ten minutes away from the Houses and I had no idea they’d lost power and water when the rest of our neighborhood got off so lightly. (Minus the flooding from our local Superfund site, the Gowanus.)

    The National Guard was at the Gowanus Houses today, but many of the residents are apparently living on donations from random strangers like me, who only discovered their situation by coincidence. They’re in a “lucky” part of NYC.

    Further out, of course, there’s the devastation we associate with midwestern floods or tornados: whole neighborhoods flattened, burned, gone. It doesn’t get worse, and the severity of these images will—I hope—provoke a serious and sustained aid and recovery response. Those areas have been hit the hardest, but although I have maximum sympathy for their residents, they’re not the ones keeping me up at night, worrying. The “two New Yorks” of Manhattan and the utter nightmare of the Rockaways/Breezy Point are the parts of this storm no one can escape hearing about—and Red Hook and DUMBO, at least are getting appropriate attention by virtue of strong connections to new media and tight-knit neighborhoods.

    What I don’t hear or see—certainly not from the Mayor’s Office—is any real recognition that the poorest and most vulnerable people in New York, which is so much more than Manhattan, are suffering mightily and will keep suffering for a long time to come. That both poor and middle class neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx are still without power, and that public housing throughout NYC is in terrible shape, with another storm coming next week.

    These New Yorkers aren’t getting special attention from political leaders. They’re not making the cover of NY Mag or the New Yorker, or anything else. We’re not throwing bake sales and benefit events for them, and I don’t believe for a second it’s because New Yorkers don’t care. It’s because we don’t see them.

    As we deal with our own snarls and deprivations, let’s not forget all the other New York Cities that are invisible to most of us. Just a few of the groups who are helping:

    Masabia Soup Kitchen:
    Food Bank NYC:
    Occupy Sandy:

  3. So very glad you have power back and that you’re going to “The Book of Mormon” tonight. What a great way to feed your spirit, living through this disaster.

    I live in Inwood (northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan) and all of us living here and elsewhere uptown know just how lucky we are. But, like you, we’re also experiencing the collective trauma of our whole region psychically. There’s been a disturbance in the force.

    People in Inwood are itching to do everything they can to help. So many Inwoodites are pitching in, donating food & goods and volunteering at the local disaster shelter and gathering donated food & goods for the Rockaways and Staten Island, and other places affected. I wish you could see the huge outpouring of heart-felt generosity in action. It’s only been limited by organization and logistics.

    And I think this is happening all over the city. All kinds of restaurants are hosting disaster benefits. Other benefits have been, and are being organized.

    I am truly proud to be a New Yorker.

  4. Erin, thank you for what you wrote. So eloquent and so true.

    It’s clear that the people who stayed in the projects are among those in dire need of immediate emergency services.

    Up here in Inwood, we want to get help and supplies to those who need them most, but we don’t know how to do it. We don’t know the projects that need the help and don’t know who is organizing efforts to help them. (And right now, many of us who do have vehicles don’t have gas to deliver supplies.)

    We were told yesterday that the shelter at George Washington HS at 193 & Audubon would be expanding from housing 200 people, to bringing people from other disaster shelters, increasing capacity to 6-700 people, and calling for volunteers and all kinds of supplies (towels, soap, toothpaste, etc.)

    The whole community stepped up, with dozens of deliveries of supplies, enough volunteers to fully staff the shelter for 6-700. AND THEN… today we heard they had decided to not to expand the shelter population after all.

    There’s now a sign on the shelter door saying, “we don’t need supplies or volunteers. Just donate MetroCards.”

    So up here we’re feeling a bit bruised and mistrustful.

    So I think probably one good thing almost anyone can do to help is to donate to the American Red Cross, to help them pay for what they do so well. They have trained volunteers all over the country that are coming here to help.

    They have experience with this. They know how to do it right.

  5. Our tornadoes here in the Midwest, though known to wipe a town off the map, seem like a minor nuisance compared to what so many of you on the East and Gulf Coasts have had to endure — the current aftermath and that of previous hurricanes. When something is so far from one’s own experience it can be too easy to push it away after a while, and I’m guilty of this myself. I’m not in a position to do much to help physically, but just know that there are people around the country (and I’m sure, the world) who are thinking of you and others there — especially the hardest hit, as Erin described — and sending prayers your way. And maybe some of us can send money, too.

    I had to smile at how easily your daughter was reassured in a video you posted. “Why was I born in this century??” “It’s fine, we’re safe.” “YAAAY!!” As a new dad myself I have to admire that. They don’t tell you at the hospital, but that’s part of the job description: Be calm in the face of adversity — even hurricanes. Well done.

  6. Erin:

    You are a wonderful human being, and I love you. Honored to be your friend. Thank you for shedding light on the hardest hit, and making the media-invisible visible.

    Lots of people still need lots of help. It’s astonishing that even our local NYC media can’t be fussed about it. And yet it is also not even slightly astonishing, because the poor are always getting squeezed, and we always act like they don’t exist.

    Thank you!

  7. Karla:

    Thank you for helping to organize your community. You made a difference even if your efforts were stymied by the changing signals of the overwhelmed emergency response bureaucracy. You are good people. And, yes, everyone can make a difference via the Red Cross. Thanks again. :)

  8. It’s all nice to speak of continuing heroism and re-heroism, and then there’s the possibility that you shouldn’t have to continually run and rerun yourself through the gauntlet to survive, particularly if you live (which I surely don’t) in one of, if not the, richest and business-oriented capitals of the world?
    I mean, I was watching that water flooding down into those subways, all the loss of the economic cost of the wiring, systems, equipment, how much of it replaced after 9/11?, and I immediately thought “God, how is there not a watertight system of seawall and pumps at least encircling Manhattan (if not also the other boroughs)?” (I live very near Galveston so I know the value of these walls etc.)
    I mean, we are in a world where there has been this continually nagging question of the existence or not of global warming. There are actual islands of nations which have already sunk beneath the ocean. THIS is called homeland security. Where is the leadership? Where is the vision, ex: that those buildings such as you live in should be able with max solar power generation and efficient appliances and power management to live in emergencies completely off the grid with backup batteries charged by rooftop and solar coating the buildings year round, and selling back power to the utilities? In my opinion, whatever NYC leaders ignored present climate conditions in this way ought to be out on their ear. But, people are lazy. They survive and live to drink another lemonade. To quote P. Townshend, “People forget.”

  9. Oh, and I forgot one thing (believe it or not). This was only about a category 1 storm. Can you imagine if it were a category 3, 4 or 5?

  10. Funny you should mention that:

    The Mayor’s Barrier: Here are some ideas for New York to think about after Hurricane Sandy, especially if the city wants to better protect itself.

    Protecting the City, Before Next Time: Could New York’s waterfront be re-engineered to withstand a super-storm? Three proposals for areas hit hard last week.

    The Japanese mayor who was laughed at for building a huge sea wall – until his village was left almost untouched by tsunami: just like it says

  11. Your description of the ‘other New York’ is so eerily familiar.

    January 2011 saw us in the worst flood our city, Brisbane, had experienced in 40 years (We were lucky, losing only our bottom floor while those around us lost almost everything)

    Our suburb is at the base of a hill next to the flooded river — on the other side of the hill it was bright and alive. People were going out, watching tv, getting takeaway. Many were oblivious to the heartache and destruction just over the rise a five minute walk away. Our side was dark and silent.

    I camped out on our front veranda with a donated gas stove and a powerful light (to spotlight the looters) listening to fish gulp the surface of the water 2 metres above our flooded garden beds. The water receded after a couple of days leaving a thick layer of oily, toxic mud over everything.

    If I had harboured any feelings of resentment to our ‘other Brisbane’ during the flood they disappeared soon after as the volunteers arrived. In their thousands. Tens of thousands. Those that weren’t shovelling filthy mud from streets and cleaning peoples homes were walking door to door with drinks and food to keep the ‘mud army’ (as it was later named) going. Without them we would have been lost.

    I hope you get to experience that same overwhelming outpouring of generosity in your community.

    …and nothing beats that first hot shower in your own home.

  12. We get accustomed to electricity and dependable, clean, running water. It’s a reality-shattering experience to be without them.

    An ice storm knocked out my sense of sheltered reality when I was 21. We went 14 days without electricity. In rural Arkansas, we had a wood stove for heat, and lanterns for light, but the sense of isolation was mind altering.

    No refrigeration. No hot water for bathing. No tv/internet. The upside, my family sat around and talked for hours on end. It’s something I’ll never forget.

    Thanks for the post. I hope your situation has improved.

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