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.

By Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek.

Designer at Automattic, Inc. Co-Founder, An Event Apart. Publisher, A List Apart & A Book Apart. Author. Father. He/him.