Remembering Sandy: Part IV

sandy_car2It felt good for Little Brother to be charged with what felt like Big Brother responsibility–rescuing the parents, and Grandpa. OK, fine, so they weren’t in any mortal danger as far as we could tell–but the job had some heft to it. I used the office Internet to locate one of the scant few inter-borough express buses that were said to be running. My brother wished me Godspeed. If all went according to plan (we didn’t really have one), we would rendezvous the next day at his kids’ house (rumors had it that my Sister-in-Law’s condo had full power) for my younger nephew’s 10th birthday party.

On the bus, I marveled at folks from disparate walks of life exchanging stories, joking, even networking. Disasters, even qualified, smaller calamities post 9/11, have always fascinated and enchanted. They break up our routines and engender collisions of worlds that make things more interesting, if only for a brief time. Actors hung out with plumbers, bus drivers with financiers, law students with jewelry designers. It was totally uncurated and certainly not crowdsourced. They were the types of temporary unions that once created civilization.

Lofty thoughts abounding, I decided to spend some of my newly acquired cell phone juice on my mom, who I figured was rationing hers. This would be a treat for her–not only a call from her son, but a personal visit, in dire times, no less! When she picked up she sounded distracted and unimpressed.

“You’re coming now?”

“Yes, like right NOW.”

“Well, it’s not a good time. I’m about to leave.”

“WHAT? Why?”

“My devices are losing power. I’m going to Yelena and the kids’ house to charge them.”

“Mom, I’ll be there in 15 minutes. Just WAIT.” She had already hung up.

My mom has very strong command of her faculties, but this interaction was absolutely insane. If this had been my dad’s mom, who, god bless her, suffered from late life dementia requiring constant management, I would have understood. But this was my mom, a logical person who was now blowing me off after my hour-long bus ride during a blackout to take lord knows what transport to my nephews’ house in Homecrest so she could charge her phone! Still, I counted on common sense to prevail and fully expected to catch her before she left.

The bus sped down Belt Parkway through Bensonhurst into Gravesend, wrapping around the eerily quiet boundary of  southwest Brooklyn. I marveled at the post-apocalyptic stillness. Parked cars were strewn about, abandoned after the storm pounded and drained most of them, rendering these powerful beasts totally useless, my dad’s Toyota Corolla among them.

When the bus dropped me off minutes later, I trudged up nine flights of stairs with my tiny blinged-out LED flashlight to their apartment. Sure enough, when I entered, there was no sign of Mom. What I did find was my dad, sitting in the kitchen and eating borscht. He was surprised to see me and had no idea where my mom was. On any given day, this would be our typical family coordination, but during minor catastrophes it seemed a bit egregious.

“What about Grandpa?” Slurping his soup distractedly, my dad suddenly stirred.

“Ooh, good thing you reminded me. I made a deal with a Turkish guy, over by Coney Island Hospital, who agreed to pick up Grandpa and drive him to a hospital.”

Turkish guy? Hospital? The fewer questions I asked the better.

“What time?”

Dad looked at his watch. “Uh, five in the evening.” It was ten to five.

“Dad, we’ve gotta go!” Clearly, my father had lost track of time. Not that I could blame him under the circumstances, but this, too, was par for the course.

We hurried on foot to Grandpa’s Brighton Beach apartment. Luckily, Dad had the foresight years ago to install his parents on the ground floor of their building, making such evacuations more feasible. Moving an 86-year old man who relied on a walker to their 9th floor apartment was out of the question, so lobbying the hospital to put up Grandpa for a few days was the only thing he could think of.

“What about the fire truck?” I asked, almost forgetting about that whole business of only hours prior.

“Oh, yeah, that didn’t happen.”

“They never showed up? A gas leak is not enough to get their attention?” I demanded.

“Actually, Viktor, the home attendant, says they came. A fire truck pulled up outside but I wasn’t there, and Viktor doesn’t speak English well and didn’t know what to do, so they just left.” Somehow, responses like this one were starting to sound perfectly reasonable.

We got to Grandpa’s building only a few minutes after the time Dad had supposedly arranged with this mysterious “Turkish guy.” A half hour later, no Turkish guy was forthcoming. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe Viktor saw him and did nothing again. Maybe my dad screwed up the meeting time and the Turkish guy lost patience waiting for us, spat out his cigarette, and drove home to his family. Maybe whoever my dad spoke to didn’t understand a word he said and merely humored him, nodding agreement to everything he said. Maybe there never was a Turkish guy. Who could tell?

We were thinking on our feet, planning for contingencies. A cop car was sitting nearby. I would go and see if New York’s Finest could assist us in getting an ambulance. When I pled my case to a stone-faced officer, he shook his head. “Sorry, we’ve got a situation.” He pointed to a manhole halfway down the block that was shooting flames of fire at least 20 feet into the sky. This, too, was completely insane. I thanked him for his time and moved on.

There was little to do but look for a car service. We walked toward Coney Island Avenue, the main artery pumping lifeblood into the heart of Brighton Beach. It’s the street where Russian book stores and Uzbek restaurants sit alongside exuberant hair salons and a fur storage facility. It was more or less our drop point as immigrants a quarter century ago. Sure enough, within minutes we identified a roaming Russian livery driver whose shift was ending but who was willing to drive us to New York Community Hospital, my dad’s go-to medical shelter. As a bonus, he seemed to have a heart and wouldn’t gouge us, given the situation.

Now we were cooking with gas. Minutes later, Grandpa was prepped with Viktor’s assistance, loaded into the car, and off to the hospital. We were all too familiar with the ER admission procedure. Time was flying. I realized that it was getting late. My phone still had a good charge and I suddenly noticed a voicemail from my mom. I hadn’t picked up because it was an unfamiliar number. The message was somewhat disjointed, but the main points were clear: (1) She was on her way to Yelena’s house to charge her phone. (2) She had borrowed some kid’s phone at a bus stop to call me. I called my nephews’ house but no one was home. My father said they’d gone to Staten Island earlier in the day to help Yelena’s brother, whose house and cars had really taken a beating, but were due back any minute now. There was little more I could do here, so I decided to walk to Yelena and the nephews’ place, which was within a 20-minute walk of the hospital. This Shangri La promised hot water, electricity, and a reunion with Mom. With my dad’s blessing, I set out on my journey…

 

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Posted in brighton beach, coney island, Memories, NYC, Sheepshead Bay, Uncategorized

Remembering Sandy, Part III

article-0-15D62AA6000005DC-619_964x1289.jpgOnce I had some juice in my phone I called the parents immediately. They lived in evacuation Zone A which, oddly enough, was not particularly well evacuated. This of course I already knew from a jokey conversation with them the day before Sandy made landfall in New York.

In summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene was all the rage. Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg took measures to not only get the word out to all the affected neighborhoods of New York City, but to make the weight of the situation felt in those areas where English was not always the primary language. Brighton Beach and the rest of Russian Brooklyn largely complied. I spent the better part of a Saturday moving my grandfather and his home attendant from his 1-bedroom apartment on Oceanview Avenue to my converted studio in Midwood. It was a tiring and unnecessary experience for all involved–yanking Grandpa out of the familiar (if humdrum) surroundings and routine of his abode to my minimalist bachelor residence that lacked Russian television and radio, thus sentencing him to hours of staring out into space and asking me intrusive questions about work and personal finances. His Kazakh male home attendant and I, as you might surmise, had even less to discuss. But the mayor, and my father, had spoken, and Grandpa was to sit out this non-storm in the relative safety of Avenue P.

It was little surprise then, that when news tickers and talking heads started running warnings about the latest hurricane to hit NYC, most New York City residents, and certainly its Russian-speaking contingent, laughed and changed the channel.

Luckily, one of my parents’ cell phones had just enough juice for a quick conversation. On their 9th floor perch overlooking the Neptune Avenue F train, with the Coney Island Wonder Wheel and parachute jump in full view from their balcony, the parents were all right. There was food, there was water (for now), though unlike the Blackout of 2003 (when they were rescued by their development’s autonomous power station), there was no power. The elevators were out, turning any trips to the outside into intense, full-body workouts, but otherwise, things were manageable. Having dispensed with the most basic confirmations of well-being, we agreed to stay in touch the best we could as the situation developed.

Next I called my brother, to check on him. The whole risotto gourmet dinner thing seemed even more ridiculous in retrospect. He, his girlfriend, and her fluffy white poodle mix were all safely ensconced in his SoHo apartment. I stopped by the Duane Reade, now overrun by people who hadn’t prepared. I was one of them. With only one tiny LED flashlight stamped with green dollar signs (a prescient gift from my dad), I needed some candles to keep the lights on at night. The only thing that remotely fit the bill and hadn’t yet been completely sold out: a sack of 50 tiny tealight candles. Next door, offering its own unique brand of civic spirit, New University Pen and Stationery had set already set up shop on the sidewalk, gouging people 5-10x above market rates on batteries, flashlights, and other necessities. God bless America. That night, bathed in the glow of fancy scented candles supplied by my brother’s girlfriend, we sipped good decanted wine, ate leftovers from our fridges, and watched movies on my laptop until its battery ran dry.

In the days following the power outage  caused by an explosion at the 14th street transformer (see now famous image of blacked-out downtown Manhattan), and the attendant water shortage, New Yorkers below 23rd Street lived a relatively Third World existence of gym showers, scattered communal spirit, and callous opportunism. Wicked Willy’s, a charmingly chintzy college bar/club on Bleecker that I’d previously avoided at all costs, was offering free charging from their generator, as well as chilled Coronas. Much like on a Soviet Monday, there was little to do but drink and wait for the lights to come back on. I stopped in for a couple of beers at night and got enough juice in my phone to check in on my parents again.

On Tuesday, we woke up with a slight hangover and to much the same situation: power and water still out in my building and most of lower Manhattan. Downstairs, a mix of co-op board members and benevolent neighbors were pumping water from an auxiliary source into buckets left in the lobby and doing grocery runs for the elderly and less mobile residents. There was a rumor floating around that power flowed freely above 23rd Street. With work pretty much shut down for the week and little to do otherwise, I decided to set sail for Penn Plaza, where, if the tales were true, I’d find electronic sustenance and access to landlines and email. My brother, whose Woolworth Building office was in the affected downtown zone, expressed interest in joining.

And so we were off: me, my brother, his lady, and her little dog, off to see the Wizard of 32nd Street. It was the first time I had walked the 30-odd blocks from my home to work, which really takes less than half an hour and avoids the madness of rush-hour subways. We passed scores of New Yorkers stretching their legs, walking dogs and children, or visitors gawking at the spectacle of the furiously-paced city at a standstill. When we crossed West 23rd into Chelsea proper, we could see that the legends were true: electronic displays were lit, traffic lights were functional, and small business was humming. Meanwhile, the import/export/electronics stores that cater to tourists in the Flatiron and Herald Square neighborhoods gouged the pants off New York City residents with 10x markups on staples. I had the urge to Internet-shame these villains, but Web access for the very same people afflicted was down. The perfect crime.

At the office, I had that Walking Dead sensation again. Some of the lights were on and everything was just where it was the Friday prior, but our expansive office space  was utterly abandoned. We were a sight to behold, three human forms and a tiny dog wagging its tail in a prim midtown Manhattan office. The pup had the run of the entire floor, and she took full advantage, racing up and down the hallways past cubicles with an alacrity the most zealous project manager would envy. The one or two worker bees who’d had the same brilliant idea to use the office as a power base where planted in their offices assembling weekly mailings.

First things first. I had to check in with the parents again. We’d not had contact for over 24 hours, which in Russian Jewish family circles raises some very loud alarms. When I reached my dad’s cell phone, his voice was urgent and the content already mid-sentence. Our connection was fine, but he spoke as if we were breaking up, repeating things and reminding me over and over that his battery could die any moment. The key message came through, though:

“Grandpa’s in trouble…fumes in his apartment…home attendant Viktor is with him…hospital won’t send ambulance…need to call Fire Department.” The he hung up, either because his battery was dying or because it already had.

Our family had been know to be alarmist, but in these uncertain times, my brother and I decidedly to play it safe. We could logically deduce that the option of our dad evacuating Grandpa from his Brighton Beach apartment was closed off since our parents lived on the 9th floor of a building whose elevators were incapacitated. Calling a fire truck to come investigate the fumes (and potentially instigate Grandpa’s evacuation) seemed, under the circumstances, pretty reasonable. My brother put the call in and our dad, as hastily agreed, would be at Grandpa’s apartment keeping vigil until they arrived (he was the only one with enough English skills to greet New York’s Bravest.

Normally, we’d count our filial duty done, but my brother and I looked at each other sheepishly, knowing there was more to be done before our conscience could find rest. One of us would have to make the trek to Brooklyn. My brother, the older kinsman, usually took on the larger share of family burdens. It was my time. After all, he had someone to care for, and I was the more expendable son in that moment. So, with his blessing, I left the comfort of an office with heat, running water, and Internet, looked up the special inter-borough shuttle bus schedule, and headed home to pack my bag.

TBC…

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Greenwich Village, Memories, NYC, Uncategorized

Remembering Sandy, Part II

silver-picasso_westThe morning after the storm was deceptively normal, the very vision of the quiet apocalypse: probably what Rick and Co. on The Walking Dead feel every morning waking up in a comfortable bed, before booting up and recalling that the world has gone to shit. Still, I went through the rounds of testing out more than one appliance to verify it was still on the fritz. The fallen ancient tree outside, still covering much of Houston at the Wooster corner, was the definitive, stark proof that last night’s tempest was real.

Without cell phone service or media, there was little to do around the house but venture outside. I grabbed my iPhone and a travel charger, and went forth into the unknown. My next door neighbor was there, the first time I’d ever even seen the guy, and we introduced ourselves, exchanging friendly handshakes. Once outside, my only agenda was to find someplace that still had power and charge my phone there. As a Soviet Jew, one of my daily duties, along with personal hygiene and sustenance, is to call my parents–an albatross that really turns mission critical in times of disaster. I could just imagine thousands of us, comfortable in our powerlessness, rousted from our soft pillows by fear, guilt, and maybe even genuine concern.

My apartment building, a brutalist structure designed by I.M. Pei and built in the 1960s, is an estranged triplet of the twin Silver Towers housing NYU faculty and grad students. Though the three are identical, there is very little interaction between our two very different communities. A cobblestone driveway and a Picasso statue (yes) is about all we really share. So when I noticed that one of the towers’ lobby lights were on, I was excited but unsure how to proceed. Noticing several units plugged into the outlets in the alcove, so I entered and asked the lobby concierge if I could charge my phone up to call my parents, who were in Flood Zone 1 (mandatory evacuation). He deliberated for a moment and reluctantly agreed, noting that they were on an emergency generator and that building residents might get pissed if too many outsiders took advantage.

As I was charging up my phone, which I did not have the foresight to unplug the night prior, a middle-aged lady entered the lobby. Though I kept to myself and, like any solid New Yorker, avoided meeting my neighbors as a rule, I was sure I had seen her somewhere in my building before. She wore bathrobe and slippers and looked shaken. But it was the coffee grinder she was firmly cradling with both arms pressed against her chest, like a running back jealously protecting his football on a third down, that really stood out for me. She went up the concierge like a supplicant at the court of King Solomon and asked if she could plug in her grinder to make some coffee. The guard, in disbelief at the audacity of this java-starved neighbor, explained that the outlets were for emergencies only.

“Only for critical stuff,” he explained, motioning in my general direction.

The lady, in disbelief, sniffled in hurt and disgust. I saw, I shit you not, a tears or two sliding down her indignant cheeks.

“So this…” she pointed at the grinder, shaking it in the air like a bullhorn, as if it amplified her voice and made her case, “this…is not critical?” The concierge and I, and the puzzled building denizens leaving the elevator, all knew what she was saying. It was what so many city folk say in a troubled morning moment–be it an air raid on London or a hurricane in New York–I NEED MY COFFEE…

 

 

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Posted in Greenwich Village, Uncategorized

Remembering Sandy, Part I

gholch-330-img_0293ahurricanesandytreeMaybe it’s just the compulsion of the storyteller, but Sandy brought out the documentarian in me. Whether racing from one responsibility to another or calmly watching the storm and the damage it wrought to our city, I kept coming back to the fact that there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of stories swirling around like the headwinds of the hurricane itself. I was just a bug in its path—an active participant with the morbid curiosity of a gawker. Surely this strange concoction of perceptions has something to do with my relatively recent change of area codes—even with the lights going down on Lower Manhattan, my experience had little in common with those stark, harsher realities faced by so many of New York’s Zone A dwellers.My tale starts, like so many others, at a bar: GMT Tavern to be exact, the drinking hole closest to my Shire. There, on that fateful Monday, I met my friend K., mere days since repatriated from a three-year adventure working abroad. Just in time for the latest Storm of the Century—which we, of course, laughed off as we sipped our tall pints of English ales. K., who was still in the process of resettlement and apartment hunting, took a cab from the Midtown extended stay bastion of comfort that was his temporary home. Earlier that day, we’d both received very clear word from our respective employers—there’d be no work tomorrow. Not an hour passed and we were parked on our GMT bar stools, watching round-the-clock previews of the storm and toasting to media hyperbole.

We kept drinking and the afternoon wore on. The the wind outside picked up, bushes and plants in Laguardia Corner Gardens across the street yielding to its commands. As we started swaying in our stools, so did the large elms and honeylocusts, and even through our alcoholic haze, we knew this joke was starting to get real, fast. Barflies were disappearing one by one and daylight was on the wane. Warily, we watched a steady stream of people pouring out of Morton Williams, my downstairs supermarket, loaded with grocery bags. Still, we were trying to hold on to our last hurrah of carefree bonhomie and nonchalance.

“You think the store is going to stay open?” I inquired of K. “I’m cooking dinner tonight for my brother and his girlfriend. Need to pick up some stuff for the risotto.”
“In an hour, we’ll be smashing our way into Morton with these bar stools  like a couple of wolves,” he joked. I laughed and finished my drink.

Minutes later, K. wished me luck and went circling the block for a taxi, wisely deciding that if Judgment Day was coming, there’d be fewer cabs around. I paid my tab and lurched out toward Morton Williams. My phone pulled up some recipes for risotto and I started collecting gourmet items: Arborio rice, white cooking wine, chives, and so on. All around me, people were scrambling to fill their carts and baskets with basic staples for survival: bread, peanut butter, cans of soup, and jugs of spring water. Meanwhile, I was comparing prices on olive oil and chicken stock. When I had all I needed, I called my brother just to confirm our dinner date.

“Pfft, some Storm of the Century. So, do you guys want to come over to my place, or shall I come and make prep in your kitchen?”
“Uh, you know, maybe we should take a rain check on that dinner and wait out the storm. It’s supposed to be hitting any minute now.”
“Sounds good,” I replied, with the breezy, casually drunk detachment bred by a mere 4 months of living in Manhattan.

No sense wasting the shopping trip, might as well grab these and cook dinner the next day. At the register, there was some disagreement on the price of one of my items. I took out the circular and started brushing through it fastidiously, sending my cashier to the manager’s booth for a price check. The 24-hour store was closing early, in five minutes or so. Only the cashiers remained, checking their watches, whispering in Spanish with hushed alarm, anxious to get out and onto the subways, back to their homes uptown and in the Bronx. And there I was, a drunk dick insisting on verifying the price accuracy of extra virgin olive oil. I stirred and called off the investigation, paying quickly for my gourmet dinner and a sack of tea candles, the only responsible purchase I was making.

As I walked down the Laguardia Community Gardens garden alleyway, the wind had picked up more and our tall trees were starting to show some serious bend. Even my ubiquitous homeless neighbor Delfine, he of the ankle-length dreadlock fame, had batted down the hatches, locking up his carts, wrapping them tightly with tarp, while seeking refuge elsewhere. This was a man who never leaves, and to this day Sandy was the only time I’ve ever seen him gone for any significant period of time. Maybe there was something to this storm thing after all.

Upstairs, I was settling in for a quiet evening of storm-watching and Netflix binging. After all, there’d be no work Monday, which would surely be spent laughing with friends over the absurdity of it all while our responsibilities were on pause by official decree. I got in bed with a bag of peanuts and my laptop–one of my favorite guilty pleasures as a bachelor. I turned on the news coverage and leisurely watched Apocalypse descend on New York City. A few minutes later, my laptop died abruptly and so did the lights in my room. I checked the breakers but it was no use. It wasn’t just me. Lights all over SoHo, that neighborhood directly across the street from me, were going out.

Looks like there’ll be some adventure after all, I thought, pouring myself a beer. It wasn’t all bad–a rare chance to reconnect with antiquity and life before 24/7 media ubiquity and unplugged entertainment. As I tried to insinuate this into my Internet-addled brain, the terror of this new dystopic reality gripped me. I grabbed another beer and drank nervously, under the covers. As I contemplated the terror of being alone in the dark with nothing to do at 8 pm, the tempest outside was reaching a crescendo. Trash was swirling through the streets and trees were starting to limbo under the pressure of hurricane gales. It’s amazing how safe you can feel in your bedroom.When Judgment Day comes, I imagine we’ll all be in our beds, watching the Horsemen lay waste to the world, secure behind our locked doors.

Sandy was providing all the entertainment now. Even with the blackout now in full swing, a few pedestrians were rushing to get home as ambulances and fire trucks started to take over the streets. My large, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, were now the screen to the this spectacle. There was no warning when the giant old tree in our backyard garden, provider of shade, collapsed over the garden fence and covering the westbound lane on Houston, closing off all traffic. I watched it happen in slow motion, thinking that if it had gone the other way, toward my second-floor apartment, my neighbor and I could have become a headline in the next day’s Post.

Alone with my thoughts now, I pulled up the covers and closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to come, like a 19th-century Russian peasant…

 

 

 

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Posted in Greenwich Village, Memories, Uncategorized

1000 Scenes Project

1000 Scenes Project with Morgan Phillips. Much fun–try it before 2015 runs out!

http://1000scenes.tumblr.com/

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Posted in Uncategorized

Mike, The Durable

Source: Mike, The Durable

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The Witch of Staten Island

Source: The Witch of Staten Island

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