Once 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.