User Interaction

mimosa-2At one of the departure gates at Laguardia Airport, a middle-aged man in a gray business suit and tie towers over a small boy of 10 or so wearing a striped shirt and jeans. The man’s right hand is on the boy’s left shoulder. He’s speaking, ostensibly to the boy, in an affected manner, as if he’s being recorded for a school video. He keeps sweeping his left arm across some distant horizon. Remember when flying was a hassle, good for little more than watercooler fodder between traveling salesmen? A necessary nuisance for folks reuniting with loved ones or jetsetting on transcontinental adventures? Welcome to the airport of the future, little Billy–and the future is now! Modern technology, no longer limited to your home and business office, is disrupting the way the airport experience is delivered to today’s busy traveler.

Tired of those exhausted, inefficient poor folks pouring coffee lackadaisically then walking away for 20 minutes before returning to take your order, while you keep checking your wrist/phone/clock to make sure boarding hasn’t started? No? Too young to remember? (Tussles Billy’s hair, laughs.) Ugh. Probably vertical-catnapping in the kitchen after closing their eyes for a moment to daydream about that one half day off from their night shift at the ShopRite express checkout. Meanwhile, your steak and eggs are nowhere to be seen.

Luckily, young man, these awful experiences are going the way of the dinosaurs. You and your friends are growing up a in a world where what you want–and need–is a click away. Observe. (Walks up to an abandoned bagel and coffee shop counter.) Go ahead, Billy, try it out. You and your digital native chums are better at this than old fogies like me. (The boy looks confused. He shrugs and swipes the screen, indifferently. Nothing happens…the older man smiles.) Again, Billy…(The boy touches the screen, again without success. The man chuckles, his face reddening.) Sometimes we old men have a sweet touch with these. Let me give it the old college try. (The man runs his hand across the screen. Vexed, he presses his fingers into the screen with increasing pressure…He grunts and this goes on for about a minute. Finally, the screen lights up, flickering to life.) There, we are, Billy. How awesome is that? A shiny screen, just like your beloved iPad!

Now let’s see here. What would you like today? Sweet or savory? (The boy shrugs.) I’m not really hungr…(the man cuts him off) That’s great, Billy, something light it is… We’ll get you a soup, salad, and half a turkey wrap. Keeping it simple, I love it! (The man types and swipes, with evident irritation, navigates through several menus, cancelling the order once or twice, starting and stoppingMeanwhile, a line forms behind the man and the kid. At two other tablet ordering terminals, exasperated-looking travelers are first flicking, then pressing hard, then punching the tablets.)

There, we go, Billy, order complete! Now off it goes to the order captain…Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Why can’t the order captain be a computer…that human girl behind the counter is like a hand-crank elevator in a smart elevator bank?’ Soon, Billy, soon! But for now, you just have to suffer through this prehistoric ritual. Now let’s pass the time at one of the fun new Interactive Seat Stations. The older man leads the boy to a couple of open seats at a table dominated by iPads and wires. Bored men and women sit staring at their tablets while a large screen TV blares above them. Some jam their laptops up against the tablets and simultaneously peruse their phones. Go, ahead, Billy. Do whatever it is you kids do these days. Check those stocks, play a game of Solitaire, and, ahem, if you sneak in some skin sites, I won’t go snitchin’ to Mom and Dad (winks puckishly). The boy winces uncomfortably, strokes the tablet disinterestedly.

Meanwhile, a young girl comes out of the kitchen and calls out numbers from the counter. The older man gets up, rushes over to the counter, yelling his order number. The busy girl gets busy fielding questions and complaints from confused travelers. The older man examines his order finding it’s wrong. The boy got a portabello wrap and kombucha while the man’s bison  burger is actually an alfalfa sproud spinach sandwich. He runs back to the counter protesting but the girl’s already busy triaging other customer complaints. Sorry, Sir, you’re just going to have to reenter your order at the terminal.

The man returns, barely able to suppress his irritation. He grabs Billy’s shoulder, his grip a few shades too strong. Sure, there are bugs in the system, Billy…we call those bugs humans! He laughs, regaining his composure. Now dig into that fungus wrap, Billy! He shoves the wrap into Billy’s hands. How awesome was it ordering with a few swipes of your fingers? The man bites wolfishly into his own alfalfa sprout sandwich, pretending to relish the edible flowersFor several minutes, they sit in silence, the boy appearing somewhat restless, eyes searching the airport lounge anxiously, the man lost in thought, forcing a smile every time his eyes meet the boy’s.

Well, Billy, I’ve been doing a lot of talking. But what do you think? After all, YOU are the future, Billy. You are one of our most precious natural resources. Is the future great or what? Before the boy can answer, a man and woman in TSA uniforms appear behind the man. The guy taps the man on the shoulder while the woman stands next to Billy, protectively.

Sir, did you meet this child at Gate 4 and bring him here to Gate 39? The man looks panicked. His eyes scan the perimeter for a moment, as if contemplating a run, then settle on the male TSA officer’s quizzical gaze. Ah, officers, I was just giving young Billy here a little glimpse of the wonderful Tomorrowland we’re all lucky enough to witness in our lifetime. The officers exchange glances, skeptically, then look over at the boy, who seems to be shaking his head ever so slightly. Alright, Sir, you’re going to have to come with us.

The TSA officers wait while the man stands up. Desperately, he tries to lunge out of their path but the woman quickly apprehends him, twisting his arm. Another TSA agent comes over and takes the boy by the shoulder. It’s alright now, Son, we’ll have you back to your parents in a minute.

The man ceases to struggle as he’s cuffed and led away. He looks back at the boy, who’s watching, terrified. Remember me, Billy! Remember our time together!

My name’s not Billy, asshole! It’s Alex! the boy, emboldened by the buffering presence of a large TSA agent calls back.

A crowd, now gathered in a semicircle behind the boy, starts to clap, first slowly, then cascading into full sustained applause. No one was sure who started the chant, but seconds later hundreds of people were chanting TSA, TSA, TSA!


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Posted in airport, New York City, NYC, technology, Uncategorized

Crowds and the Case of the Rolling Suitcase

chikatetsu“The first problem of living is to minimize friction with the crowds that surround you on all sides.”
Isaac Asimov

Blundering through the bowels of Penn Station, I dodge the onslaught of long-distance travelers, commuters, and daytrippers. They stumble but push on like the rabid, drunken squirrels they are…bumping, nipping, and clawing their way to their destination, often in the wrong direction. I pause and reflect…After all, these are my fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in arms. Are we not all mere rats, doing our best to grab daily crumbs in the ever-shrinking cage of the Big Apple…A poignant tear wells up in my left eye…Shame on me, shame on me for getting mad at this wonderful human avalanche rolling down the flat slopes of our little city, scurrying down a tiny slice of our fragile, beautiful Earth…FUCK! I shove the large, sweaty man’s rolling suitcase, which has encroached upon my moment of tranquility, brushing my man purse against it with gentle authority, in a clutch demonstration of passive aggression. “TWO LANES, PEOPLE!” I remind the faceless crowd.

When did I become this stymied curmudgeon? Surely not middle school, where I kept my head down and hoped the cool American kids wouldn’t notice my poorly kempt curly pompadour and ridiculous wool sweater vest that wouldn’t become cool until the 21st century phenomenon of ironic getups at holiday parties. Surely not Russian summer camp, where I kept my head down avoiding the older Russian kids who were more off the boat than I was but actually spoke to girls. Surely not high school, where half the kids kept their heads down anyway and everyone in our hippie school sat on the floor, bullshitting during their free periods. Surely not college, where any mob gathering on campus or in the Commons of the “Most Enlightened Town in America” (Utne Reader, 1997) was cause for wonder or celebration to break up the stillness of rural Upstate New York. Surely not in my first decade of post-collegiate life spent in a south Brooklyn hamlet barely distinguishable from the one I grew up in, where Turkish, Russian, and Urdu speakers rarely constituted more than a smattering of human life on the street.

No, surely the transformation occured sometime after I willingly embraced residential life in Manhattan, in all its enduring and unendurable madness. Sure, I’d worked and traveled to “the city” twice a day for as long as I’d held a college degree (and even earlier), for the better part of two decades. You’d think in that time my mind and liver would have accustomed themselves to daily stresses and controlled chaos of life in the city. But working in the city and living in the city are two different animals.

When you punch in and out on this wonderful, horrible, inscrutable island like so many of the 5 million subterranean commuters making the trip day in and day out, you may not know it, but you’re scarcely more than a business traveler, no matter if your trip is 15 minutes from DUMBO or and hour plus from the Rockaways. You grab your book, iPad, laptop, or makeup kit, and make the best of transit life, emerging from the bowels of FiDi and Midtown only to duck into your office and to reverse the process some hours later. Morning and evening, you don your impassive New Yorker mask–the one that treats sinners, hustlers, and madmen with the same calm restraint, betraying no hint of emotion  or surprise save for moments of true life-and-death split-second decision-making and unity–when New Yorkers show their true mettle and empathy.

When Manhattan was my office I, like so many of my fellow toll-payers, tolerated the endless layers of humanity curdling at the edges of the subway platform, eyes buried in a thick book or daydreaming. I’d spy my sliver of a seat in a row of exhausted Russian and Chinese immigrants and, like a “smart” microcar, cram myself into the wedge, some days chivalrously ceding the hole to an older lady, other days wrestling her for it (if my book was really good). Now, spoiled by my 15-minute commutes and, perhaps, subconsciously resentful that I am no longer afforded an hour and a half guaranteed date with my book, I am, in many ways, more agitated than I ever was in Brooklyn. “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” Louis CK’s words follow me throughout the day. The 5 minutes spent navigating the halls of Penn Station and trying to duck into the Herald Square subway via the Manhattan Mall have somehow a daily Sisyphean torture.

But all is not lost. Like many who make a pact with the Devil to live in this beautiful hellhole of a city, I look inward and listen for coping mechanisms. Having tried all the typical New Age tactic and strategies–meditation, mindfulnexx, positive thinking, and the rest–I’ve made strides. Some days, I feel so connected to my fellow humans that I want to smile and greet every single one of them while they tell me their life story…to link hands in an endless circle while we dance in celebration of the endless possibilities of the day ahead and th impossible beauty of life in our little metropolis. I pause Spotify and look around the morning A train with empathy and a yearning for communion…I love you, sweaty fellow office schlub picking your nose…I love you, loud skateboarding teenagers propped up against the guy with the bike blocking the doors…I love you, mentally deranged shirtless guy with 5 granny carts full of foraged cans and bottles for recycling who insists on holding up the whole rush-hour train while he shoves the last cart through the last-train car doors and yells at the rest of us to get the hell out the way…wait a second–are you ME in five years? Oh, who am I kidding, I’ll hate you guys later today on my way home. But I might love you again tomorrow.


Maybe I should just walk to work?…


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Posted in Memories, NYC, subway, Uncategorized

Remembering Sandy: Part V

0def6c0683901ba8953bfd411a136047By 9 p.m., I was at my nephews’ house. My sister-in-law, Yelena, and my nephews, had just returned from Staten Island, where they spent the day helping salvage what was left of her brother’s newly finished basement and car. It was an utter disaster and one of many sad stories we’d be hearing in the coming days and weeks. In the familiar surrounds of their 3rd floor condo, a surprise awaited. Neither Yelena nor my older nephew, Joseph, had any idea where my mom was. They’d just gotten home a short while ago and were unaware of any visits by my mom. Of course, it was possible that she had come and gone, but there was no evidence of her visit whatsoever.

I listened to the voicemail a couple more times for any clues. The only lead I had was the unfamiliar number she’d used to leave the voicemail. I took a deep breath and dialed. At the other end of the line, a Russian-speaking woman picked up. She spoke with what sounded like a Central Asian accent, or perhaps one from the Caucuses (regions that had supplied much of the Russian-speaking immigrants to New York City over the past decade). It was her son’s phone and she called him over to provide details. The boy, an older-sounding teenager, described the encounter with my mom, which had apparently taken place at a bus stop. Sometime that afternoon, she had asked him to use his phone when hers ran out of juice. He’d no idea which direction she was going or whether she ever got on the bus.

Things looked bad now. The situation seemed to be unraveling and my emotions were running high. I had never before seriously worried about my family’s well being, but I was beginning to feel dread. My mom was not the healthiest person: hypertension, migraines, a family history of stroke, take your pick. With a breakdown in communication systems, uncertainty took control of the rational parts of my brain.

“Do we call the police?” I asked Yelena. She nodded her assent.

Together, we took up the grim duties of rifling for a recent photograph of my mom. All we kept coming upon were nearly twenty-year-old pictures of my mom from my brother’s wedding, when she had longer, more ginger-colored hair. My brother and Yelena having last been married seven years prior (albeit on very amicable terms to this day), it’s safe to say that looking through a trove of old wedding photos was probably not her favorite midweek evening activity. The universe had a twisted sense of humor.

The best picture we could find was at least 17 years old, but it would have to do. We called the police and the good officers from the 61st Precinct in Homecrest pulled up outside the building 20 minutes later. We recounted my mom’s disappearance and showed them the photograph. They listened patiently only to explain that they didn’t have jurisdiction in Coney Island, where my parents resided. The 70th Precinct would have to look into it. Minutes later my older nephew Joseph and I were in Yelena’s car, which she had lent me, driving to my parent’s building. Despite the nine-floor vertical hike, I was determined to stop by their apartment to dig up a more recent photo of my mom. It didn’t occur to me that she might have preferred the younger picture if she were asked herself. Alas, there was no time for such considerations.

The tiny LED flashlight led me and Joseph upstairs to the apartment, which was now pitch-black. My dad, as expected, was still at the hospital and all the lights were off. I headed in the direction of their bedroom, where I knew they kept the family photo archives in a dresser drawer. Entering the room, my flashlight revealed the most serene of scenes: my mother in her nightgown, dozing peacefully, a mystery novel that slipped out of her hands resting next to her. Smoke from the recently turned-out candle was still in the air. It was the very picture of comfort. There was even something angelic about it. The light from the flashlight startled Mom from her slumber.

“What are you…why aren’t you at work?…Why is Joseph here…what time is it?”

It took her a moment to come to, and a minute for me to explain everything that had transpired. My veins flooded with relief, enough even to drown out the little bit of anger I’d been nursing at my mom for leaving the apartment and turning us all into reluctant detectives. I dialed my dad, who was already worked up from the twin worries of my grandfather’s fate and my mom’s disappearance. He broke down before I could even hand the phone to my mom. I could hear the mix of nerves, tears, and constrained joy in his garbled voice as they spoke. Mom seemed completely shocked that anyone would worry. Mostly, she just wanted to go back to sleep.

I drove Joseph back, parked the car, and took a much-needed shower–something I appreciated more than at any time I could remember. My younger nephew’s birthday was the next day, and I happily accepted Yelena’s offer to stay over and help with birthday prep the following day. There’d be a lot of Spongebob Squarepants. 


There were so many ways that day could have gone differently, and been easier. But it didn’t. We were OK, and there was my nephew Mark’s birthday the next day, and most of the family was there–my mom, dad, and brother included. We laughed and drank and talked about how ridiculous the whole thing had been. Mom was amused that earlier in the day, when she was taking the bus to the kids’ house, she saw my dad driving down Neptune Avenue. She knocked hard on the plastic glass but he didn’t notice and kept driving.

Grandpa had been admitted to the hospital and would be transferred to a rehab facility until his apartment was safe for occupancy again. No one could have known that less than a month later, Grandpa would catch something at the hospital, slip into a coma, and join his wife and younger son in the Great Beyond, at the age of 87, while I was off conquering the Inca Trail in Peru. Or that as I was shopping for Mark’s birthday produce with my brother  on Kings Highway, I’d be telling my wacky Sandy story to the girl I had recently started dating, whom I would end up marrying in the year of this writing.


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

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.






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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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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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