The 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…