Thinking about Sandy

First, forgive the odd formatting here. Internet is slow and funky right now. Aesthetics aside…

Here’s an email I sent to my friends and family this morning while watching the news. I’m not sure it’s decent writing, or even right. But I needed to get some words on paper.

A note about the start: Our family and friends used to wake up all the time with emails from my late father. He slept little, often waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to tap away on his keyboard. Though he was an early convert to email, he always wrote letters.He, like his own father, was a prolific writer, and rarely kept quiet about his opinions, especially if current events were tugging at his heartstrings. We poked fun at him, but despite the electronic medium, emails like these were my dad’s way of working things out of his head and also of keeping connected.

So here goes.

I feel oddly like my dad this morning. The country’s feeling things, big things. Or at least New York is. And all I want to do– or maybe all I can do– is write about it. 

I’ve had a lot of words floating around in my head. Vulnerability. Empire. Community. Nature. Family. Mortality. Resilience. Urgency. NeedWant. Prayer. 

I got lucky. For a few days, we were cooped up. That’s the worst that happened. In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Trouble (who drove down “for the storm”, arriving Sunday morning and sticking it out with me until Thursday) and I cooked, read, hung out, eventually took walks. We fed some friends. It wasn’t particularly scary or hard. My apartment is on such high ground it’s not even classified in the evacuation zones for flooding. We had some trees down, a few awnings blown over. We never lost power. Never lost water. My radiators are crankily spewing hot steam.

Now I’m sitting safe and warm in Pleasantville (feeling a bit guilty, I admit), the little suburban town in Westchester County where I grew up. Old friends’ families have welcomed me and others with open arms, cooking constantly and pouring wine to sooth frazzled nerves.

I took Metro North up yesterday, after a surprisingly easy bus ride from the Barclays Center to Grand Central. I was fortunate that I wasn’t trying to commute during rush hour. You’ve seen the photos of the lines. Instead, I walked right up to the queue of busses, got on, and was on 42nd and 3rd just twenty-five minutes later. Amazing how fast busses can move when there aren’t any functioning traffic lights. 

The Lower East Side and the East Village are empty. A few intrepid bars have opened their doors and lit tables with candles, inviting neighbors in for a little nip of something or maybe just a chat. One restaurant in SoHo found a way to fire up some food and is handing out free soup and salad. There’s no electric, no water in most places, no cell service. And it’s getting really fucking cold.

And then you hit Midtown, and it’s as though nothing has happened. Cabs are lined up (we’ll see how long that lasts– there’s little gas to be found). Tourists carry armfuls of shopping bags. People are rushing around on their smartphones, being rude to one another and trying to get to work. Columbia, from its hill on the Upper West Side, restarted classes on Wednesday (Wednesday!), while NYU and Pace are out of commission indefinitely. If not dealing with tremendous water damage, they’re scrambling to figure out how to get power up and how to get drinking water to students living in dorms. That old Uptown/Downtown divide seems to be roaring back.

Looting has begun. And don’t even get me started about Staten Island.

Getting off the train in the suburbs yesterday was like an alternate universe. Things seemed normal. Husbands waited to be picked up at the train station. SUVs filled the roads. Much of Pleasantville has power (though a good third of the town is without). The only sign that anything was even slightly off was the paper sign hung on the Shell Station down on Manville Road that read, “Sorry, no gas”. Never a better time to have a bicycle.

We are, it’s obvious, nowhere near “getting back to normal”, whatever that means. The footage on the TV in front of me right now is of utter devastation. Those waiting for gas are snapping. Yesterday, a man pulled a gun when another cut in front of him in line. I’ve been listening to helicopters fly day and night over my apartment toward Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island. People are just getting in to Breezy Point to survey the fire damage.  Bodies of children were recovered in Staten Island marshes. Much of downtown is without water– not only drinking water, but they’ve been told not to touch the bodies of water around them due to so much untreated sewage overflowing into the waterways during the storm.

Volunteer brigades are finally beginning to organize help. Until now, it’s been neighbor to neighbor. Volunteer hotlines have been so overwhelmed with offers for help they haven’t been able to dole out tasks. In the coming weeks, it’s going to be a rush to get clean water, food, blankets and coats to the displaced. But with gas in short supply, even those with cars are having trouble getting to people in need. Again, there’s been a better time to have a bike.

And yet, we’re hosting the marathon on Sunday. Our cops, our cleanup efforts, our clean water, our hotel rooms. All going to be diverted to the race. Not to making sure the most vulnerable are okay. I read a column this morning that called it “a desperate run from reality”. I agree. I’m angry at Bloomberg’s insistence that the marathon must go on, even more enraged when the rest of his response has been so terrific.

New York wants to believe this is going to be over by this weekend. But estimates say power may not be fully restored until the weekend of November 10th. Maybe longer. Subways that run under the East River and the Staten Island Ferry are suspended indefinitely. They’re still pumping water out of the car tunnels.

Not everyone agrees with me, I know. “We need to get on with our lives,” cry the supporters of the race. But I get so ticked every time I contemplate the amount of bottled water that’ll go into setting up water stations, let alone the other resources that are going to be diverted away from emergency relief.

My dad, in addition to being a morning muser, was a morning runner all through his adult life. He ran New York a number of times, and loved the race passionately. Whether we watched on TV or near the finish in Central Park, he always wept at the overwhelming “human spirit”, as he called it, the concentrated outpouring of collective energy and the way the City turned out in force to root all the participants along.But this year, I think, he would have supported a decision to cancel the race and set our sights on recovery.

I wish, for once, New York could be humble enough to say, “we’re not okay”. To put the call for help in front of the proud chin. We’re in dire need of team spirit, absolutely. But if you ask me, our team, right now, shouldn’t be about stopwatches and Under Armour and making it to 26.2.On Sunday, we need the City to turn out as usual. But not for the Marathon. We need to drum up all the human spirit we can to ensure the safety and health of New Yorkers and Jersey-ans who desperately need help.

Anyhow, just felt like writing. I’m hoping you’re all okay.

A note. My step-mom, who runs an international aid organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times yesterday that suggested we should use this moment in New York to recognize how much of the world is in turmoil at any given moment, and how many people don’t have access to government help of any kind. Trouble, when I told him I felt powerless to do anything the other night, pointed out that it’s probably a bit of “not in my backyard” syndrome. He’s right. Just look at the photos of the damage wrought on Cuba and Haiti by Sandy. New York and New Jersey, in the grand scheme of things (though I don’t feel comfortable playing the “my tragedy is bigger than yours” game) got off easy.

But New York City is my backyard. It’s my home. A City with a monster ego is taking a humbling beating. I don’t mean to belittle the larger struggles that go on every day. And I’m the first to admit that we, in the U.S., especially those of us who’ve lived lives of privilege, exist in a bubble of perceived invincibility most of the time.

I guess, in this pre-coffee morning rambling, all I’m really trying to say is this moment, right now, feels like a wake up call. To pay attention to each other and environment around us, and to understand that everything and every one of us is part of a larger whole.