The only moment that my daughters (and their parents) were genuinely frightened was during the start of the storm on Monday night. After the sun went down and the wind and rain rose, at about 7.30, we heard a terrifying tearing noise; looking out the window we saw that a large 50-year-old tree just outside our apartment had been violently uprooted and blown over, tearing out a part of the sidewalk below. About an hour later, the power went out — taking heat and running water (both hot and cold) out with it; it wouldn’t return until Friday, four nights and four days later. As I write this, more than a week after the storm hit, heat and hot water still have not been restored.
The next day, as the storm cleared and damage became visible, we went out into the neighborhood (which itself was blacked out for several days; neither streetlights nor traffic signals were operating either, lending the nighttime streets an eerie and threatening quiet; in the winds, many things went bump in the night). The Lower East Side is one of the most socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Manhattan. Co-op dwellers like ourselves live side-by-side among high-rise public housing projects, and our own neighborhood is bounded by traditional Chinese and Eastern European populations, as it had been in the early years of the 20th century. Grocery stores struggled to open. A few hardy, compassionate volunteers climbed the stairs to the tops of 25 story buildings — elevators were all out of service as well — to check in on the aged and infirm. And of course communication with the outside world was at a minimum. The power outage took out cellphone towers, and though soon portable generators were called into service to provide recharging stations, it was then impossible to find a reliable signal. FEMA and city officials were nowhere to be seen, at least not until Saturday, when FEMA showed up with water tanks, one day after water had been restored to most of the neighborhood anyway.
Several families like ourselves stayed in their homes in the blackout area. We all coped, and we were all grateful for the innumerable large and small kindnesses that made it possible for us to struggle through. And we were the lucky ones. Many neighborhoods of the city were more severely damaged by the hurricane than our own and lost much more than just a few days of power or water. Lest, however, one is tempted to praise the generosity and compassion of New Yorkers in times of crisis, there were innumerable large and small cruelties as well. (I wasn’t the first among our friends to mention how quickly the social fabric unravels when basic human needs can’t be met.) With power down and ATMs and banks closed, the cash-only economy brought thieves out of the woodwork, both at night and during the day. Some enterprising criminals pretended to be Con Edison employees turning power back on, knocking on the doors of apartments in darkened buildings; once admitted, they robbed the inhabitants. And finally there’s this particularly nasty example of humanity’s undying inhumanity. This compassion and cruelty did not cancel each other out, but existed side by side, and I doubt that any election will be able to change that. In the very few minutes I had to read, Beckett and Schopenhauer provided priceless literary consolation, as usual.
Many people fled the neighborhood for the duration of the blackout, and for this I can’t blame them. Those of us who remained behind, especially those of us with small children, did the best we could to support each other; our bonds are much closer and stronger now than they were before the storm, and for this we’re grateful.
Despite the continuing lack of heat and hot water, even as the temperatures drop to the freezing point at night and every blanket in the house is called into service, things seem to be returning to normal. I voted this morning, mostly along Green and Working Families party lines, and we’ll be able to watch the election returns on television tonight. Yesterday I returned to work, though heat hasn’t been restored here either. Today is the first day Internet service is reliable. But going through Facebook and Twitter feeds has been a somewhat darker experience. Somehow the self-promotion seems even more acutely desperate, and the plays and theatre pieces being described and promoted, and those I am reading, seem even more vapid and irrelevant in the wake of my experience of the storm. I imagine I will find them less so as time goes on, but for now, I have nothing to say about them, about theatre or drama generally, and am not sure whether I’ll be able to say something about them any time soon — though, ironically, a note about a new production of Howard Barker’s Lot and His God, set in “Sodom, the day before the city’s total annihilation,” seems amusingly appropriate.
To those who have written to express concern and offer their support, my wife, my daughters, and I thank you.