The week after I moved from the Triangle to Manhattan, I made a special trip from my Lower East Side apartment to an East Village coffee shop advertising something I wanted. But they were out, the barista informed me as she twitched her tattooed shoulders. I hadn't yet grown my city skin; my bottom lip slid forward inadvertently. She cocked her head in genuine surprise and said, "This is New York City; I don't need the sad puppy face. Who's next?"
The week after Hurricane Sandy stole the lights, heat, running water and public transportation from the lower third of the city so nice they named it twice, that attitude went a long way in my newly dubbed neighborhood of SoPo. Indeed, we were no longer residents of Chelsea or Chinatown, TriBeCa or Battery Park. We were suddenly "South of Power," split from the rest of our island by a transformer explosion that drew a boundary crosstown at 39th Street.
My fellow denizens lugged groceries and gallons of water up pitch-black stairwells. We made extra trips to provision elderly and disabled neighbors imprisoned in their apartments without elevators—and to walk their dogs. We suffered the anarchy of gridlocked streets without traffic lights to walk or bike northward to bank lobbies or cafes or friends' houses to recharge our phones, shower and restock. The tidal wave of downtowners developed into a tourist attraction, with visitors from flyover states snapping pictures of us and our bedheads as we hunkered down in a Midtown Wi-Fi cloud, attempting to absorb the news rolling in from Staten Island, the Rockaways, the Jersey Shore.
The proprietor of a bodega on my block pulled a van in front, plugged an inverter into his cigarette lighter and ran a drop cord to keep the lights on and some milk cold. Before their walk-ins went warm, restaurateurs emptied chickens and sausages onto gas grills at the curb and gave the food away. Like the line between lights on and lights off, the division between the businesses that opened in whatever capacity they could manage without electricity and those that didn't even try was very stark: The local grocers, restaurateurs, pharmacists and other business owners who knew their customers' names and faces and couldn't stomach the notion of abandoning us gave it their best shot. The chains were absent, the Starbucks locked.
For five nights, we lived under a bifurcated skyline, where the lights of the Williamsburg Bridge reached over from Brooklyn only to dissolve into a midpoint of darkness. Though power is mostly restored, SoPo's not back to business as usual quite yet. Many buildings, including dozens of schools, won't get heat or hot water for another week; gasoline is impossible; the subways are just now stuttering to life. Some messes, like underground garages full of waterlogged, upside-down cars, remain untouched.
But our neighbors across the rivers face much more pressing problems. This is New York City, after all, where we don't entertain the sad puppy face. So who's next?
Jennifer Strom is a former managing editor of the Indy. She currently types for The Lo-Down, an online news site and monthly print magazine covering the Lower East Side.