NEW YORK – You’ve heard all about Sandy’s damage: her floating cars, downed trees, unprecedented power outages and 75 casualties (and counting). Although the storm was eventually downgraded to a tropical storm, it was one of the most devastating natural disasters the region has seen.
Although I live in Costa Rica, I happened to be staying with my friend Amy in the East Village when the storm barreled through. I saw the devastation firsthand, but I also saw something you might not expect in the middle of a storm: exuberance.
The evening began with Amy and me huddled in the living room, surrounded by the supplies we had purchased: food, water, flashlights. The storm began to pick up at around 8 p.m., battering the massive trees outside the window and occasionally causing our lights to flicker. I found out around 8:30 p.m. that my brother, who lives in a high-rise in the Financial District, had lost power and was trapped. Apparently 10 inches of water surrounding the building were creeping inside. My brother told me not to worry, though; he was playing pool and hanging out with other residents. He was having a really good time, he said.
About an hour later, as I was trying to finish up some work on my computer, the sky flashed green. There was a loud boom, and then the sky flashed green again. That, I found out later, was a Con Ed sub-station blowing up. We lost power shortly after, but continued working in the dark. When it became clear that the power wasn’t coming back and our computer batteries were getting low, we started getting restless.
Amy and I peered out the windows, attempting to see from her fifth-story apartment what was going on below. The wind had died down a little and flashlight beams shined up and down the streets. Every now and then, a flashlight illuminated what should have been the street, but it was a river.
Were all those people evacuating? Or were they surveying the damage? Might they be on their way to the bars? That’s what Amy thought. “New Yorkers are crazy,” she said.
We decided to get dressed and be part of whatever was going on down there.
Stepping out of her building on 6th Street between B and C, we saw water from the East River rolling up the block. Cars were submerged, emergency vehicles were splashing through and debris was everywhere. Basically, high tide was coming to Alphabet City. Meanwhile, people were snapping photographs, stomping around in the water and making plans.
“7B is open,” we overheard somebody saying. 7B is a dive bar in the East Village, and I used to hang out there back in grad school.
The flooding appeared to be getting worse, and we knew if we went to the bar that we might not be able to get back into Amy’s apartment. We decided it was worth it.
7B felt like an old speakeasy, packed with bodies and dark except for a couple of battery-powered emergency lights. A harried bartender was losing her temper, but everybody else seemed delighted. At one point, an Associated Press news team entered the bar, and the patrons cheered loudly. Then a man with an accordion came in and played an Irish folk tune. People started to dance, but the bartender didn’t like it. “You. Accordion Guy. You’re out,” she said.
The crowd booed, and the bartender invited anyone who disagreed with her to join the accordion guy outside. Eventually, the emergency lights faded and the bartender kicked everyone out.
Amy and I met up with some other friends and wound up walking a few blocks with the rejected accordion player and some guy from South Africa, dressed only in boxer shorts. He had just been swimming in the flood.
On the corner of St. Marks and 1st Avenue, the accordion player selected OMC’s “How Bizarre” and started an impromptu dance party. From there, our ever-growing group of people found an open convenience store where the owner was giving away ice cream. “But you have to vote for Obama,” he stipulated.
The freezer shelves were full of Ben & Jerry’s, and some guy began calling out the flavors and tossing the cartons over his shoulder. I got “Half Baked.”
From there, we went to a pizza place with a wood-fired oven. People were drinking beer and hanging out, and one man was dressed in a banana costume.
Next we headed to another friend’s apartment, where a guy who we call “Z” passed out on the couch. Z is known for doing this, and there’s a game that is played when he does. It’s called Zenga.
In Zenga, people take turns sticking playing cards in Z’s mouth, until he wakes up. In the first game, we got 16 cards in Z’s mouth before he woke up. “Are you playing Zenga?” he asked us immediately, then counted the cards to see how we did. “Not bad,” he said.
In the second game, we got the whole deck in there, which hasn’t happened in years. We left Z with the cards and walked home through the powerless, ruined city beneath a glowing orange sky.