The Hurricane Diaries

I’ve been getting a lot of requests from my fans (read: my parents) to write about the hurricane, and while I feel a little silly, as a perfectly safe and healthy refugee avidly searching for WiFi and open Starbucks stores, here it is… New Yorkers are tough; we like to think we’re impenetrable to danger. Hurricane? Tropical Storm?  Zombie Apocalypse? If we can battle for a spot on the L train during rush hour, we can handle it all.  So when word of yet another hurricane came to town, it was more of an excuse to load up on beer and pasta than to tape our windows and create any type of emergency plan.

No School! Yay!  More time to mope around the apartment!  Boo.

After a considerably stressful weekend, none of my roommates were in a great mood Sunday evening. As local businesses started closing their doors, we stocked up on our favorite foods (which all, coincidentally, need refrigeration), changed into our Juicy sweatsuits, and cuddled in my bed to watch Sleepless in Seattle while munching on frosted sugar cookies.  Preparing for a hurricane wasn't too terrible...

According to the weather, the squalls weren’t supposed to start until late Monday afternoon. I still don’t know what squalls are.  But they sound scary and almost make me wish I paid attention in oceanography.   In the spirit of “Bros before Hoes,” a maxim instilled in me by the cashier/therapist at the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop who encourages me to eat my feelings, I decided to ride out the hurricane at home with my roommates, who were the best hurricane family I could ask for.  Hurricane Tip #1: stay with friends, they will keep you sane.

I woke up late on Monday, almost disappointed that flying witches and puppies had yet to zoom past our windows.   Like Irene, we were pretty sure that this was a bunch of fuss over nothing, and we watched our neighbors play football in the street or run around in bikinis and helmets.

Mom: Don’t go outside! Cranes are falling!

By sundown, we were pretty much physically attached to Twitter.   Update: a tree fell!  Update: It’s raining!  Update: Lights are flickering downtown!  Update: Lindsay Lohan said something ridiculous! Hours wasted away as we all re-tweeted wide eyed, dramatic tweets suddenly becoming real as we saw pictures of the fallen crane at One57, the house blown apart in Chelsea, the destruction of Coney Island and the Jersey Shore.  Shit was getting real.

Our roommate Alice, who grew up in New Orleans, instructed us to fill the bathtubs with water and prepare our candles and flashlights.  We compiled scented candles from our bathrooms, a reading light, and an old, dimming flashlight still in my suitcase from a trip to Ecuador two years ago on our coffee table.  Supplies were scarce.

The lights flickered for a few minutes, and as our building rose in screams, the lights went out.

There’s nothing like impending doom to bring people together.  Living in an NYC apartment building is not exactly conducive to being neighborly.  At most, I knew two other people in my six-floor walk up pre-Hurricane.   As soon as the blackout hit, doors were propped open, hands shaken, names and cupcakes and batteries exchanged.  While at first the only thing we all had in common was a mutual frustration with our super, after the first few nights of living without electricity, I knew far more about some of my neighbors than I ever wanted to know.

While we were hesitant to go outside in the storm, rumors of free ice cream from local powerless bodegas inspired us to pull on our Hunters and brave Sandy.  No pints of Ben & Jerry’s in sight, a candlelit bar pretty much pulled us in.  How often do you get hurricane happy hour?

And then this conversation ensued:

Guy in a Bush-Cheney 2004 Shirt:  So, what do you think about the storm?

Me:  What storm?

GBC2004S: Sandy. Outside.  (Looks at me like I’m crazy).

Me:  Sarcasm.  Like your shirt, right?

GBC2004S: I don’t get it.

Me:  Me neither.  I have to get back to my friend.

GBC2004S: Do you like SPAM?

Me:  Ummmm.

GBC2004S: Well I have tons of SPAM back at my place.  And sardines!  You like sardines?

I only recount this because this may be the first time canned meats have ever been used to pick up a 20-something girl at a bar.  Maybe.

Anyway, back at the home front, we tucked each other into bed, where we dreamed of WiFi and FroYo.

I woke up late Tuesday afternoon, sans electricity. Unsure what to do, I woke my roommates and we decided to venture outside and explore the damage. Without cell service or a working radio, we had absolutely no idea how bad the storm had gotten, or if other neighborhoods were without power, water, and reception.  Four wonderfully unshowered girls heading out to brave a hurricane?  This is the stuff good Discovery Channel specials are made of.

On our corner, Tompkins Square Park was completely scattered with branches and leaves, many trees uprooted and fallen over.  Further east on Avenue C, the six feet of water was still draining, as people dried out their cars and checked the batteries. Looking around felt so incredibly surreal.  We’d never seen a New York so dark and quiet.

We continued southeast, down the FDR towards the Williamsburg Bridge and eventually the Seaport.  It was cold, we were hungry, and slightly depressed looking at all the damage, but there was pretty much nothing else to do but walk.  The rest of lower Manhattan seemed to think the same—who knew New Yorkers were so outdoorsy!

Countless fallen trees, decapitated pigeons, and washed up piles of debris later, we arrived at South Street Seaport.  Like a scene out of a movie, I watched as groups of people wandered aimlessly, staring at the damage, shocked and questioning if this had all really happened overnight.  Windows were cracked, clothing shop mannequins completely upside down and naked, and even more trees, debris, and other unidentified objects cluttered the cobblestone streets.  The chaos of the damage paired with the city’s overall silence- no music, no subways rumbling, no buses honking, only a few sirens would blare every couple of minutes- was absolutely unreal.  Where were we?

We dragged our frozen feet back home through desolate Chinatown, almost unrecognizable without its bright lights and swarms of people.  We walked through Soho without seeing a single shopping bag and back through the Lower East Side, stopping every few seconds to examine the damage of the upcoming block.

We headed home for another family meal, and perhaps a new apartment favorite, Hurricane Spaghetti.  What is Hurricane Spaghetti, one may ask?  Combine all the pasta sauces in your now defunct refrigerator, mix with ominously warm fresh vegetables, and pour over copious amounts of pasta boiled on your gas stove, and Hurricane Spaghetti for all!

A good percentage of time in our tiny apartment is spent communicating with each other via text message, social media, and occasionally through song and dance.  Nightly conversations take place solely over Instagram comments and planning to watch TV together almost always occurs via group iChat.  Why talk when we can text?  However, none of these luxuries were available during the blackout.  We had to converse over lunch, plan our next meal, decide what we wanted to do together by actually looking at each other’s faces.  If one good thing came out of the hurricane, it was our ability to relate to each other as people, to remember that we’re not just screennames and profiles and hashtags, but actual breathing, feeling creatures who can hear each other laugh louder than any LOL.

After inhaling our spaghetti by the fire escape (for light), we bundled up again deciding to make the most of the sunlight and go for another work.  New Yorkers are not outdoorsy.  We’re far too busy to wander the streets aimlessly, observe nature, take in the scenery.  There’s always somewhere to go and something to do!  But suddenly there wasn’t.

Vendors on 14th Street were selling batteries, flashlights, radios, and umbrellas.  New Yorkers walked slowly, cautious of the lack of traffic lights on the streets, still absorbing the disaster scene.  As the sun set, flashlights were removed from fleeces and parkas, and suddenly Lower Manhattan resembled more of a Girlscouts campsite than the world’s busiest metropolis.

We walked to 14th & 8th, were the front of a building was completely blown off. Unable to even imagine what would have happened had that been our building, we all felt lucky for not incurring any heavy damage.  Reporters speaking in English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and some other indistinguishable languages stood outside the Chelsea apartment, letting the world know what we were observing with our own eyes. Nearby, crowds fought for access to outlets on the CNN truck to charge their iPhones.  It was an interesting parallel to the decimated building, to say the least.

Walking home through the twisting streets of pitch black Greenwich Village seemed oddly suited to Halloween.  This was a city we’d never seen before, regardless of how many times we’d been to the bars and bakeries we walked by.  And as odd as it may sound, I felt a nostalgia for a New York I’d never lived in.  A New York completely lit by candlelight, like many of the bars and restaurants downtown.  A New York where people weren’t listening to iPods or chatting on cell phones on the street, but rather wishing each other a good evening. Everything was beautiful and romantic, and so terrible that this odd sense of peace could only be caused by a disaster.

After a brief stop at Kimmel, the NYU student center overflowing with refugees from the dorms, we headed home to make Hurricane Fried Rice, another recipe I’m happy to share.  Cut up all remaining vegetables, tofu, and cook in soy sauce/any other Asian sauce left in the fridge.  Add cooked rice and an abundance of eggs.  Yum.  We each split up tasks: washing, chopping, stir frying, serving.  For months, we’ve never planed a family meal, nor have we ever cooperated in the kitchen/living room so efficiently and happily.  We ate our copious amounts of food by candlelight, once again agreeing that we ate better during Sandy than ever.

There’s only so long you can read your e-reader by candlelight before you feel like your eyes will fall out.  Sitting in the dark is depressing.  It just is.  Even surrounded by good friends, and perhaps better food, not being able to see, not being able to go anywhere or communicate in anyway with the outside world gets overwhelmingly sad.   Cabin fever had set in, as proven by the neighbor who’d climbed up our fire escape with a flashlight, either to scare us or befriend us, I’m still unsure. And with that, we headed to the bars, cash-only and candlelit, where we chatted with neighbors, compared war stories, and made new friends.  The East Village is not a bad place to ride out the hurricane.

Without any connection to the outside world, we relied solely on word of mouth to let us know what was happening.  Rumor had it, everywhere above 39th street had power, and our four dead iPhones were practically begging for battery power.  We packed up backpacks of electronics and chargers, granola bars, water bottles, and cash, and began our track uptown. Each block, it was amazing to see how many businesses were open, how many restaurants were serving what they could and how much people tried to function as if this were any other Wednesday.  If New Yorkers can be described in one word, persistent may be it.

As we reached 40th Street, the chaos thickened.  Groups were camped out inside banks, crowded near street planters, gathered in doorways and bathrooms, all with powerstrips to charge their devices.  Midtown Manhattan looked like a refugee camp out of a Woody Allen movie, which will come out in June 2013 and will be called something like “Sandy, Cristina, New York, with Love.”

After an extremely frustrating search for any type of power outlet, and perhaps Wifi, we finally settled in a corner at the Atrium Mall on 3rd & 55th, which is perhaps the worst place to catch up on work and studying in Manhattan, but refugees can’t be choosey.  (Sidenote: I, and no one else, should ever return to Ess-a-Bagel on 3rd Ave.  After a few miles of walking, and a generous purchase at their business, my roommates along with a dozen other displaced New Yorkers were kicked out extremely rudely for taking up space. On any day, this would be a terrible way to conduct business, but especially today, when customers were literally fighting with the boorish employee for five more minutes of electricity after buying a dozen bagels and lunch, I was horrified. Um, sorry my family thinks I’m dead. Not. Seriously, Ess-a-Bagel, you are dead to me.)

We camped out at Atrium until 7, catching up on phone calls and email, letting the world know we were alive!  Being disconnected for three days had been frustrating, but nice in a way.  There was no temptation to check my phone every five minutes, no reason to tweet a joke about what I was doing, or pause the fun to take the perfect picture for Instagram.  Everything was just about being in the moment, and a part of me was sad to return to real life.

Back home for another incredible meal (we needed to empty the freezer of all of our fresh pasta), we decided that we wouldn’t let Sandy ruin our Halloween.  My roommate Val and I followed up on an earlier idea to dress up as Abby & Brittany Hensel.  We made an awesome costume by candlelight, similar to the way the pilgrims altered their clothes for 22 year old conjoined twins, and headed out to celebrate.  The parade may have been cancelled, but the amazing thing about New York, is that nothing can stop us from having a good time.  Villagers came out in costumes, distributing extra candles to brighten the bars (and add a slightly terrifying additional fire hazard).  Neighbors complimented our costume and bought us matching drinks, and overall apartment 3F had an unforgettable Halloween.

Thursday brought us back to real life.  Cold and sad, it was time to leave the safe bubble of our apartment.  We hadn’t been apart since Sunday night (hence all of the “we” in this post), but we all needed a warm shower and perhaps more cell phone service, so we walked up to Grand Central, from where subways were now running, and went our separate ways.

A warm shower and a cozy evening at Barnard brought me back to real life.  In a way, it was frustrating to see so much of the city functioning as absolutely nothing had happened, while millions of people were without power or water, many immobile in their buildings, or without a home at all.  As mayor of NYC, I would have declared Wednesday a day of service to help repair and city and assist those in need, not a day for everyone to go back to work and school, but maybe I’ll save that for my campaign in a few decades.

No one uptown had any idea what it was like downtown...

While the option to stay uptown was always open to me, I’m so glad I decided to stay home with my roommates.  I learned so much about myself, about the city, and just about people in the past week, and while much of the damage is devastating, it was nice to see some positivity come out of the hurricane.  Whether it was getting to know neighbors by name, sharing a taco provided by a local restaurant, or bonding with other volunteers at local relief sites, there’s no reason to not take as much positivity out of Sandy as possible.

Now that our lights are back on, our refrigerator is clean and empty, and the apartment is back to normal, the only thing left is to help the rest of the city get back on its feet.  Local businesses lost tens of thousands of dollars, thousands of people are hungry, thirsty, and cold, and some are without homes. Whether its time, goods, money, or just good vibes, Beyonce and I encourage you to give what you can to help New York and the surrounding areas recover from the past week’s events.

Check out these websites for more information on helping out:

Midnight Van to Manhattan

Living in New York, it’s easy to get caught up in all the glamour of the greatest city in the universe. The beautiful streets of our city offer us so much- fashion, art, culture, food, people- yet an even more passes by unnoticed with all the extravagant distractions that so easily catch our attention.
We may say hi to the homeless man on our street, toss a quarter in his raggedy Starbucks cup and continue our journey to Whole Foods, by which time he is fully out of our minds and we’re stocking up on organic apples at $13/pound.  We may even make an effort, bring our cherished neighborhood bum a warm blanket in the snow, give her a bottle of water on a particularly hot day, but in the end, they stay there, on the grit-covered sidewalk in the smog of the city, and we push them out of our heads as we continue on with our fabulous lives. 
Every New Yorker has problems:  we missed the 1 train by half a second and our iPhone app tells us the next train won’t arrive for 4 more minutes.  We spent our weekly budget going out on Thursday night and have to live on Hallel cart bagels for six days. We found a cockroach, or worse, a mouse in the kitchen we pay far too much rent for, and the exterminator can’t come for ten more days.  And while so many things may seem like a crisis, there are worse things in life than getting your Manolo stuck in a subway grate. 
This is not to say that all New Yorkers are materialistic, self-absorbed drones.  On the contrary, I find that so many of us are concerned with community issues, with the greater world, with discussing culture and politics and so many issues that would perhaps be left untouched in a city without such magnificent diversity. 
We are thinkers, New Yorkers. And sometimes things happen that make us perceive our world in a different way, adding just another diversion to the daily business of being a city dweller. 
The last Thursday in March I participated in a program called Midnight Run.  The organization coordinates groups of volunteers to prepare meals and collect clothing for the homeless, which will then be distributed by van starting around 10:00 pm. 
I spent the early part of the evening alongside JTS students, assembling sandwiches (tuna, egg salad, cheese) to stuff in paper bags alongside an apple and a cookie.  We sorted through piles of donated clothes, separating men’s from women’s apparel, folding blankets and matching socks. After a hard week, it was nice to relax with my peers, everyone smiley that they were doing something to help the less fortunate, and everyone ready to unwind for the weekend.  It was comforting to be able to methodically label sandwich bags and appreciate my classmate’s terrifyingly accurate impressions of our favorite (read: most entertaining) professors. 
We soon loaded the two enormous vans that we had borrowed from the Midnight Run office for the evening with dinners and blankets and hot chocolate, and set off on the route arranged for us.  While my anxiety about driving surely had me riled up (“Omigod, there’s a bus turning, we’re going to die!” “You can’t drive through Central Park!”  “How do we know who’s drunk?  We don’t.  Get off the road!”) even more excitement was bubbling inside of me as I prepared for what I expected to be a memorable experience. 
Our van full of food!

We pulled up to the first location on the Upper East Side. The vans are unmarked, meaning, the people who need the resources know when and where they will be, so there is no need to promote the organization with any advertisements on the vehicle. We offered a sandwich and a blanket to a man sleeping on the steps of the church and after a few more minutes of waiting, we drove off for our next stop. That’s it? I thought. Do people really need us or are we just doing this program to make ourselves feel good? Slightly disappointed, I sang along to Ke$ha with my car mates as we navigated to the next destination (Madison Avenue is a one-way street, just fyi).

The next few stops were similar. One or two people approached the van, grateful indeed, but I wondered what we would do with over 150 sandwiches at the end of the night.

Passing out clothing from the van.
By the time we reached midtown, however, I was beginning to see how necessary our mission truly was. Men and women approached the van, many of them so visibly cold and hungry I found it difficult to keep a smile on my face. “Have a nice evening, sir,” I would grin as I handed out a dinner much smaller than my own on any given night to someone who had probably not eaten all day. And I was deeply disturbed. How could I wish them well, knowing most of them didn’t have a bed to sleep in, a person nearby to love them, an assurance that they would have anything to eat when they wake up?

I also didn’t know them. I had no idea what their circumstances, what their stories were. Sure, I had a few short details from a college drop out and others I could tell had turned to drugs for one reason or another, but how could I so deeply empathize with people I knew so little about?

Sitting pretzel-style in the trunk of the van passing out sandwiches, my velvet-gloved hands numb and my entire body shaking from the cold, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live on the street. I have my needs: warm food, a different pair of shoes for every day of the week, nail polish, toilet paper. How could anybody do without this?

Tyra once did an episode of her show in which she lived as a homeless person for 24 hours. She wore a bandana over her weave, bathed herself with a bar of soap in a public restroom, and slept on the street while someone watched over her so she wouldn’t be mugged/raped/harassed for autographs. During the interview segment she was brought to tears multiple times, and I remember being to interested that she would willingly do this, so intrigued in the way she was able to portray homelessness. But in the end, she was still a celebrity, had a multimillion-dollar apartment and assistants and career to return to, while her homeless companions had no hope of ever achieving any of this.

By the time we arrived at our last stop, I could see we were absolutely making an impact.  Sure, it was only one more meal, one extra hat or sweater or pair of shoes, but it was something.  And yes, there was definitely more we could be doing. I worry that the people with whom we interacted never have the chance to engage in a life-changing novel, to walk through New York for aesthetic value not just to find a place to nap, to build lifelong friendships.  Though we can’t hope to improve the world with any singular project, every little bit helps. Recognizing that I am privileged, that I have to opportunity to help the world and actively want to do so is the most important thing I can take away from projects like these. 
And while I cannot say my life has changed since this incredible evening, I still walk past homeless people asking for money, I’ve been guilty of throwing away meals I cannot finish, I know that I see the city differently.  On my way to Bloomingdale’s last weekend I walked past the first corner at which we handed out our first sandwich, and I paused to reflect on it. As Tory Burch flats and Prada bags swished by me in one of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods, I knew that there was so much unseen suffering in this same location. In fear of sounding self-righteous, I told my shopping friend the amazing event that had taken place at this intersection, passing on the awareness and hopefully promoting further discussions that will lead to progress and absolutely make New York the greatest city in the universe. 
Cold but satisfied with our Midnight Run.

A Tale of Two Cities

As the days become fewer and fewer until my departure, I find myself constantly conflicted. I find myself torn between my excitement to return to the Big Apple and my sadness to leave my beloved Smelly Onion. While my East Coast friends continue to tell me they cannot wait for my arrival and my Midwestern friends have already booked visits to New York, I still begin to feel sentimentality for my hometown unlike ever before. In all the years I wanted to leave, to escape to New York, my be all and end all dream location, I never spent enough time appreciating my own city. I walked by Sky Gate as if it were just another piece of metal, pranced by the giant Ferris wheel in Navy Pier as if it were a small carnival decoration, shopped on the Magnificent Mile all the while thinking it was nothing like my darling Fifth Avenue, and scorned our Art Institute for not being The Met. And while I have become immune to the treasures of my city in my eighteen years, I have suddenly regained a new appreciation, a new excitement about enjoying my surroundings, because I know my days are limited.

During the ready-for-college? Small talk with neighbors/relatives/acquaintances, I’m often reminded not to forget my roots; and I think: How could I? Because as great as New York is, as excited as I am to live there once again (if you count last summer, which I absolutely do), Manhattan is not Chicago, Manhattan is not my hometown, nor will it ever be.

I grew up taking boat tours down the Chicago River, going on school trips to the Shedd Aquarium, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Sears Tower. I’ve watched the Cows on Parade, attended countless concerts at Ravinia, spent every Black Friday on State Street, swam in Lake Michigan, walked through the Botanic Gardens, skated in Millennium Park, laughed at Second City, the list continues endlessly. Almost all of my childhood memories take place somewhere between the North Shore and the South Loop.

Early in the school year, we had to write a compare-contrast essay for English Lit and I wrote about my split love for New York and Chicago. I explained my inaptitude at the CTA system but my skills with the MTA, I compared Millennium Park to Central Park, never reaching any conclusion as to which Great Lawn is superior, I contrasted New Yorkers to Chicagoans, realizing that my side absolutely reigns superior.

Because I will forever be a Chicagoan, regardless if I live in New York for four or forty years. I will forever hum “Go Cubs Go!”, always make time to return to my favorite places, and never stop sharing stories about the greatness of my city.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to move to New York. To live closer to Times Square, to be immersed in culture and art, to always wake up in the city that never sleeps. There are many elements New York has that Chicago will never possess yet there are so many things about Chicago that will never be matched: I can’t walk down the streets in New York and remember good times growing up with my old friends (MJP popcorn incident aside). And, more importantly, New York only has Z100, Chicago has both Kiss FM and B96. What will I do when there is a commercial on my favorite radio station? Listen to it?

I’ve been told time and time again that once you leave for college, returning home is like being a guest. I somewhat envy my friends staying in Chicago for school, having that comfort of home while still enveloping themselves in new experience.

While I may know Manhattan like the back of my hand, it is still not my city. My city is the Cubs, the Sox, the L, the Loop, the Lake. I will never say “pocketbook” nor do I plan to switch from “gym shoes” to “sneakers.” While my love affair with New York is always strong, I cannot let myself deny my love for Chicago. The kind of love that comes from scraped knees on pavements, thunderstorms destroying anticipated plans, hours spent waiting for the free trolley because we were too lazy to walk. I may have watched seven hours worth of historical New York documentaries on PBS yet the history I have with Chicago is undeniable. I can tell you Fredrick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, that the Brooklyn Bridge took thirteen years to build, but that does not compare to explaining the Great Chicago Fire to an outsider, showing her the remaining structures, telling her stories of yearly field trips to historical sites, living the memories and the stories.

So Chicago, as I prepare to leave you in a couple months, to officially become Issa On Broadway, I promise to love you more than ever. To take advantage of your best assets, your unique qualities, and enjoy you to my utmost ability. I will not compare you to my dream city, as you are truly it. While I may never fully reside in you again, or maybe I will, I want to thank you for the good times, for making every moment special, never letting me take you for granted, and for never disappointing me. As we prepare to part ways, I want you to know you will always be in my heart, that through photographs and memories you will never leave me, as I hope to have made a lasting impression on you.