Escape from SoPo (South of Power)

by Valery Oisteanu
click aici pentru versiunea română


The wrath of Sandy in the City of Candles.
Notes on solitary confinement during the deluge


Shortly after 8.30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, I was on the phone with my Uncle Morris in Princeton, N.J.; he was just telling me how he had lost all power to Superstorm Sandy, when I heard an explosion. My first thought was that it was the 14th Street Con Ed substation, not far from my home. A second later I also lost power — the TV, the desktop computer, the lights, all went off.


I said a quick goodbye, hung up with Mo and looked out in the hall, where the emergency lights came on. A neighbor came out and informed me that most of the emergency lights in the stairwells were not working: “It’s pitch-dark there,” he said. I found my flashlight and, thanks to old batteries, it was flickering at best. I looked out the window, but it was all empty darkness, streetlights off, the streets deserted. In the blind labyrinth of Gotham, ghosts and spirits ruled Lower Manhattan.


Somewhere in the distance the Empire State Building remained a beacon, it’s crown lit up as usual. But here, in the East Village, on Second Avenue across from St. Marks Church, everything came to a standstill for 96 hours. I felt trapped inside this East Berlin of Manhattan, in SoPo, short for South of Power, south of 34th street. As I watch the street, occasional first responders, a few taxis and bicycles float by in the dark, the absence of traffic lights leaving every corner a no-man’s zone.


In the distance I saw a figure decked out with flashing psychedelic colors, reminiscent of Burning Man in the Nevada dessert, and I wasn’t sure if it was a biker with restlessness of the “burners or running freak preparing for Halloween”. WHAT?

Suddenly SoPo had become the latest ghetto: no heat, no power, no phones, no Internet, no busses, no subway, no taxis.


I was alone in my apartment; my wife had driven out of Manhattan on Sunday, just ahead of the super Frankenstorm, and managed to get to Riverdale in the Bronx, where her 94-year-old mother lives in an assisted-living home. My mother-in-law had been left alone as her usual aides couldn’t get to her due to a sudden lack of transportation.


There was no way to escape from New York; the tunnels were closed, so were the bridges. I was cut off from the mainland unless I could find my bike in the dark basement, ride in the storm to the East River, dodging a cascade of falling trees everywhere, slip into an inflatable kayak or rowboat and go paddling into the hurricane, still raging like a tsunami, until I could reach the Queens or Brooklyn shore. But that likely would not work, and in the meantime, seawater was rising on both sides of the Manhattan.


Floodwater came rushing through Alphabet City, taking parked cars and pianos alike with powerful waves, trashing them like cardboard boxes and floating t hem down the street. Several blocks away there was so much water, sharks were observed on Ave. D. Water snaked through the East Village streets and poured into basement apartments on Ave. D, C and B in turn. Some people reported flooded basements in Ave. A and even First Ave. IN all, the East River would wind up surging over its banks by 14.9 to 17 feet.


I still had cooking gas that first night and I was able to warm the apartment with hot water boiling on the stove, just like I did in Bucharest, Romania, during harsh winters spent under Communist rule. On the advice of a friend from Hawaii, I filled my bathtub with several pots with filtered water, as well.


Equipped with water, bags of cat food and a not-so-trusty flashlight, I went up the staircase in pitch darkness, to check on my neighbors and their pets. First door to the left, I knocked and got no answer. I had the keys to the apartment and let myself in, shut the windows. Other neighbors down the hall had evacuated ahead of the storm, and I went in to close their windows as well.


This was the third blackout in Loisaida I experienced since I began living here in the early 1970s, but this time it was totally different. It was scary, and residents could do nothing but wait for the storm to leave town. Maybe the world would end as the Mayans had predicted, though their target date had been Dec. 21, a day when all of the planes would be perfectly aligned.


The night proved an ordeal. I rigged an old transistor radio with batteries taken from my wa-wa pedal and fell asleep listening to horrible news of flooded streets and inundated tunnels. The darkness bred thoughts of an existential nature, and to become lyrical at the height of despair seemed to me a survivalist purification and salvation.


Next morning, the sky above was full with black clouds getting ready to loose still more water upon the city at any time. I could see small tribes of Power Zombies in the street searching for power strips, extension cords, generators, any place where they could charge their smart phones, iPads, laptops…


Some older women were seen to be lugging jugs of tap water from a bar on the Bowery and up 19 floors to flush their toilets. The Korean restaurant on E. 10th Street gave out for free noodles and miso soups. An Indian grocery opened to candlelight, ”Cash Only” signs, and a line around the corner of somber, non-talkative people. I was wearing a cap with inscription “Zoo-York,” the name of a defunct fashion line.


A Korean grocery store suddenly jacked up the price for a gallon of water from $2.50 to $10. I found an open restaurant lit with candles at the bar and ask them for tap water to fill my gallon plastic bottles; blessedly, they did. At this point many stores were giving food away; I obtained two packs of tofu and some goat’s milk. A bicycle man standing by the exit said to me, “That’s all?” and I nodded yes, saying, ”I hope it’s not for long!”


Back to creativity as a temporary relief from thoughts of death and destruction, I fixed a landline and talk to various neighbors and friends. Sometimes I established contact with poet/artist acquaintances the old-fashioned way, by shouting down to the street until they heard and came to my window, out of which I’d throw a key to the downstairs door.


Meanwhile, the local fire stations had generators, and some allowed people to charge their phones and other electronic gadgets. Help stations popped up in churches and synagogues, 36 hours into the storm, and still no juice, no heat.


I went out and decided to walk north passed the new Berlin Wall on 34th Street to see if the Morgan Library and its show on Michelangelo’s drawings was open; but that attempt failed at 23rd Street. There I was, so close to artistic civilization, when I suddenly was diverted by hunger and an open Chinese restaurant that served hot food by candlelight. After a delicious meal, I felt tired and turned back to return to SoPo.


My next sojourn outside the No Light Zone took place 49 hours into the disaster, when I found out my cell phone would likely work better above the 34th Street demarcation line. There I found long lines of people in front of the fast dwindling examples of public phones, trying to contact friends and family. The scene reminded me of The Matrix, where people were teleported to 42nd Street by dialing a code.


As darkness once again approached I found myself back in the SoPo ghetto. By 4 p.m. all was grey fading to black. I found a small restaurant, where by weak candlelight I attempted to make my way to the men’s room. I stumbled along groping for the walls and felt a handle, which I pushed open to find myself in a long dark tunnel, where followed a chaotic succession of sordid galleries, a cluster of small rooms, a series of cellars branding into and from other cellars, all with a subterranean draft smelling faintly like the alcohol from 1920s bootleggers.


Finally I came upon a wall with steps carved into it, which I scaled feeling clumsy and fatigued. As I rose I began to glimpse neon lights, and climbing out of a vent I was blinded by big electrified advertisement letters. I became angry — wasn’t this an abuse of precious power when almost a third of the Island of Lights was in darkness? People here were super busy shopping and merrily drinking as if nothing had happened. How come no one offered us a spare generator or some help with water or hot food like for the refugees of a hurricane in Sri Lanka? Every bloody building seemed to have industrial generators, except in SoPo. How many older residents were left with no water, no supervision, no help, no lights, no food deliveries, no way to leave their apartments, no oxygen…


My phone rang, and I felt instant relief. My wife was driving home from Riverdale with a car full of food and groceries, a tank full of gas, and cash — the ATMs in the East Village had stopped working in the storm. I could foresee an end to scrounging for free dry ice or ice bags, the two of us cooking by candlelight, drinking and listening to bad news over the radio…more than 100 people dead due to the storm.


But still we prayed for electricity to come back, as if electrical power was some ancient god or ultimate authority like in the movie Brazil. We didn’t know it, but in another 48 hours the deluge would come to an end, and the moment the lights came on, we instantly forgot the darkness and its impact, the flickering lights and scratchy radio. The juice was on, and it was quickly back online with our iPads, back to CNN, back on track to catch up with wired reality, with both the extension-cord and wireless communities, with my more thn 5000 facebook friends.


SoPo was quickly decommissioned and went out with the darkness.

originally published on i-report CNN [super-storm Sandy-stories]

Escape from SoPo (South of Power)

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