The shrieking began on Monday, an unearthly, steady wail, and the clouds rolled in after, layers of roiling slate. From my Lower Manhattan apartment I walked down to the Battery to watch Hurricane Sandy arrive and I thought Fifty Shades of Gray. A blockbuster of sadomasochistic erotica might seem like a strange analogy for a storm, but after the power went out, it made an odd kind of sense: sometimes it takes a beating to make us connect.
Here is life in what was called “the powerless zone”: There were no stoplights, so people just stopped. There were no phones, so we knocked on each other’s doors. There was no electricity, so someone brought a power strip to the outdoor outlet on the Citigroup building—bank headquarters all had generators—and security guards looked the other way as people took turns charging their phones. There was no internet, so we gathered in a local bar lit by votives and the bartenders’ flashlights, sharing information and news. No one could stop talking about how great it was to see the stars. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to be without power.
None of this minimizes the suffering and loss that the hurricane brought. But like all disasters it brought good things too—people helping each other, the community experiencing itself as a community.
“I feel like I should do something,” I kept saying as we put on extra coats and lit oil lamps. Bob and I walked out onto the Brooklyn Bridge to get cell service, collecting our e-mail and reading the news standing on the crowded walkway. Everyone I knew was getting involved. They were donating coats and sweatpants and blankets; they were having bake sales and volunteering at shelters. So many New Yorkers wanted to help that the big aid organizations were turning people away. I went to the city website and tried to volunteer to help clean up city parks. They were completely booked. The Occupy movement took up the slack, not only getting aid to the hardest hit places but offering an outlet for frustrated volunteers.
The point is not that people pull together after disasters—Rebecca Solnit made that clear in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. The point is that we need to acknowledge that we have a deep desire that can be answered by a disaster but is not created by it: the longing to be part of our community. And by community I mean the place where we physically reside. Sure, it’s fun to connect with the hordes of like-minded avatars we find in the segmented pseudo-communities of the online world. But the truth is, that leaves us unfulfilled. Online, we move around in the mental equivalent of gated communities. It doesn’t give us the primal jolt we get from being part of a physical pack.
Kurt Vonnegut once proposed that a presidential candidate who ran on the campaign promise “Lonesome no more!” would win, hands down. There’s a fundamental loneliness to the way we live now, in cities and in suburbs, maybe even in small towns—anywhere we don’t routinely talk to the people we bump up against by the sheer coincidence of proximity. Where we know the names of more online friends than of people we meet face to face. We know this and we long to connect. The storm gave us that chance.
Everyone quickly adjusted to carrying flashlights wherever they went. We waved them at cars to alert them to our presence, waved them at other pedestrians, ship beacons in the ocean of semi-darkness. We stopped to chat with security guards, to say thanks to exhausted Con-Ed crews, to ask people we vaguely know how they were making out. On Sunday, after the power came on, Bob and I had dinner with some friends who work in banking. They talked about how they had gone to a local deli, just to support them for staying open. They had chatted with their neighbors at a restaurant that had a generator. They had built fires and given up on their cell phones.
They felt guilty, they told us, but they sort of missed being powerless.
Ginger Strand is a contributing editor of Orion and the author, most recently, of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. She and her partner, Bob, live in New York City. Image courtesy David Shankbone.