The first day subway service was restored after Hurricane Sandy, my cousin Nic and I took the 4 train to Grand Central Station; ordinarily, the 4 continues on to Crown Heights in the heart of Brooklyn, but none of the trains were running below 42nd or 34th streets, depending on the subway line. Having made it through the storm relatively unscathed (one day without internet service is definitely not the emblem of hardship), we felt somewhat disconnected from the harsher reality people elsewhere were experiencing.
For a good half-hour we kept walking south after disembarking from Grand Central, basking in the surreality of streets bereft of people and the uneasy absence of frenzied bustling that characterizes the city. Lights—what lights? There were none whatsoever. Not even the traffic lights were working! And yet through these potentially dangerous unlit streets cars drove by, mindful of pedestrians, always slowing down whenever someone was crossing the street. Without traffic cops, mind you. Therein lies the beauty of New York—in the midst of chaos, self-imposed order reigns. No traffic lights and no traffic cops does not automatically equal lost lives or severed limbs, which is reassuring.
Finally we reached Union Square: underground the nexus of 7 subway lines, above ground a hotspot of crowd clusterfucking under ordinary circumstances. That afternoon was no ordinary one, however. There were no gravity-defying, handrail-sailing skateboarders, no amalgam of breakdancers or struggling folk singers or huge crowds drawn around such spectacles. Police tape circled the perimeter of the park. A National Guard truck was pulled up to the curb between 17th and 18th streets on Broadway. Rows of ConEd trucks lined the open area on the northern portion of Union Square across from the big Barnes and Noble store, normally filled with a crossroads of bodies coming, going, or staying put. On the southern end, two makeshift stations of generosity: a long line of people patiently waited for their cellphones and electronic devices to charge, courtesy of a truck owned by Guardian Data Destruction (the sort of business you’d call if your business needed to dispose of things that contain confidential information, I think). A moving company truck set up on the opposite side, handing out dry ice.
Here’s where the fumble part begins. This portion of the story finds Nic and I hungry, having had nothing to eat before leaving my apartment. Suddenly, across the street from us I see a line formed by U-Haul truck from which brown paper bags of stuff was being handed.
“I wonder what they’re giving away,” Nic inquired.
“It’s got to be food,” I concluded. “We should fall in line and wait our turn.”
“I don’t know that I want to take food intended for the needy,” said Nic.
“Yeah, I kind of feel the same way. But we’re hungry. And the people in line don’t ‘look’ needy, either. Just normal people who happened to be severely affected by the storm. And…we can just pretend to be one of them.” Oh, the ways in which hunger clouds one’s judgment.
So Nic and I promptly cross the street and fall in line. As new arrivals, we settle ourselves at the end of the queue. Moments later, an elderly gentleman approached us: “What is this line for?”
“Food,” I answered.
“Actually, it’s for dry ice,” said the gentleman ahead of us.
A look of horror appeared on Nic’s face. Spurred by the embarrassment caused by my oh-so-wrong-but-oh-so-confident declaration, she made the sensible decision to back away a few steps, pulling me along with her.