Stories From Sandy: Notes From the East River Co-op

A charging station in the community room at the Seward Park Co-op, much like the one in the East River Co-op. Photo by thelodownny.com.

Editor’s Note: This story is from writer and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who lives in the East River Housing Co-op on FDR Drive.  If you have a story about how you got through Hurricane Sandy on the LES, share it with us at: info@thelodownny.com.

The name goes clunkily off the tongue: “East River Housing M Section Community Room.”  And until last week, not only was the name un-beautiful, it was a misnomer — because it was mostly unused by residents. Then came Sandy.

At first, I didn’t believe the rumor of a generator-lit room on Grand Street.

My family lives in the apartment building I grew up in, the East River Housing Co-op building closest to the Williamsburg Bridge. I have never made it past the flying monkeys part of The Wizard of Oz, let alone taken the stairwell down 21 flights, solo, even in the light.

A little Facebook indulgence allowed me to read of the possible promised land. “I hear you can even charge your phone!” posted a stranded neighbor in Hillman Housing two blocks away. “And read a book! Can someone check it out and post if true? ”

With the cell reception weak, even five minutes of virtual contact meant one bar of power left. My husband was not available to be my stair escort because he was sound asleep with battery-operated radio headphones on his ears. I took pity on him as I shut the radio off to conserve the precious batteries for news updates. A nap is an excellent way to pass time in a blackout.

Around eight in the evening, my disabled father heard from one of his concerned sisters. After a long reassuring talk with her that all would be okay, he called out that his phone was now dead too. A charged phone was needed, especially with my daughter sleeping uptown at a friend’s. I had promised my child that when I shipped her off to the electrified Upper East Side, I would call every night at 9:30 until the crisis was over. She understood we could not leave and desert Grandpa, but the phone call was imperative to her.

As I anxiously checked my flashlight for battery power, I recalled the scariest passage in my favorite children’s book, Wind in the Willows, when Mole ventures into the uncharted Wildwoods: “Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water…Then the faces began…He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things, or there would be simply no end to it.”

I made it down the first four flights okay. But several more flights down I came across a terrifying creature making an odd noise, who on closer inspection turned out to be a neighbor wearing a headlamp. He was huffing because he was lugging several bottles of seltzer water from the lobby. (I will not knock the odd choice of our building’s management to ration seltzer water as our survival provision. You can flush with water even if there are tiny bubbles in it. You can boil spaghetti on a gas stove with it.)

“You okay?” my weary neighbor asked gently, “I’m going to sit for a few minutes to recover my stride.”

“Yes, can I ask if there a generator room?”

“I’m not sure, please knock on my door if there is. We’re nearly at our last bar.”

On the twelfth floor, a new resident I have only nodded to before in the elevator was having a full-on panic attack descending the stairs, even though a family member was parked downstairs waiting to take her to “Elsewhere.” We made it down the remaining stairs holding hands.

Vestigal lights strung in the East River Co-op Community Room, briefly powered by generator during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

I crossed the dark, back passage of our building, past the boarded up laundry room, until I came to the door of the community room. Weak lights in tiny metal cages were strung all along a power line, reminding me of an unglamorous Christmas decoration. Near an edge of the room, fifteen or so residents of our four building complex sat in a circle charging phones near a center of power strips plugged into the generator. I learned that the generator was set up by our building janitor, Sam Badillo, who by his own account barely slept.

I was greeted like a long lost friend even though I only knew a few of the faces. I plugged in and listened as one woman of about sixty looked closely at another woman of her age, who came with her husband. “Oh you go with him! I know all about you! Your husband and I do the treadmill together.”

An army vet from the K section, who has served several tours of duty, was wearing a camouflage cap he kept moving on his head. He’d smartly brought his own power strip because as he explained, “I’m charging my phone, my mother’s phone, my shaver, and my grandmother’s hearing aid.”

A fifteen year old boy was slouched in two chairs playing with his X Box as his mother engaged in a conversation about how kids had it harder in the old days. “Palmolive Soap. That’s what the nuns used if you cursed.”

“I got the hairbrush,” laughed a lady I have seen only in the laundry room before. “Mom would whack everyone in the room regardless of which of us was in trouble.” Her laugh was contagious, and several of us laughed at this. She then briefly checked the low power level on her phone in disgust. “I’ve been charging an hour and it’s halfway there.”

Kosher food provisions in boxes in the East River Co-op Community Room. Photo by Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

With the weak current, it took nearly an hour and a half to fully charge my own phone, but I was able to stop briefly and wish my daughter good night. I left my phone on for emergencies, because now I knew where to come.

In the morning the word was already out. The crowd had doubled, and everyone already knew to bring power strips, so as not to appear selfish. There were two residents fully engrossed in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and many were reading the print edition of The New York Times dumped on the mailbox shelf instead of being delivered door to door.

Fellow PS 110 parent Linda Kenny confessed to our circle that her slight addiction to “As Seen on TV” products paid off when she realized she has numerous Tap Lights in the house. “Who’s laughing at me now?” She explained that she decided to stay because her husband is still recovering from a leg injury.  “He could get out, but he couldn’t get up again if we needed to come back.”

Others in the room said the cost of hotels were prohibitive. “I heard $500 a night uptown. You can get to Brooklyn, but then what if you can’t get gas?”

In the end, it was too good to be true. Because of the lack of gas the generator was shut down and used to get the elevators damaged by the East River surge back in working order. The closest charging station was the Nokia mobile truck many blocks away, with a chaotic and chilly wait outdoors on Clinton and Grand. But just briefly, our Community Room had its shining moment.

1 comment to Stories From Sandy: Notes From the East River Co-op

  • Barbara

    Well done, Laurie! This storm may have been the only time I was happy to not have FiOS because our land-line kept on working with an “old fashioned” phone. Plus it was fun for the kids to have our apt become a community hub of sorts as people waited for their turn on the phone. Glad you and your dad are ok!