Last Monday night, as Hurricane Sandy howled outside, we had just finished watching last night’s episode of The Walking Dead when there was a flash in the sky and the power went out. The vicarious glee of the Zombie Apocalypse—with its owl eating, gas hunting and lack of hot showers—was quickly replaced by living an actual lite version of it. I was semi-prepared to rough it for a few days—the lack of a battery radio being my great downfall—but what I wasn’t prepared for was the demonstration of how wedded to our electronic life we’ve become, as least if by “we” you mean Manhattanites of 2012. By now you’re all familiar with last week’s photos of anxious New Yorkers crowded around electrical outlets to charge their gadgets. A power strip became the soup canteen of the blacked out blocks, a resource to be shared and guarded.When I was a kid I lived in a tent for three months, so I’m no stranger to peeing in a pail. Since then, I’ve been through a good checklist of disasters: blizzards, blackouts, hurricanes, an earthquake, a riot, 9/11. Sandy definitely caused the most prolonged personal privation, but the evolution to the wired world was the most marked effect of this one. People were more freaked out about not having cel phones than food from what I saw.

On August 14th, 2003, I awoke from an uncharacteristic mid-afternoon nap to find most of the Northeast without power. I had a fully charged laptop with a phone modem jack, a land-line and a dial-up AOL account. Cel phones were useless, but I was able to go online, chat with friends and stay abreast of what was going on. Rationing my online to every few hours required a degree of discipline, but I mostly managed. In these primitive conditions, I was actually BETTER equipped to survive a blackout. The experience motivated me to keep a landline long after it was needed, but like most people I jettisoned the extra expense a few years later.

On Wednesday morning of the most recent crisis I made my way to a Starbucks in the power zone to login. The place was jammed with people doing the same, but no one was talking about what was happening. Everyone was staring at their phone or laptop, concerned with their wired world and not the one around them. The next day we made our way to Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the “shower and power” offered by a good friend. Here, older Polish men stood in clusters on the street, talking animatedly. Old school.

My random comments about how desperate people were to have phone service, resulted in a few people mentioning that they had to let loved ones know they were okay, etc. I felt like pointing out that at any working pay phone you could simply make a collect call but I doubt most people under 30 know how to use a pay phone or what a collect call is.

Of course, I was jonesing for my wired fix as badly as anyone. It was necessary for work, keeping The Beat going, checking in on the election, reading my favorite websites, tweeting and all the other stuff that makes up most of our wired days. Still, I can’t help but feel a little shell-shocked by the degree to which our gadgets have taken over our lives. I live in an apartment full of books, but never got around to candlelight reading. To while away the dark hours, I played solitaire on my iPad, not with a deck of cards. That’s sort of pathetic.

In a larger sense, the average modern Manhattanite is going to be toast in the Zombie Apocalypse. I’ve long complained about Roland Emmerich‘s fascination with destroying New York on film, but it is so visual, I will admit. My discomfort over watching I Am Legend came back to me as we would walk home from the friendly tavern that became our home away from home, pitiful flashlights laughable in the great sucking darkness of the streets that I thought I knew like the back of my hand. It was a new, awful world, cold and forbidding. But the larger picture was even more ominous. Flooded tunnels and closed bridged mean no food, no gas. We’re extremely lucky the whole island of Manhattan didn’t go dark; that would have been a much more disastrous disaster.

One of the most powerful notes of The Walking Dead is how people DON’T band together. New survivors are viewed as threats and rivals for the meagre resources of the world. One night during the blackout Ben and I watched Zombieland on my laptop, where things are more survivable and companionable, but not by much. Last week I saw mostly civilized behavior, good people helping other good people, sharing and caring. Either there wasn’t much looting or we just haven’t heard about it yet. People never got desperate for anything but a bus to go to work, at least until the gas shortages hit. That’s when the Rick Grimes in people began to come out more. But we haven’t seen the big picture yet. Suffice to say the time is right for a remake of Mad Max.

I’m writing from privilege—a constant access to power, a hot shower and gourmet meals is not enjoyed by most of the world’s 7 billion people. I think back to my time in the tent, when I wrote on a manual typewriter and heated up water for a sponge bath every few days. I’m not a kid any more, but I could do that for a little while. But I wouldn’t survive too long against those who couldn’t.

The moral of the story? Make sure you have one of those wind up radios!

Also, a big big thank you to buddies Josh and Nisha for the Beat’s own Amy Chu for offering power, warmth and food. And to the Beat crew—Steve and Todd and Shannon and Jessica—for keeping things going while I was looking for coffee. And to Torsten for being Torsten.

Notes: Kate Beaton has collected all of her Sandy comics here. And here’s an excellent write-up by Maria Popova on why destroying New York City is a staple of literature and film with great pictures. Like this:


  1. While I was prepared for basement flooding from rain (being rather high up in Wakefield, no worry about Bronx River), blackouts, and the like, I still learned a lot. Like what an inverter is, and how you can use a car battery to run electrical appliances.

    I do have a shortwave radio, but I have been eyeing those Red Cross radios with the solar array and USB ports…

    As for the zombie apocalypse, I’m either heading for Riker’s Island (right next to Laguardia!) or Canada.

  2. Rick Grimes and co. were on my mind last week, as well, mainly because I didn’t see any of the happy banding together we all say would happen during a disaster. Donations and volunteering and whatnot are expected and welcome, but easy in that it doesn’t ask you to sacrifice much, especially since you’re getting the “I did a good deed” glow in exchange. But regular, run of the mill politeness and helpfulness? Not really. Much like during the transit strike, I saw people almost run down by cars trying to beat red lights, driving into oncoming traffic to get around pedestrians, driving on sidewalks, etc. All my neighbors who needed gas (I’m car-less) told me they were a curt word away from all-out fistfight while waiting on line for it.

    The problem with society (or, I guess I should say our particular society) banding together to survive is that everyone has, instead, a “me first” gene. I have to get slightly ahead of you, I have to beat that light, no you can’t go ahead of me on line I’ve been here for hours, no I won’t let you off the subway first, just get out of my way. The neighbors we don’t know are obstacles, not partners. For all the many flaws in The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman absolutely NAILED this piece of it.

  3. Now imagine that had happened in Germany … for ages we didn’t even *have* collect calls (I think they were collateral damage of a consumer protection law preventing the called person from being charged). We only got them a couple years ago. OK, maybe now it’s 10. So even the old people wouldn’t have known to call collect from a phone booth.

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