On the first Friday night in a post-Sandy world, I passed by a few drunk girls and frat dudes at the Shannon, one of the many drinking establishments near my apartment on First Street in Hoboken. Normally, I would shake my head at these people because the girls are overly Valley and annoying and the guys give me douche chills. Inevitably, they will wake me up via fistfight or J-E-T-S chant at 3 am on their way home because they can’t handle their drink. But not Friday. On Friday, these people inspired me. Somehow, they were able to find happiness in an otherwise bleak situation.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’ve lived in Hoboken for over three years now and I don’t think much of it. Previously, I lived in Jersey City and loved it because it had culture and a lot of things going on. But this place? Mostly white kids who brought the suburbs with them and, while I am in fact a white kid from the suburbs, I’ve always been drawn to cities so I could be a part of the proverbial melting pot. I have a joke about Hoboken: It’s kind of like Brooklyn… for people that fear diversity. I once heard the members of A Tribe Called Quest talk about growing up around rappers and DJs, helping them become hip hop legends. If that’s the case, I have argued, then Hoboken will raise a generation of kids who are really good at brunch.
Before the storm hit, I suggested that David Simon will, as he did with Treme and Katrina, create a show about Hoboken’s recovery in the aftermath. Unlike the former, which is rich with great music and interesting characters, this show would focus on 20-somethings who have to wait on longer lines to get into lounges and fusion restaurants and maybe the folks from Cake Boss as they struggle to make a cake in the shape of a storm surge. And unfortunately, unlike Treme, people would actually watch.
Now, after Sandy, and having had spent 6 days and 14 hours without power, I am starting to rethink my position on all of this. Sure, the vapid idiots are out there. There’s the completely able guy I encountered who, after I walked up nine stories in his building to make sure he and the other tenants were not in need of water or medical attention (humble brag #1), yelled at me because I didn’t have ice. After one day. Was it so you had something to chill your martini with, stupid? Or the girl in her 20′s in the BMW who yelled at the pedestrian to get out of her way… as he was helping survey damage to a storefront. And I can’t forget the older gentleman who beeped at the car in front of him… as said car yielded to two people carrying trays of food in front of FEMA’s command station. But for those three horrendous incidents, and for all the sadness and devastation surrounding us, I have encountered so much goodness in this little town of mine it has been eye opening.
Last Monday night, sometime after water surged down our street and the power went out, my fiancé Aly and I knew it would be a long, strange trip and that we’d have to make the most of it. Surrounded by candlelight, we got drunk and played dice for change. Even when we noticed the building across from us was with full power, we didn’t care. Normally, we’d be catching up on DVR’d Dancing with the Stars so frankly, I was relieved. A little while later, that same building’s fire alarm went off and, with the fire department unable to maneuver the river that used to be our street so they could shut it off, it would continue to go off for roughly fifteen hours. While my neighbors and I usually don’t tolerate annoying noises in the late Hoboken night, instead we intermittently yelled out our windows to the increasingly rattled tenants, just to make sure they were okay. I later heard reports that the people in my building whose windows faced the other street played Hollywood Squares with the building across from them. Genius. Though we were doing it in very different ways, we were all doing what we had to do look out for each other, and to stay sane.
On Tuesday, we awoke to a sobering reality: things were really bad out there. Our block was completely surrounded by water and a whole bunch of it. Trees and light poles were down. Many people, including us, were stranded. With no power and minimal cell or 3G service, we had no idea what was going on in the outside world except for what we saw outside our window. The fire alarm still sounding off, we couldn’t help the feelings of paranoia that would creep up inside of us but, the water outside the building waist-high and toxic, we were trapped. However, as we wandered the hallways, garage, and flooded lobby with our flashlights, we encountered other people in the building who were also looking for answers as well as comfort. Soon enough, we were swapping apartment numbers, in case anyone needed anything. Normally, everyone keeps to themselves and often, won’t even hold the elevator for one another, so this was groundbreaking stuff.
Later that night, we paid a visit to Taline and Lara, two sisters we met earlier that day who live two floors above us. It started out as an invitation to play Trivial Pursuit but morphed into a phone charging session in our car. And that’s how The Great Garage Party came to be. As we stood outside the car as our phones got some juice, neighbors started approaching us asking if there was any way we could help them out. One girl, who had been turned away by another cell-charging neighbor, had been unable to reach her mom since the power went out nearly 24 hours earlier. With some battery power, she’d be able to. A guy who was on a first date with a girl from the sixth floor since Sunday morning happened to have an adapter on him (which, in a way, is even more presumptuous than bringing condoms on a first date). Still, now our charging party was even bigger. We sat around our garage in beach chairs, drinking beer, wine, and in Aly’s case, dirty martinis. With a mix of music and news in the background we talked about life, swapped stories, and just got to know each other. There was even an invitation to a Christmas party.
On Wednesday, the water went down enough where it was at least safe enough to leave the building. This was when things started to get a little more real. Whereas the three days prior we were able to act like kids (who drink) on a snow day, Wednesday was the day where we had to be the adults (who still drink), facing reality. As Aly and I walked up First Street, we saw the devastation. Flooding, downed trees and light poles, cars that were swept into random places and businesses that might not ever be the same.
We did not see one drunk girl but instead people that were soaking in what Sandy had done. There was a lot of sadness and confusion, something I hadn’t seen before in this town. By the time we got to City Hall that’s when we saw the National Guard. Previously, I had only seen the National Guard in the news and movies about viruses so when you get the live experience, it feels a little different.
I had to help. Walking into that dark government building the chaos was evident. Whether you were a resident or a member of the National Guard, someone looking to help or someone in dire need of it, this was central command. I joined a group of volunteers who were heading to some of the high rises near the river that were without water or power. We walked up many, many flights of stairs to just bang on doors, checking on people’s medical and H20 needs (where I encountered the “Ice Man” mentioned earlier). Right before we got there, a woman had to be escorted into a hospital in the city because her water broke and the hospital in Hoboken was out of commission. For some reason, every time I think of that story, Lightning Crashes by Live serves as the soundtrack. Maybe it’s the ying yang of it all. While something tragic had happened, everyone but Mr. Ice, from those suffering to those helping, was pulling together to get through it. Just days earlier, I at best felt indifference towards my town but now, I could feel myself start to have a connection with it.
By Thursday morning, whatever charm there was in eating Spam in the candlelight had worn off and the walks through the neighborhood were emotionally getting harder. There’s a small pharmacy across from our building that got hit really hard and, when I saw the owner had finally got in to try and put the pieces back together, I went down to help (humble brag #2). As we scooped toxic sludge out of the bathroom, Jafir told me his vision for a true mom and pop operation, where he knew the face of every customer, how he had been hit hard by Irene the year before and that he just wanted to get up and running soon to help the neighborhood get back to normal. Clearly, I had helped the right guy. When it was time to leave, Jafir gave me a huge hug. Always a sucker for bromance, I couldn’t even remember my bad feelings about Hoboken and, in fact, I was more than ever feeling a part of it.
All that aside, Aly and I needed to escape so, we went to my mom’s house in Central Jersey.Tearing out of town, it was as if we were fleeing armageddon. Once we got there, it felt like the scene in Cast Away when Tom Hanks gets rescued and he just takes hot showers and eats like a king (instead of crab legs we had a 10lb ham and rice). Still even with the food, the comfort of being taken care of and being able to watch TV, I couldn’t help but miss home a little.
On Friday, with reports of power coming back to parts of Hoboken, we decided to roll the dice and head home. As with nearly every other bet I have ever placed, we lost this one as well. We pulled into our garage at 4pm in total darkness.
Waking up Saturday morning in a 30 degree apartment on my first day of a new job was not a fun way to start a new chapter in my life. As I washed myself with the assistance of if a sponge and a bucket, the thought of being intimidated by new co-workers seemed trivial.
Late Monday morning, more than 48 hours later and seven days after the ordeal began, we finally got our power back. Those last two days, when we were really on the verge of losing it, Aly and I were in a way saved by the kindness of two friends and one stranger. Our friends, Ryan and Jess got their power back on Saturday. Thanks to them, we had a place to shower, enjoy good food and wine and, with their son LJ as an excuse, watch old episodes of The Muppet Show. Earlier that day, Aly wound up in a conversation with a total stranger and, when her new friend found out we were without power or hot water, immediately offered us a place to shower and recharge.
It’s stories like those that, combined with the fact that we can take showers at home again, are making me kind of crush on Hoboken, the place I still call home, just now not so reluctantly. For every annoying drunk person or person cares about nothing but having ice, there are a ton of people looking out for each other. We have a long way to go. There’s the clean up, homes in dire need of repair and businesses that have to start all over. But for those of us going through a tough time, it’s nice to know that somewhere, there’s a neighbor who has your back.