November 2, 2012 | Mandarin
I was supposed to volunteer at the marathon this weekend, but I didn't feel the event should happen, so I went to Chinatown instead.
The streets of New York City were supposed to be filled with marathon runners this Sunday, and I was supposed to be volunteering at the pre-race expo and at the marathon itself, using my language skills, but I didn’t feel comfortable participating in an event that I didn’t feel should be proceeding under the circumstances. The circumstances being Hurricane Sandy.
I do not like not doing what I say I will do, but I did not believe city resources should be dedicated to the marathon when people were in such dire straits in the area.
The Upper West Side Never Lost Power
Brandt and I were not affected by the storm. Our power stayed on the entire time, as it did throughout our Upper West Side neighborhood.
The line between uptown and downtown, power and no power, water and no water, flooding and no flooding, is very, very stark here.
Last night I looked online for useful Sandy-related things to do. Since I had just begun Chinese earlier in the day, I focused on Chinatown, finding a Chinatown-based organization called CAAAV, which, according to its website, “works to build grassroots community power across diverse poor and working class Asian immigrant and refugee communities in New York City.”
By the way, I am referring to New York’s biggest Chinatown, located in downtown Manhattan, where there has been no power since the storm. There is another significant Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, and a third in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
These Manhattan Streets Were Deserted Today, a Friday
I sent CAAAV an e-mail asking if they needed us to print fliers. They have no power, after all, and I recall from my days as an adjunct lecturer at various New York colleges that higher-volume copying and printing services are often hard to come by at not-for-profit organizations.
I didn’t have high expectations that someone would notice my e-mail, given all that was going on, but within less than two hours I heard back from the organization’s executive director, Helena Wong. Yes, she did need fliers printed.
She sent a file in the early morning, and I printed 1,000 of them; one side was in English, and the other in Chinese. The flier contained information about power, food and water, subways, school openings, and so on.
Snippet of CAAAV Flier
People in high-rise buildings with no electricity are particularly helpless right now, and starved for information. Particularly elderly people. And a lack of English skills complicates matters.
Brandt and I took the fliers to Chinatown. Normally we would just travel by subway, but the trains couldn’t go below 34th Street because of the power outage, so we got out at Penn Station and walked the rest of the way, about three miles.
Between 25th and 26th on Broadway we passed the line between power and powerlessness. Suddenly no store lights, and no traffic signals. The ghost town began.
Here and there, though, we saw crowds. At Union Square, for example, which is at 14th Street, were many trucks and generator-looking things and workers. We passed some guys in Georgia Power & Light caps (at least I think that’s what their caps said). I asked them, “Are you really from Georgia?”
Lines for Dry Ice, Union Square
Power Trucks from Around the Country
They confirmed it, in Georgia accents. They are here to help get the lights on. I thanked them.
When there is no traffic in Manhattan, things look really different. Brandt and I crossed Houston, a major downtown street, into SoHo without even noticing it was Houston. It is normally a pretty dramatic crossing experience because of the rivers of cars, but today it felt more like a rural path.
Generator, One of Many on the Streets of New York
Allen Street, Chinatown
We reached CAAAV at about 12:15. We could see it from two blocks off, from the lines of people waiting to recharge their cell phones.
At Right, a Line for a Cell-Phone Charge
Helena, the executive director, was out on the street standing at a table that was just running out of fliers when we arrived.
She was leading an orientation session for volunteers. They were about to go into dark buildings with flashlights, hand out fliers, and tend to people’s basic needs for batteries, water, food, medicine, etc.
The M15 Bus, from Chinatown to Uptown
Helena’s leadership skills and calm and physical energy were impressive, especially after what must have been a harrowing and sleep-deprived week. We couldn’t stay today, but I hope to do more.
The bus home was crowded, but still free, as is all public transportation in New York right now.
Nearing home, we passed Central Park, where we could see giant tents and many trucks. I knew from news reports that there were powerful generators at work in there.
I had read that they could each power 400 homes in storm-affected areas. In any case: ugh.
Marathon Preparations Underway, Central Park
Central Park Marathon Tent
Shortly after 5 p.m. I got news of the marathon’s being canceled, and two minutes later more critical news: the power was back on in Chinatown.