Anyone who didn’t grow up in New York City has a vision of what they imagine living here is like. New York is probably the most ubiquitous setting for television or movies, inundating decades worth of pop culture and giving us sparkling fantasies of what it’s like to inhabit this fair city. My childhood was full of them. I was raised on Friends and Seinfeld, on You’ve Got Mail, more recently How I Met Your Mother, and, a personal favorite movie of mine, Little Manhattan. There’s a theme here: My image of New York was basically the West Side of Manhattan. My life in New York, on the other hand, is very far from that.
I moved to this fair city in August of 2012. I had spent most of June and July of that summer lying prostrate in my bed recovering from spinal surgery, so the change was a welcome one (though phone calls and emails between me and my roommates about the apartment hunt were not exactly comforting). In my head, I knew it wasn’t going to be all spacious purple West Village apartments, with friendly neighbors and downstairs coffee shops with a reserved couch. I steeled myself for shoebox apartments and smelly subways. But little did I know how unprepared I was for what awaited me.
After twelve hours on the road, and two spent trying to get through the Holland Tunnel, my mom and I arrived at my new apartment. It was a fifth floor walk-up, with somewhere under 600 square feet for myself and two to three other girls. Yes, it was small, but we all had mattresses and everything worked, it had a roof, and it was in Manhattan, which was more than I expected.
I could talk about the things about New York that were (and still are) weird to me — the fact that people say “on line” instead of “in line,” having to pay six dollars for a box of cereal, the lack of central air conditioning — but the thing that shaped my first six months in the city more than anything else was the weather.
By the time I’d been in the city for almost three months, I’d sweltered through August and an unseasonably hot September (again, where was the AC, people?!). The bulk of October hadn’t been much better, but I hoped we might get that nice autumn in New York that I’d heard such wonderful things about. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Instead of crunchy leaves and freshly sharpened pencils and all the other trappings of a Nora Ephron daydream, I got Hurricane Sandy.
I grew up in a landlocked state, yet I’d been through just about every natural disaster the United States has to offer…except for a hurricane. The warnings came in, full of ominous doomsday predictions, but people didn’t seem to be too worried (they were calling it “Frankenstorm”), so my roommates and I didn’t stress about it. Our Avenue C apartment was just barely on the edge of the evacuation zone, so we decided to stay put (perhaps rather idiotically, this was our block at the height of the hurricane) We watched TV until our internet went out, we listened to music until our power went out, and then we read aloud from Mindy Kaling’s book until there was an explosion three blocks from us and all of Lower Manhattan’s power went out.
The next few weeks were a blur of stolen showers and mystery cans from darkened bars’ coolers. We still had house and home, so we were far better off than many people, but our power stayed out for two weeks and we didn’t have heat or hot water until January. Those three months, punctuated by nor’easters and snow and sleet and showers in who knows how many different uptown samaritans’ apartments were my initiation to New York, basic training for the obstacles ahead. After Sandy, the next few months were a breeze. I was more thankful for a hot shower or the ability to charge my phone in my own home than I ever thought I would be. When things didn’t go disastrously wrong, I was grateful. And when they went well, it felt amazing.
I had been in the city for three months and hardly met anyone or made any new friends, when all of a sudden I and millions of my neighbors were plunged into the same situation. In my experience, dire straits tend to bring out the best in people, and in those weeks I was able to connect to people I couldn’t connect to before. Yes, it was hard, but in some strange way it was also easier to exist in the city, as not just one of the many far-off commiseraters but a genuine comrade-in-hurricane. For that one brief rain-soaked moment, my roommates and neighbors and bartenders and emergency workers and I were a community. We survived. We recovered. And now, even on my worst day, when the rent’s high and my commute sucks and somebody peed in the subway, at least I have hot water and cell service.