There's only a fine line separating us from the 1920s, and that's our power grid.
For about 5 days after Hurricane Sandy hit, my neighborhood of West Long Branch, NJ, was cloaked in darkness, without any estimate of power restoration. During the day, our activities were more or less dictated on how much light there was left in the day. We got our news from neighbors, we walked to fill time and washed all of our clothing by hand. At night, we lived by candlelight and cooked limited meals over a fire. Most shops and restaurants were closed. And the few that were open had limited supplies and were required to shut their doors before the county-wide 7 pm curfew. Roads were a gamble, since you didn't know if a downed tree, pole or flood would turn a street into a dead-end. Besides, street signals weren't working.
Though our town is located about 3 miles (or less) from the shore, we luckily weren't hit as hard as the nearby towns. Mostly, there were downed trees and power lines. But right up the road was a different story. In Long Branch, NJ, much of the boardwalk had washed away, with the shoreline obliterated. And if you went a little north of that, in Sea Bright, you'd find that many homes and business were outright gone. Same for the nearby communities of Union Beach, Highlands and Keansburg. Same for the areas south of us: Point Pleasant, Seaside, Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, Toms River...the list grows and grows with each passing day.
We were lucky.
While the power was out, we didn't know too much about the devastation around us. Instead, we adapted to this lo-fi way of life. At the very least, it gave me some time to think, which is a luxury in this busy busy world.
Here's what I learned:
1. I'm proud to be from New Jersey. I love this state, despite being scoffed at for almost 3 decades by New Yorkers (usually those Midwestern transplants who would say "ew!" when I revealed where I lived), the world (thanks to "Jersey Shore") and pop culture. To talk to many, you'd think I lived in a pit of self-tanner next to an oil refinery off of the Turnpike while Bon Jovi played on endless loop as I fist-pumped with mobsters. Granted, our government, high property taxes and, yeah, "Jersey Shore," made it hard to defend this place for a while. But the outpouring of support for the Garden State, with many mourning what has been lost, has finally settled the score.
2. We're not just in a neighborhood, we're in a community. For a while, the only way to know what was going on was by talking to our neighbors. That's it. And it hit me that, before this, we never really bothered talking to anyone. You know, too busy, and don't want to seem like a weirdo. On Day 4 of the outage, when we had to go to a Barnes & Noble in another county for the only public internet access, it was amazing to see the crowded cafe become a hub of community, exchanging information, letting others use their computers and power strips.
3. I'm tougher than I thought. Let's forget the fact that I did sleep in the closet during the worst of Sandy, when it sounded like the North Jersey Coast [rail] Line was right outside our window. But following the storm, I did as the cliche "Keep Calm And Carry On" poster advises. I rationed our food, I kept our candles going, I surveyed damage and helped our neighbors, not once freaking out. In two remarkable feats of strength, I rolled a tree trunk off of a grave site and an 80-lb branch off of a neighbor's lawn.
4. Maybe we don't need as much power as we think. At some point, my boyfriend Chris had said that when the power comes back on, we'd fire up every possible light source, appliance, etc., and bask in their collective glow. But when the power came back on, we didn't really do that. We just plugged in our phones and went back to what we were doing...which was reading. We're considering having "black out days" once a week, partly as a way to save energy, partly as a way to keep from taking this luxury for granted.
5. Ebooks still can't beat the genuine article. I'm a curmudgeon to begin with in regards to the constant barrage of new electronic devices. I get a thrill out of going to our local library and picking out books, or finding new stuff to read at the bookstore. So in an emergency, guess which one wins out? That's right, the genuine article. Technology can fail us when we could use it the most. I'm not saying we should go back to typewriters (though I have one from 1940, in fine working condition, should I need to send a note to someone in 1940), but we should re-assess our growing dependence on screens.
6. And maybe our TV isn't that important. To say that I was brought up in a pro-TV household is an understatement. When I moved into my first apartment, I went without cable for a while. (In true 23-year-old fashion, I was never really home.) My mom couldn't have been more scandalized and called every day, multiple times, until I voluntarily restored service. And since moving in with Chris, our evening routine would be: Come home, cook dinner, watch TV until we passed out, asleep. Without TV, we had actual sustained conversations. And my anxiety levels decreased without the barrage of news. Once the cable was restored, we didn't even bother watching TV.
7. The path to normalcy is paved in lipstick. Obviously, make-up routines take a back seat in a time of crisis. By Thursday, though, "I put my face on" to head out to the aforementioned Barnes & Noble internet outpost. After finishing up with a swipe of lipstick, I didn't feel like the sluggish, kinda dazed person I had been. My posture straightened, I walked differently. I felt like myself again.
8. Patience and perspective. Let's just say that anxieties were high when the grocery stores finally reopened. Every store was packed, shelves were getting barer by the second and lines snaked through every aisle. So, I was seething when the person in front of me, mid-check-out, ran back to an aisle to find mulling spice (yes, that old necessity, mulling spice), when I heard the check-out clerk talk about how it might be a week until she can go back to her home and that, if she hadn't had this job at the grocery store, she wouldn't have been able to set aside baby food for her child.
9. I drink way too much coffee. I had bought teeny little cans of espresso to tide me over, which I had gone through by the morning of Day 2. I also brewed a large mason jar full of coffee as an emergency reserve. I rationed that out carefully, but still had lingering headaches, jumpiness and low-level grumpiness. Which Chris identified as caffeine withdrawal. My body was reeling without the usual (I kid you not) 5 cups of coffee a day. I successfully detoxed. Somewhat.
10. Yep, we're pretty lucky. Working in a city where everyone is kind of guided by the principle that there's something better going on, somewhere else, at all times, it's easy to get sucked into a terrible line of thinking that ends in a weird mix of envy, competition and resentment. Only in New York do you find yourself thinking, "Why didn't I invent Twitter?" or getting mad at novelty Tumblr book deals. This is ridiculous and leads to having the aforementioned 5 cups of day to function. But in the candlelit dusk, I realized I had everything I had ever wanted: A comfortable home, a rewarding relationship, a loving family and great friends. This is enough.
Wondering what you can do to help Hurricane Sandy victims? Check out this updated list of areas in need of supplies. And if you have any spare throws, read up on HuffPost Home's #BlanketsForSandy initiative.