I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post a few days ago about the very different experiences that people have had of Hurricane Sandy depending on their economic status.
Today I saw the divide in action with my own eyes.
A friend alerted me to some post-Sandy volunteering opportunities so I met her in the Lower East Side where hundreds of thousands have been without light, power and in some cases water for five days. These are some of Manhattan’s lowest-income residents. Many speak little to no English. Most have had a dreadful week. My friend and I joined in with a pleasingly large army of (mostly young) volunteers in an outdoor basketball pitch, packing and distributing emergency rations.
I took on breaking-down-cardboard-boxes activities for a while because I’ve always found it to be an inexplicably enjoyable activity.
The queues went round the block. Those who were queuing looked freezing. One old lady was in floods of tears because she was so cold and had been so hungry, afraid and isolated. A strapping young man took her back to her apartment which was twenty-five floors up, because she feared she would collapse by floor four. Obviously, her lift is out. It was heart-wrenching to witness the extent of her anguish, but heart-warming to see her (eventually) fed, watered and escorted home by a man perfectly capable of slinging her over his shoulder if need be.
A family watched me punch cardboard boxes into submission while they ate – ravenously – a hot free meal that was being given out to those waiting in the queue. I eat faster than anyone I’ve ever met (when I was a child my Dad told me that he’d sling me out into the shed where I could eat with all the other savages, if I didn’t slow down) but they totally outstripped me. They were frighteningly hungry. Because of the power outages, there haven’t been more than a tiny handful of shops open down there since Sandy arrived. Many people have been starving. Literally.
I talked to two girls who lived together in Harlem. They are students and clearly spend most of their time off their tits partying, but for today they were bright-eyed, bushy tailed and bloody hard-working. They’d come down this morning and had been here six long, cold hours, packing self-heating meals into bags.
For those unfamiliar with New York, Harlem’s quite a long way from the Lower East Side. I was impressed that they’d made it.
They, in turn, were literally astonished that I had. ‘Don’t,’ I muttered. ‘I wouldn’t have even known this was going on if it wasn’t for my friend.’ My friend is clearly a proper humanitarian type who always knows where people need help and is always willing to offer it.
And that brings me conveniently to my thought for today. I knew only about the charitable projects ongoing in Lower Manhattan because of my friend. Without her, I’d have had no idea. I’ve been living in the dark, in the cold and in the bloody inconvenient since Monday. (Until today. I’m finally in the light. And the warm. And it’s the best thing in the whole world.) So until today, my internet time has been limited and precious. I haven’t had a moment to look at the news online. So I’ve had no idea that all around me people are in terrible, terrible situations. They are digging up bodies on Staten Island. People are drinking out of fire hydrants. Help is still not arriving where it’s needed.
It’s fair enough that I wasn’t aware of this, during my purgatory in the dark part of Manhattan. But what shocks me is that when I was in Midtown, or Uptown – the parts of NYC not affected by the hurricane – I saw nothing of this. Life was going on, noisily, brashly, carelessly. Nobody told me that the elderly were trapped in freezing tenements without water or light or heat. Nobody told me that I could go and help if I wanted.
Does nobody know? Or do they just not care?