Drinking Through a Disaster
After wandering to a bar in Sandy's aftermath, Jason Diamond was reminded of the best parts about living in New York
I’m not exactly sure when you officially become a New Yorker. It might be like religion, where you need to be formally converted, or something like working your way up the ranks from corporate mailroom to corner office. I’ve heard you have to have a 212, 718, or 347 area code for at least 10 years; that you have to live in Manhattan to be a true New Yorker; that you have to spend every day for three straight years eating bagels and drinking coffee from Anthora coffee cups; you have to read every issue of The New York Review of Books when it comes out; have at least one sighting of Tom Wolfe wandering the streets in his white suit; had a small non-speaking cameo in a Nora Ephron film (now an episode of Girls is a sufficient replacement); and/or an apartment in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I’m not totally convinced any of that renders you a true citizen of the Big Apple, but if it were up to me, I’d say that living through one catastrophic event in the five boroughs surely verifies your New York resume.
I’ve lived through the Blackout of 2003, the late December ’05 MTA strike (it shut down the city’s trains and buses during our busy season) and I watched Hurricane Irene graciously spare my neighborhood from my window last year, even after spending the day chasing hot leads on where to get batteries and enough dry food to fatten up my cats so we could ride them through the post-apocalyptic landscape outside of the small apartment we shared at the time in lower Manhattan if need be.
But Sandy wasn’t so forgiving; not to me, and not to the millions of other people who are used to a fairly punishing lifestyle to begin with, like unexplained fare hikes and the New York Knicks’ flip dismissal of our beloved Jeremy Lin. Sandy caused significant loss of life, an unfathomable amount of damage, and brought catastrophic flooding to our underground transit and electrical infrastructure. Everything below 34th Street is still dark, still powerless.
HOWEVER YOU BECAME A New Yorker, get a handful of us together and we probably fulfill all the key stereotypes: we pay a ton of money for small apartments, we throw our trash out in front of those apartments, we kvetch (a word known here whether you’re Jewish or not) about everything, and we eat while we walk through crowded streets because we’re always in a hurry. But so much of this—the stereotypical-but-true stuff—gets stripped away during and following a disaster. You see our ability to come together, our ability to make light of crazy situations, and in the bars and apartments that have electricity after Sandy, our ability to drink.
“Tending bar the day after Sandy struck was unlike any other weekday shift I’ve ever worked,” Rosie Schaap of South in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood told me. Schaap is a keen observer of people in bars; her book Drinking With Men (forthcoming in early 2013) chronicles her own experiences drinking in pubs and taverns, not only in her hometown of New York City, but also places like Vermont, Montreal, and Dublin.
We had watched as the storm raged through Monday evening, tearing large branches off trees, sending traffic cones flying, and ripping a large street sign positioned above traffic off its post, turning it into a major hazard for the cars that were still on the road or the person who felt it necessary to be outside during a storm. By Tuesday afternoon, after the storm subsided, my wife and I finally emerged from our apartment, and needed a drink or two. We decided to meet up with some friends at South, where Schaap was tending bar. One of our friends had been staying nearby with other friends because her Williamsburg loft was in an evacuation zone, while several others simply lived in the general vicinity and had all planned on making South their drinking destination. Since all of them had mentioned it on social media, we decided to go where almost everybody knew our name, deciding to walk the 1.8 miles for some much needed exercise, and to survey the damage. We counted at least 10 large, uprooted trees along the way; some had landed on top of cars, others were wrapped in colorful tape to warn pedestrians that the massive trunk could shift at any second. One woman stood laughing at her SUV, which had a tree branch through the windshield, telling her acquaintance, “It’s no big deal.” Half a block up, two men with hatchets hacked away at tree branches; they told me there were bigger things for the authorities to deal with in other parts of the city, so they took it upon themselves to clear the debris here.
Once we arrived, the bar was packed. Schaap, working by herself, told me, “I was way deep in the weeds, but customers were patient.” she gives credit to her barback and off-duty coworkers who pitched in when things got really rough. While I waited for Schaap to make her way down to my end of the bar, one of the many bearded men in attendance told his friend, “I don’t usually like [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie, but I’d be glad to have a governor like that for something like Sandy.” Other conversations focused on our neighbors and, specifically, the mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, whose Superman-like dashing from crisis to crisis during the storm was documented on his Twitter account. One patron told me that he had been to the local Park Slope Armory to help evacuees whose homes were in the most vulnerable spots in the area, but was turned away because there were so many volunteers, “So I just came here to unwind,” he said. “I was in Long Island just the other day helping my parents put boards on their windows. Then when the storm started picking up here, I couldn’t get any sleep.”
MY WIFE AND I kept drinking until dinnertime, realizing the rest of our provision snacks just wouldn’t do. We made our way to the Gowanus neighborhood, where just hours earlier, Buzzfeed noted the “particularly bad situation” the neighborhood’s residents faced, thanks to the possibility of the disgusting toxic waters of the Gownaus Canal flooding. Aaron Lefkove, a friend who co-owns the popular “classic New England-style beach side seafood shack,” Littleneck, situated in the heart of the neighborhood, beckoned. Situated on the border line of Zones A and B, Lefkove told me that even though the restaurant doesn’t normally open on Tuesdays, he’d try his luck and see what happened. “We really didn’t start out with a whole lot of food because we couldn’t get any deliveries that morning, so really it was just the burgers, the mussels—and we only started out with a bushel and a half of those to begin with, chowder, and eight or nine lobster rolls.”
We arrived at 7 p.m., and there was Lefkove and one of his employees, running around an entire floor that is usually manned by at least triple the staff. While a table at Littleneck is usually tough to come by, Lefkove was a little taken aback by the crowd, and told me that, “I let everyone know we were running on a very skeleton crew as they were seated—I was bartending and waiting on tables, and we had our manager Pascal running food and one guy in the kitchen pumping everything out—so if everyone could just be cool we would get everything out as quickly as possible.”
While a few of us came hoping for oysters or the popular full-belly Ipswich clam rolls, we were just as happy to eat the burgers and chug bottles of Miller High Life alongside fellow New Yorkers who were either born and raised in the city we all love or had been baptized a few hours earlier by the devastating winds that tried and failed to rattle the spirit of a place that shows its true greatness in times of crisis—be it while lending a hand clearing debris or raising a pint glass. For a day I saw the part of New York and the people who live here that I truly love; a sense of camaraderie before figuring out what we collectively do next, and then having a drink together afterwards.
We’ll do it all again—and next time, hopefully, it won’t be because we’ve got nowhere else to go.
Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.