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In Sandy's Wake, New Yorkers Don't Sweat Small Stuff

People wait to charge cellphones and laptops Thursday at a generator set up in the West Village. Superstorm Sandy left large parts of New York City without power.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
People wait to charge cellphones and laptops Thursday at a generator set up in the West Village. Superstorm Sandy left large parts of New York City without power.

NPR's Margot Adler is covering the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New York.

I walked out of my apartment at 5 this morning in a part of Manhattan -– the Upper West Side — that never lost power. Still, I skirted around downed trees on my way to the subway. Across the street, a car was crushed by a tree. Almost no one was on the street.

Yesterday, the traffic on the streets was a horror show. I raced back to my apartment — about four miles — to be there in time for kids on Halloween. I passed 30 buses in the gridlocked streets — all of them so much slower than me. Now, even with new regulations that at least three people must be in cars coming into Manhattan, the traffic at 5:30 a.m. was double what was usual.

When I reached the subway, there was yellow police tape across the turnstiles. The doors were open; the subway was free. But there were no trains yet, just a couple of us stragglers waiting on the platform.

When a train came by, it was only for subway workers. "It's a test train," said the conductor. He wouldn't open the doors, but he was ebullient. "I feel great. I have a job! I love the trains," he said. And he passed us by.

As the morning lengthened, the trains filled up, and I noticed that people were beginning to relax. I took four different trains just to see what was happening, and by 9 a.m., some of the trains were packed.

Grand Central Terminal was bustling, even though service to Connecticut and upstate New York was limited. Penn Station had tape blocking access to Amtrak and New Jersey Transit –- neither was running — but the Long Island Rail Road had some service, and people were getting on and off trains.

But of all the scenes I saw, the strangest and craziest was on 34th Street and Lexington Avenue. It's there that people catch buses to get to lower Manhattan where power is still out, or to Brooklyn because the tunnels under the river are still filled with water.

As of this morning, there was no power on 34th and Lexington, a huge intersection only four blocks east of Macy's. Shops on both sides of the street were still dark. There was one deli selling water and muffins, although it had no electricity.

When I got there, traffic cops were directing cars and pedestrians since there were no street lights. On Lexington Avenue, right in front of some 20 bags of smelly garbage, were scores of people waiting for buses to get to Brooklyn and seeking a way downtown to Wall Street or City Hall.

There was total confusion. All the buses had strange new names: "The A Train Bus," whatever that meant. "The Jay Street Bus" — that is Brooklyn.

These buses were mixed with regular buses, so people were constantly trying to figure out where they should go and what bus they should take. Dispatchers were screaming to the bus drivers, "Don't cause gridlock," and to the passengers, "Don't stand in the middle of the street."

And yet through all of this, people here have been very calm; they're taking it all in stride. If the commute took three hours — and for some people it did — then that was what it was.

There is often an incredible resiliency when city dwellers face crisis. Certainly here in New York, it felt a tiny bit like the city after Sept. 11, 2001: The sense that we are all one community and that no one sweats the small stuff.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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