Precious Bute was the self-appointed phone-charging czar of the ConEd lobby.
“Who needs to plug in?” a woman called out. A man leapt from his chair, cradling a Blackberry, with a cable trailing like an umbilical cord. She reached for his phone — a first responder reaching for a hand — spun around, and scanned her options. Every plug was taken, with three exceptions. She stuffed the plug into one of them, then turned back to the phone’s owner. She said, “Come back when you’re feeling ready.”
On Wednesday, October 31st, the lobby at Con Edison’s majestic headquarters on 14th Street and Irving Place felt like the waiting room at a temporary emergency room. Giant portable generators sat outside, making it the only building in the surrounding few blocks with electricity flowing through it. In the offices and the war room upstairs, and occasionally huddled over cigarettes outside, the technicians in charge of keeping the lights on in New York were waiting for the patient to come back to life, the victim of a number of forced shutdowns following the arrival of Sandy. Many were out in the field, picking up and fixing pieces that had been damaged in the storm. And in the lobby, a family of New Yorkers was worrying, praying, reading, and waiting too. The reprieve they sought was quick, temporary, but essential. They needed a charge.
Over two dozen people were milling about, sitting on chairs and on the floor, waiting to resuscitate phones and computers and iPads that had succumbed to the terminal battery drain that comes with a blackout. A handful of donated power strips had been plugged into a dozen outlets. It was a ritual happening all over the juice-deprived city, in the middle of this thing they called the chargepocalypse proliferated. But here was the most appropriate one, right at the city’s electric company.
While the lobby’s opening was not officially announced, no one from ConEd seemed to mind. The security guards said people just started showing up on Monday to the lobby, which is open to ConEd customers from 8AM to 10PM every weekday, as the country’s largest power company began the work of bringing power back to the lower half of Manhattan and to hard-to-reach patches of the outer boroughs.
With few land lines, cellular networks had become the last precious connection to the outside world for electricity-deprived – if a signal could even be found. And if internet is water, electricity is fire. (The fact that the lobby was heated didn’t hurt.)
“It’s like an anthropological experiment,” said Sue Marantz, an ESL teacher, who was charging her iPhone. “Its fascinating to see how everyone behaves. The morning of [after Sandy hit], everybody was wandering around like zombies looking for a hot coffee source. Now we’re standing around the electrical plugs like cavemen around fire. It’s in our DNA.”
For all the business-like quiet that presided over some corners of the room, this clearly wasn’t just a chance to get fire. The room had also become its own fire circle, an ancient mode of communication hurled into the middle of apocalyptic 2012. The muted buzz of conversation among new neighbors was in the air, the sound of strangers coming together in a crisis, sharing news, laughing, and of course, kvetching. “What I want more than a banana is a phone or a radio,” said Sue. “I’m starving — starving! — for information.”
“We don’t have anything better to do at home,” said Precious Bute, 42, who had taken it upon herself to organize the impromptu charging session in the ConEd lobby, and donated two power strips to the cause. At the low income apartment building where she and her teenage son live a few blocks away, she said, even the water had been shut off. The city had yet to deliver any food. She had heard similar complaints from friends in other housing projects in the area. Near the substation that had blown up, a few blocks down toward the East River, blocks of low income housing were full of people who hadn’t evacuated. “It’s dangerous. I thought FEMA was coming out,” she said. “We don’t have anything upstairs” at home. “We’re just eating because strangers gave us a couple of dollars.”
“They got power here, but we don’t have it. We’d better share. And if I didn’t do this,” she said, “it would be chaos in here.”
The headquarters of the country’s largest electricity utility was originally built in the 1850s, but was expanded in the early 20th century after the merger of six of the city’s independent gas companies became the Consolidated Gas Company. The merger was partly a response to the “threat” posed by electricity. The current building, designed by Henry Hardenbergh, he of the Dakota Apartments and Plaza Hotel, had been upgraded in the 1920s to feature a 21-story tower. Near the top, the tower becomes a temple capped by a pyramidal roof that is crowned by a 38-foot-high bronze lantern. A beacon.
But until the night before, even ConEd’s headquarters didn’t have electricity, leaving engineers and architects and officials to fish out files and drawings in paper form. Upstairs, some reported, many systems still weren’t working. Outside the Irving Street entrance, someone with a ConEd badge said, “We’re on it,” about the company’s computer systems. He probably didn’t notice that he had used the ConEd motto. “What can I do?” one engineer asked someone else. “I can’t even make an Excel spreadsheet. I’m ready to leave and go pump a manhole.”
Inside, a woman who was waiting for her Samsung to charge leaned in and asked if Precious wanted something from a deli nearby, one of the few establishments that was running its own generator. And did her son want to come along for the soda run? She ordered a Pepsi but forbade Royalty, 12, from leaving. He was brandishing a pair of plastic daggers, in the hopes of being a ninja for Halloween. “He’s my sergeant-at-arms.”
Over the power strips, the gathered locals compared techniques for most economical usage — “You use your phone so much as a phone. It really drains the battery” — and Precious, who was flitting about the large oak desk that had become the moment’s gurney, checking people’s bars, readily dispensed charging etiquette. “As opposed to an outlet where you get 100% energy, because we’re sharing, we’re only getting twenty, thirty percent.” Also: “Try not to use your phone while its plugged in — it won’t charge as fast,” she told one eager email checker.
Marjorie Newman, a publicist, was talking about a device she’d just purchased out of the back of a station wagon in Union Square: a hand-crank light/radio/charger thingamajig. The perfect device for the antediluvian disaster: it required no batteries and could provide five minutes of radio for one minute of cranking, all for the “friend discount” of thirty dollars. “Brookstone’s gonna do great business because of this,” she said. But she was unable to actually charge a phone with it. She had heard about the charge-fest from her super and rushed over with her iPhone, which, she added, had awful battery life.
She was happy at last to have found a battery-charging refuge. And happy for a few days off — her next project involved doing media for a Joel Meyerowitz show scheduled to open today, had been cancelled — and reported a leisurely first day without electricity. After filling her bathtub, she and a friend wandered south to Moishe’s Bakery for some hamantaschen (“They gave me a pound of eggs and butter!”), then west. They surveyed the damage at the building on 14th street that had lost its façade to the storm (“What if people had been having sex when it happened?”), and in Chelsea, where many of the most prestigious galleries, the ones on the ground floor, had been submerged waist deep. At Pace, the art was gone by the time they arrived, but at other galleries, dozens of people were still helping to gather pieces, mop waves out of the galleries and operate pumps running on generators. “I call it the Great Chelsea Cleanup. So many folks were helping.”
But, she added, if there is looting, she said she hoped it would hit the Meatpacking district. “I don’t need anything from the Apple Store, but Alexander McQueen…”
Next to her, Ray, a superintendent at a 96-unit building nearby, was powering his heavy-duty Makita battery pack, which could be used in his power tools as well as in his very serious flashlight. By then, the batteries in the building’s stairwell emergency lights had died. Keeping emergency generators around was difficult for most people in New York, because diesel fuel goes bad and keeping around gasoline was generally dangerous. “But I’m going to recommend to my board that we get a couple of generators.”
Besides allaying the concerns of tenants who had no lights and no water — the pumps require electricity — his main task was keeping ne’erdowells off the property in the dark of night. “People have been well behaved,” he said. He was also letting his tenants — the 90 percent that hadn’t evacuated — use his landline, which, due to the building’s dependence on cable service, was the only real working phone in the whole building. “It’s hard to understand. It’s an inopportune situation.”
He then proved his point about people being neighborly, when he asked if I needed to use a real working telephone or even a place to crash out. Being based in Williamsburg, albeit across a very crowded bridge, I did not.
Nearby on the wall hung a plaque that commemorated the city’s first electricity station, opened on Sept. 4, 1882, at 257 Pearl Street, by Thomas Edison.
“Highway robbery, literally,” said Alma Priegue, 39, a graphic designer who brought two power strips to the Con Ed lobby. She was telling stories of horror in the unelectrified city: homes burned down in Queens, 200 patients at NYU evacuated to Beth Israel Hospital, but also tales of price gouging: a friend who took a yellow cab ride up to the Bronx and was charge $100. A gallon of water at at least one bodega she went to with her daughters had reached five bucks. “We marched up Third Avenue, and it was like I was Dorothy and my daughters were the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. When we get to 30th St., we saw some lights, and it’s like, we found gold – there’s life over there! We walked into a deli, and WAHHHH!” In addition to water, they bought chips and cookies. “Usually they would eat it immediately, but they put it in their backpack like we were going camping.”
On the other side of the room, Mary Ellen Donovan, a writer who had been evacuated from a building on Chambers Street that had taken on water, was reading the Journal — there were lots of copies floating around — and tending to a charging iPad and Powerbook. “I don’t want to come off like an old fogey, and this is a factor that broke up my marriage also, but I didn’t want to be dependent on the computer for all my information. I wanted to rely on paper files. After the blackout, my assistant, Nick, couldn’t get his contacts.”
Still, she had an idea for spreading the electrical wealth. “I used to live in Chelsea, where they shoot all these Law and Orders, and they have giant trucks that have electrical generators. I think they should be driving around with live speakers, and say, hey do you need electricity?”
“Whose phone is this?” Precious yelled from the other side of the room. People listlessly reading magazines and studying their phones raised their heads. She hoisted up my old 3G. “Looks like you’re all charged up!”
Just then, two ConEd employees came in, carrying super-sized power strips and a box of water bottles.
But if Hollywood’s emergency generator trucks passed her by, it’d still be okay. Maybe. “It’s been very pleasant,” she said of her exile to an inn a few blocks away, where the front desk had alerted her to the Temporary Power Zone. “We’ve been playing games like Twenty Questions. I hope that the younger generations will become aware of their dependence on technology. And I still think,” she said, unfolding a purple Day Timer full of index cards, “the best technology is paper and pencil.”
A few hours later, a few blocks southeast in the Lower East Side, on a street that had been traversed by ConEd boats just days before, a group of strangers were standing on a corner, all chattering on their phones, beneath a sign that read “Cell phone reception zone — free food down the street!” Someone was crying. Another man was grumbling at his phone. “It’s a nightmare out here. We got no food, no water, no power. No cell phone service. So this is that we are going through. Now we’re waiting for 311. Fucking crazy.”
Down the street, a group of people huddled in the dark around a table of food that had been set up along the curb by a group of friends who lived in an apartment nearby. In addition to a cornucopia of breads, chicken, vegetables and other things that were destined to go bad, beers were being secreted around the gathering. “What else are we going to do?” someone asked.
Back up on 14th Street and Avenue C, a few police cars sat outside the broken substation that had led ConEd to cut off electricity to a larger portion of downtown than expected. Just past the glow of the emergency lights, an elderly couple was hobbling by in the dark, clutching each others’ arms. “We didn’t intend to be out tonight, without a flashlight.” She noticed my iPhone, its glow powered by the single red slice of battery I had left. “I left my flashlight at home. It would have never occurred to me to use the cell phone!” She showed me her battered Blackberry, its battery also close to death. She had vanished into the dark of her friend’s building before I could offer some advice. Get over to ConEd headquarters. Just ask for Precious.