Arik Hesseldahl

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A Tale of Two Manhattans (Video)

Last night, I caught up with a friend who lives in the dark zone. We met at a pub in Times Square, happily open, happily dishing up hot food and cold drinks. She lives in a walk-up on 39th Street, right at the border of where the power ends. Everywhere in Manhattan south of that street is dark. I’m one of the lucky ones — I live on the Upper West Side, which, aside from some uprooted trees and crushed cars, has emerged relatively unscathed from Superstorm Sandy.

She’s been without power since Monday night, when a Con Edison electrical transformer exploded near 14th Street. The latest estimates from ConEd say power will return to the affected areas on Friday or Saturday. That meant our Hurricane Sandy experiences couldn’t have been more different. I rode out the storm with power and hot water, my apartment abuzz with an omnivorous selection of streams of information: TV, Internet, Twitter, Facebook, radio, a police scanner iPad app tuned to the New York Fire Department’s stream of communications. Her only indication of the storm’s progress was what she could see from her window: Violent winds buffeting a tree outside her apartment, the sight of an occasional police car passing by.

I recounted how, the day after the storm, the bars and restaurants were unusually lively for a Tuesday night, full of displaced “refugees” from downtown hotels relocated to uptown boutique hotels, and how I went barhopping with an up-and-coming Food Network personality I met by chance. She told me how she has been imposing on the hospitality of another friend, who lives a few blocks uptown, to take a hot shower and run a blow-dryer over her hair.

Manhattan has been divided into two cities: One with power, and one without. And while everyone has experienced a blackout or two in their lives, it is starting to take on a scary, un-Manhattan-like tone here. My friend talked of having witnessed attempted break-ins at the stores and apartments on her block. The only lights come from passing cars and police cruisers on constant patrol. While the NYPD has generally done a great job keeping order, residents still staying in the unpowered zone are a lot more fearful than they’ve ever been, especially at night.

I walked my friend home, partially because I wanted to make sure she got home safely, and partially because I was curious to see what it’s like in the unpowered Manhattan after dark. On the last corner before entering the dark, I saw a gathering of a half-dozen people inside the ATM booth of an HSBC bank, crowded around the available power outlets. Someone had brought a power strip, and the group was running shifts charging iPhones and notebooks to maintain their tenuous connections to a 21st century existence. (That blurry picture is one I took with Instagram.)

As we rounded the corner onto her darkened block it was like entering a different country. The light and civility of a block away turned instantly dark and menacing. I was nearly run over by a person out for an ill-advised run — he couldn’t see me, and I barely saw him before my friend pulled me out of his way.

We got to her home. Generators loudly running across the street lit — barely — the lobby, and only the lobby, of a large high-rise apartment across the street. Two other apartment buildings, one on the same block, the other on the next, were not lit at all. One looked to be about as high as 34 floors. Elevators don’t run in those buildings, so every time a tenant chooses to venture out, it becomes an athletic endeavor, first climbing down however many flights are involved, and then back up. It was impossible to tell how many of the apartments were still occupied, though a few showed signs of having been prepared for the darkness.

The other indignity that comes from a power failure in New York is that when the power goes, so does the water, if you live above the fifth floor. Electric pumps automatically fill tanks on the roof to provide water to the upper floors. When the power goes and the tank is drained, that’s it for running water until the power comes back. On that score, my friend is lucky. She lives on the third floor of a five-floor walk-up. She has cold water, but since it’s so dark, she can’t really tell what color it is. Mayor Bloomberg has assured us that city water is fine.

She went upstairs to an apartment lit only by flashlights. I walked around for a few blocks. I didn’t like it much. It was the first time in 16 years of living in Manhattan — the civilized crown jewel of what the crime statistics show is the safest large city in America — that I felt truly uncomfortable. Perhaps I let my imagination run a bit with the darkened urban terrain. Strictly speaking, I was probably no less safe than at any other time. But I didn’t want to push my luck. When I saw an available taxi, I got out of the dark zone as fast as I could. (Picture from Instagram again.)

I got home just in time to see Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” trying to find the humor in all this. It worked, sort of. Did I feel a little guilty laughing at his take on the Two Manhattans? I did. And so should you. But watch it, anyway, courtesy of Hulu:

(Image is a screen grab from the “Daily Show” video.)

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