Amid chaos, Manhattanites seek comfort in routines

October 31, 2012 - 6:33 PM
Superstorm Sandy

People in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, without power because of superstorm Sandy, wait for a chance to charge their mobile phones on an available generator setup on a sidewalk, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) — Every morning for the past 15 years, Sukey Gutin has headed to a cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for her morning coffee and a chat with friends.

So on Tuesday, the morning after the surreal chaos of Superstorm Sandy, that's where Gutin found herself: at the same communal table at Zabar's, drinking the same Continental blend, with half-and-half and a pack of sweetener.

"It's my religion," said Gutin, 72. "I didn't have to think about what I was going to do this morning. I needed my coffee."

And so, apparently, did the dozens of people lining up to get inside, or into the other few places that were open. The morning after Sandy hit New York with a ferocity most New Yorkers had never experienced, many of them came into the streets, seeking solace in routines, not to mention a release from hours of hunkering down inside.

Of course, nothing was really familiar about the day — it was a Tuesday, yet the streets were disconcertingly quiet. Children were off school. There were no subways or buses. And Manhattan was, truly now, an island: Most major tunnels and bridges were closed, as were the area's three main airports.

So given all that, reasoned Ed McNally, why not get in the car in search of fresh bagels?

The night had been more eventful for McNally and his family, who live in SoHo. Like virtually all residents of lower Manhattan, they lost power Monday evening. So on Tuesday, they drove uptown with their two young daughters, 10 and 6, who were off school, of course.

"We thought we'd make it an adventure," McNally said. "We went first to Barney Greengrass," he added, referring to another Upper West Side institution, "but they were toasting yesterday's bagels. That was not on our agenda."

Also seeking out that morning bagel were roommates Jessica Kreiss and Kristin Svenningsen. The two, both 29, had been lucky enough to live uptown and thus keep their power. They'd stocked up on plenty of food — and alcohol — and spent Monday evening watching Sandy unfold through Facebook updates. Leaving a bagel shop on Broadway with their breakfast, they knew they'd had it better than many, including their parents in New Jersey.

"We feel very fortunate," Kreiss said.

Antonio Magisano wasn't feeling nearly so fortunate. It wasn't just that a tree had fallen across the street where he lives. It was that the tree — or rather a huge section of it — had landed partly on his new, shiny, red Ford Explorer, and was perched precariously on top. He'd been waiting all night for police to help him clear it.

"Look at that. I just bought this thing," murmured Magisano, 70. Finally, in the afternoon, he managed to dislodge the tree with a jack. Sure enough, a fire truck arrived moments later, with seven firefighters jumping out and offering assistance.

At least Magisano had electricity at home. In downtown neighborhoods, where there was none, things looked starkly different from uptown. Restaurants, cafes, and almost all stores were shut. There were no traffic lights, making both driving and walking hazardous. In Tribeca, people took advantage of outlets on a generator sitting on a sidewalk to charge their cellphones. And at the Amish Market grocery store, they shopped with flashlights.

In Chelsea, standing on a street corner, Stephen Xue and Julia Cheng wondered aloud what to do. Xue's apartment, on 23rd Street, had no power or water, and while the two had made breakfast on their gas stove, there wasn't much to do.

They called friends in Brooklyn, and discovered that power was on where Cheng, 23, lives. They headed in search of a taxi.

"I don't think we'll be coming back up here until things are restored," said Xue, who works for a dance company.

Only 20 blocks north, things were looking up — especially for Jeff Mavraganis and Lewis Valle, two friends who'd decided to pass the time at the Social bar and grill, an Irish pub offering a "See You Later, Sandy!" party.

"We were looking for a place to go, and we found that Irish pubs were among the only places open," said Mavraganis, who was nursing what he called a "breakfast beer" along with his chicken nachos.

Mavraganis lives in Queens but had hunkered down in Manhattan before the storm, fearing he'd be cut off for a while if he didn't. "I figured if I'm gonna be stranded, it better be in Manhattan," he said. He had bought some wine and relaxed on Monday evening. But on Tuesday, "I just didn't want to be in the house," he said.

That sentiment was felt even more deeply by many of the tourists in town, whose vacations were slipping away thanks to Sandy. One of them was Mack Binion of Mobile, Ala., who was grabbing a bite at the Galaxy Diner on Ninth Avenue with his daughter, Anna Mayeski, and her 3-year-old, Amelia.

"I picked a great week to come," quipped Binion, who had escaped with his daughter to a hotel once she lost power at her downtown apartment. He had planned to fly out of New York on Monday. Now, he figured, he'll get a flight on Thursday at best.

Binion's experience on the Gulf Coast gave him a familiarity with hurricanes, and he praised New York state and city officials for taking the right precautions and giving the proper urgency to storm preparations.

A similar endorsement came from Mike Murphy, who was strolling on the West Side with his baby granddaughter. Murphy happens to live in Marco Island, Fla., where he is the fire chief. Before that, he was a fire chief in Miramar, in Broward County, where he had experience with Hurricane Andrew.

"I was impressed with the way the mayor and his staff handled this," Murphy said. "Unfortunately what you often find is complacency, which jeopardizes rescues. But they did a phenomenal job."

At Columbus Circle in midtown, the Leger family, visiting from Brussels, agreed that authorities had handled the storm well. But they were struggling with the wrench that Sandy had thrown into their vacation. They had gathered at Time Warner Center, only to realize it was closed. They weren't sure where they were going, said Roxanne, 15, who was accompanied by her parents and two young brothers.

"I guess we'll come back here tomorrow," she said with a shrug.

The family, though, was full of smiles as they mugged for photos — not an uncommon occurrence on Tuesday, as people in all areas of the city seemed to realize that it could have been worse. Much worse.

That's the attitude that Frank Tsimis seemed to be taking. Unfortunately, the workers at his three Manhattan diners live mostly in Queens and Brooklyn. Since he hadn't, like some store and restaurant owners, planned ahead by having workers sleep in Manhattan, he was unable to open.

A woman called one of the diners, the Manhattan Diner, for delivery. "Sorry, we can't," Tsimis answered. "Why? Because I've got nobody in the kitchen!"

Still, Tsimis was trying to get enough staff together to open one eatery. As he pondered the options, a co-worker warned that there might not be a huge variety of food.

"Listen," Tsimis answered. "Nobody is expecting perfection."