By Froma Harrop
My favorite Frankenstorm quote comes from Ralph Lopez, interviewed outside a housing project in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. “Half the world doesn’t have electricity,” the 73-year-old said, walking his Chihuahua, Pepe. “I grew up in a cold-water flat with no heat at all. And this is just for a week. So, boohoo.”
What a perfect take on a society so connected to 20th century conveniences that a week without them seems unthinkable. One recalls the line from “Mad Men,” where Don Draper ponders his young wife’s obsession with self-actualization. “My dream was indoor plumbing,” he shrugs.
This is not to underestimate genuine suffering from Superstorm Sandy. There was tragic loss of life and, on a still gruesome level, loss of homes. Life without power also posed serious problems for ill people dependent on a respirator or the frail elderly living on the 15th floor.
But if you needed an extra blanket to stay warm in 50 degrees or had to read by flashlight rather than watch TV — well, boohoo. You should dispense with pained cries of, “I can’t recharge my cellphone,” a device that barely existed 20 years ago. And there’s also little dignity in waving fists at politicians, demanding to know why you can’t get electricity a week after your street was under 5 feet of water.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial plan to hold the New York City Marathon last weekend — on schedule, come hell or (literally) high water — deserved respect. Strong objection prompted him to cancel the annual event. Many thought it unseemly to show athletes racing past neighborhoods that still did not have electricity. I thought it would be a good thing, a message that New Yorkers would carry on.
The replacement visuals were fine, though. Some of the runners used the day to help out in hard-hit neighborhoods. Other volunteers with shovels appeared from nowhere. In the Breezy Point section of Queens, where fire devoured over 100 houses, residents vowed to rebuild. That’s what we call carrying on.
City folk in the blacked-out areas may have even used the opportunity to look at a night sky not muddied by harsh urban lighting. They’d have seen lots more stars and an assertive hunter’s moon.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson wrote, “how would men believe and adore!”
More than a week later, thousands in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut remain without power. Many find themselves dealing with nature head-on for the first time. When the sun sets and the natural light vanishes, they go to bed. They do their cooking outdoors. But it’s still temporary.
One great joy of wilderness camping is ending the trip. You come home, flip a switch and marvel that a light goes on. A hot shower seems a miracle.
Getting back something one took for granted is very special. Before foot surgery, I would bound up stairs two at a time, not even thinking. The week after, negotiating one step was a struggle. Today, I’m awed by those for whom such disability is permanent but who also carry on.
Ralph Lopez totally got it. Much of the world never had electricity. Every gallon of water someone had carried from a well. And aren’t those electricity-less New Yorkers — the ones living without utilities on a short-term basis — among the pampered of the earth?
Moderns have so effectively walled themselves with technology that Mother Nature must throw a tantrum to get attention. (She also does tornados, earthquakes and blizzards.) It’s pointless accusing her of senseless violence. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nature never breaks her own laws.”
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is email@example.com