of New York and New Jersey residents already suffering after Hurricane Sandy without heat, light or even a home, we’re now in the midst of a huge snowstorm with high winds. I just measured five inches of snow on my sixth-floor suburban balcony, so thick and deep I could barely shove the door open against it.
My husband, again, is staying in Manhattan at a hotel (paid for by his employer, The New York Times) but this time sharing a room with his co-worker of four years, whose own wife is now huddling in a small studio apartment with her own daughter because she has no heat or light.
The euphoria (for some of us) of last night’s win by Barack Obama is now tempered by the freezing, windy, snowy reality of a closed railroad on Long Island and a closed highway there as well.
I’m lucky, right now, to have heat and light and a generator for our building. I know and like my neighbors. I made a huge roast chicken and vegetables tonight and baked banana bread and painted bookshelves, oddly grateful to be snowbound….as a native Canadian, I miss snowstorms and their silent aftermath.
I stocked up today with dozens of batteries for the radio; have multiple flashlights and candles and plenty of food and water in the apartment.
But I’m not pregnant or old or frail or ill or caring for small children, as many others are here tonight, some of them huddled in three layers of clothes and four layers of blankets in their dark and cold homes.
As I write this — sitting on a friend’s sofa who has power and wi-fi — I hear two sounds, the wailing of sirens and the calls of little kids out trick or treating in their Hallowe’en costumes.
But I also heard a third lovely sound, the rumble of the commuter train once more heading north.
Life post-Sandy is weird indeed.
I went out today for a business lunch and had a great three-hour meeting with a potentially really interesting and valuable client. The restaurant was full, the lights on, the music playing, the food delicious.
Then it took me 30 minutes to drive back to my town, normally about a 10 minute journey, because the line-ups for the very few gas stations that are open right now stretch for miles.
The New York City Marathon was canceled Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after mounting criticism that this was not the time for a race while the region is still recovering from superstorm Sandy.
With people in storm-ravaged areas still shivering without electricity and the death toll in New York City at more than 40, many New Yorkers recoiled at the prospect of police officers being assigned to protect a marathon on Sunday.
An estimated 40,000 runners from around the world had been expected to take part in the 26.2-mile event. The race had been scheduled to start in Staten Island, one of the hardest-hit areas by this week’s storm.
“We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it,” the mayor said in a statement. “We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.”
I read friends’ posts on-line and hear horrific tales: exploding cars, homes on Long Island and New Jersey utterly destroyed, people putting up old, ill family members in their tiny apartment, the sudden value of a camper’s headlamp for reading and getting safely around a darkened home. (We have two. Yay!)
The challenges now are:
1) stay warm, dry, bathed, fed, safe, connected; 2) making sure your vehicle has enough gas; 3) not driving to make sure the gas you have lasts; 4) checking up on neighbors to make sure they are OK and offering them whatever help you can that they need, from sharing your fridge to using your power and/or wi-fi.
You’re right…what were we thinking? Disaster relief is for losers and government-dependent leeches, says dear Mittens.
It’s hard right now know what to focus on — work? friends? groceries? gas?
I’m still doing as much of my work as I can, checking in with clients and sources in Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, Florida and Toronto. But it feels surreal and annoying to have to do any work at all when we all feel so disrupted and ill at ease.
Yet it’s good to be able to keep the machinery moving, to send an invoice and be able to deposit a check. My friend needs to find a new job and get some freelance work lined up and a week without Internet or power means another week of financial anxiety.
I hear a woman on her cellphone say: “I have no idea what time it is anymore. I feel like a cavewoman.”
One in which –– like rural villagers shoving and pushing to reach a communal well for water –- strangers cluster around an extension cord snaking out of someone’s house who does have power. Every open public library is now a refugee camp, open early and open late, with every table and corner jammed with people clicking away on their laptops, notebooks and cell phones in a frenzy of collective, relieved connectivity.
I sit down this morning at the library, whose small parking lot is jammed as soon as it opens, and the gray-haired bearded guy beside me is the same guy sitting at the other end of the table last night. I move to another spot and see a neighbor, a retired woman on my apartment floor, who has no power. Her neighbor across the hall does. The person below her has none.
It makes no sense.
And Americans are big on individual freedoms, not suddenly enforced intimacy or inter-reliance.
The world has changed and we’re not ready for it.
Today, one-third of the American workforce does not have an office, cubicle, staff job or steady paycheck. Many of us are now – willingly or not – entrepreneurs and freelancers, temps and contract workers. Like many others in today’s shaky economy, without access to power and Wi-Fi, I can’t earn a living.
Most of us, certainly in urban areas, no longer have kerosene or oil lanterns at home or fireplaces on which to cook or gain light and heat. If you do not have a backyard or firepit or grill, and can’t cook outdoors, you’re toast. People who rely on medications that need refrigeration are endangered.
Here, we live in cities and suburbs designed for automobile transportation — crippled without ready access to gasoline, oil and electricity. You can’t gas your car or bus if the gas station has no electric power, so there are now long line-ups at the few stations that are able to stay open.
In the 18th century world, you rise when you once again have natural light and it’s safe enough to venture outside. You go to sleep earlier, having dined (if you can) and read by candlelight. Like some earlier ancestor did, I placed tall candles in front of a mirror, to double and reflect their glow.
There is a generator – thankfully very much 21st century – grinding away below my apartment window. It gives our 100-apartment, six-story building enough power to use our elevators, offer heat and illuminate our long hallways. Luckily, our kitchen was one working outlet and we have a gas stove, so we can cook. We also, now, have heat; in former power outages, becoming “normal” here, we fled the freezing temperatures of February for a local hotel. No one repaid us the cost of two nights there.
We paid $80,000 to buy the generator last year, a cost every resident here is sharing.
The storm’s aftermath – scarcity, fear and frustration — naturally, brings out the best and worst in people. There are fist-fights, already, at gas stations because it gas is now a more difficult commodity to obtain and has suddenly jumped again in price as damaged oil refineries shut down. Other people are sharing their homes, food, shelter and kitchens with one another.
A six-outlet power strip is de facto helfpul. (I brought mine to the library.)
One immediately sees the divide between those with electric power – literally, the powerful – and those without. I was able to go to my regular salon and get a manicure this morning and enjoy an important business lunch at a local restaurant, depriving the original spot we’d originally chosen because – right beside the Hudson River –– they’re closed right now.
I’m lucky that my husband, Jose, is a former news photographer who has survived multiple hurricanes for work. He knew what to do. It was he who filled the car with gas (many stations now have no power, creating long lines at the two local ones that have it) and put it into the garage; bought dozens of bottles of water; stocked the fridge and freezer, lined the balcony door with plastic and towels in case it flooded or the glass shattered. (Neither happened.) He’s been in a hotel all week across from his office at The New York Times, working double shifts for colleagues who cannot get to work with most of the subway so badly damaged.
I toured our town yesterday, gasping in dismay at the shattered ancient trees, the smashed wooden and metal fences beneath them. A cabbie tells me the Hudson River rose so high that it has damaged the computers in the police station – which sits a good half-mile from the river’s edge.
I was in Minneapolis, giving a speech to retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota about my book Malled, when the storm hit New York. I never turned on the radio or television – but read Facebook – where my friends in New York and New Jersey posted photos and updates that told me everything I wanted to know.
The number of dead remains fairly low, now at 38, but some of these are tragic – like the person who stepped into water that held a loose electrical cable.
Jose will be home tomorrow, now that the trains are running north to our suburbs again.
Some people are calling Sandy the “storm of the century.”
I doubt it. We’re only 12 years into this century and, given the tremendous violence of weather patterns here in the past few years – drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires – I think this is our new normal.
We have no money for it. We have no infrastructure for it. We have no offices or homes or modes of transportation – horses? carts? canoes? – built for it. Doctors no longer make house calls.
Bellevue Hospital Center, New York City’s flagship public hospital and the premier trauma center in Manhattan, shut down Wednesday after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, and it worked into the night to evacuate the 300 patients left in its darkened building. There were 725 patients there when Hurricane Sandy hit.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Alan Aviles, the president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, described third-world conditions, with no hot water, no lab or radiology services and pails of water hauled up the stairs to use for flushing toilets.
After pumping out 17 million gallons of water from the basement, the water is still two and a half feet deep in the cavernous basement where the fuel pumps apparently shorted out and became inoperable — unable to feed the 13th-floor backup generators, Mr. Aviles said.
In Massachusetts, a 15-year-old Irish girl, Phoebe Prince, made the fatal error of dating the wrong guy, and was soon targeted by girls in her school as a slut, mercilessly hounded. She hanged herself at home.
After her suicide, I spoke out against bullying in this USA Today essay, describing my own experience in a middle-class Toronto high school in the mid-1970’s:
I was 14, and also new to public school, having attended a private single-sex school in grades four to nine, with a year at a private co-ed school in grades seven and 10. Boys were an alien species. I had no idea how to dress fashionably, having just spent the past six years wearing a school uniform. I had pimples. I was socially awkward.
I quickly became the brunt of merciless, relentless public bullying by a small group of boys. They nicknamed me “Doglin” — a “dog” being the most vile name, then, one could bestow on a young girl. They barked and howled at me whenever I walked through the hallways, their taunts echoing off the metal lockers and terrazzo floors. One brought in a dog biscuit and put it on my desk in class.
I was terrified and traumatized. Like many bullying victims I and my worried parents felt helpless to stop it. I was lucky enough to make a few good female friends and to excel intellectually, appearing on a regional high school quiz show and helping our school reach its quarter-finals for the first time in years.
But the daily, visible, audible torture continued. In desperation, at 16, I started seeing a therapist, who recommended I take medication — I refused — to handle my anxiety.
Our teachers saw and heard it every day for years and did nothing.
I knew that I was taking a risk by speaking out in a national publication with more than a million readers. Americans, especially, pride themselves on mental toughness and self-sufficiency. Wimp! Wuss! Whiner! I knew these comments were possible.
Which was my whole point. Being bullied leaves you scarred for a long, long time. I have spoken twice as a keynote at two conferences, appeared on television a few times and routinely speak publicly — all to promote my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”
But for a long, long time I was deeply uneasy when people, boys especially, would look at me, fearing the next volley of vitriol. I’ve also been bullied several times in New York jobs, with one trade publication manager who shouted curses at everyone and stood subway-close when she threatened me. Another had a red-faced shouting fit in my very small office. Maybe it’s journalism, or New York, but some of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter work in my field in this city I chose.
Maybe everyone who’s been bullied emits some sort of magnetic force field attracting even more of it!
Only by speaking out, ideally as someone who had had some professional success and had, in some measure “made it” could I make clear that one can, as so many people do, survive bullying, but not everyone has the self-confidence or resources to handle it.
The thoughtless, knee-jerk response to bullying is always the same: just put up with it. Sort it out among yourselves. Suck it up.
Kids will be kids.
And cruel fools come in all shapes and sizes.
Tacitly allowing bullying to continue creates a whole pile o’ hells for the bullied:
we lose faith and trust in adults whose authority is to care for us and protect us
we lose faith in others, who stand by idly and do nothing
we lose faith in ourselves as we find ourselves powerless to stop such abuse
we withdraw from social, athletic and professional arenas requiring exposure, competition and confidence, feeling unloved, even despised
The New York Times ran a front-page piece today raising questions about the new responsibilities recent New Jersey laws, passed post-Clementi, will impose on teachers and school administrators:
But while many parents and educators welcome the efforts to curb bullying both on campus and online, some superintendents and school board members across New Jersey say the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, reaches much too far, and complain that they have been given no additional resources to meet its mandates.
The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.
Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.
Of course, some educators are annoyed and say it’s too much for them to handle.
I’m not a political person. I can’t vote in the U.S. where I’ve lived since 1988, nor in Canada, my country of origin.
As a career journalist, a classic news reporter, my role is to observe and listen and relate the facts, not to jump into the fray and publicly express a strong opinion, taking a stand on the record on a hot political issue.
On May 12, I finally did.
A bill called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act has been proposed; it would require developers taking government subsidy to develop stadiums, conference centers and malls — all engines of economic development and jobs — to require tenants to pay $10/hour with health insurance, $11.50/hour without it.
That means a full-time worker would take home a munificent $20,000 or so per year — $10,000 less than has been calculated as the bare minimum in a place as costly as New York to survive, let alone thrive.
What a revelation it was…The power struggles! The threats! The pleas! The battle of the statistics!
No better theater could be found, even on Broadway.
Three men in costly suits argued against the bill — mercilessly hogging a huge chunk of time away from the rest of us — from the Economic Development Corporation. Their dire predictions of doom were relentless: thousands of jobs would be lost; angry developers would only take their projects to — gasp! — New Jersey or elsewhere; passing the bill would mean, they kept repeating, “a Faustian bargain” in which low-skilled workers would lose jobs to higher-skilled ones.
And all those lost construction jobs! Never mind the deliberately careless mixing of jobs that are union-protected and pay well (construction) with those that are not and do not (retail, typically $7-10 hour with no benefits.)
The hearings lasted from 1:00 p.m. to the evening. I finally got my two minutes (not three) at the mike at 6:00 p.m. — a wall clock with huge red numbers ticking away every second, a noisy blast ringing out twice to signal my time was up.
I argued in favor of the bill. Retail work is one of the few remaining with no emoluments to soften it: taxi drivers, waiters, deliverymen and chambermaids do receive tips. Not associates! Few receive raises or promotions and very few are unionized.
And consider this, from the Gotham Gazette:
In New York City, there are about 34,500 households, representing about 90,000 people, in the top 1 percent. On average, these households have annual incomes of $3.7 million. At the same time, about 900,000 people in New York City — about 10.5 percent of city residents — live in deep poverty. Deep poverty is half of the federal poverty line; for a four-person family, that means an income of $10,500. An annual income of $3.7 million translates into a daily level of $10,137 — more than the average annual family income of those living in deep poverty. According to state tax data, half of the households in New York City have annual incomes below $30,000, an amount that the top 1 percent receives over the course of a holiday weekend.
If New York City were a nation, its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street, with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx — the nation’s poorest urban county.
It was an amazing experience, and an exhausting one, to hear everyone from academics to clergymen arguing for and against this plan. I felt sorry for the politicians, weary and worn out yet hanging in hour after hour trying to make sense of it all.
In Australia — I learned recently — the minimum wage is $15 hour for those under 20; $20 an hour for those older. It’s hard to imagine American legislators ever imposing such high standards. Yes, costs would rise…They already are, and workers still struggle in poverty as corporate bosses keep raking in millions in compensation.
Have you spoken out publicly in favor or or against legislation? How did that feel? What was the result?
I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.
I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.
You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.
What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.
I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.
Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.
For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.
Here’s how my new book took shape:
September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall. I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.
I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.
March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.
June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.
Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.
July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!
She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.
September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25 of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.
And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)
We have a deal. Cool!
December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.
February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.
I can’t rush this.
January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.
Not what I need right now!
March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences. I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.
I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.
My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.
May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.
July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.
August 2010.Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.
September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!
(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)
I went into town this week for a coffee at the small and dearly loved cafe across the street from the shoe repair shop, run for years by a Russian guy from St. Petersburg — Russia, not Florida — named Mike. I suspect it wasn’t his Russian name, but it worked.
When I started freelancing and had few clients, and too much time on my hands, I’d sit with him for an hour and chat. We both loved to travel and he regaled me with stories of his native city, pointing out its best features on the huge map on his wall. I learned about his son and his wife, knew that he lived in New Jersey and had once been a white-collar executive in Russia. But his English was poor and he never managed to improve it enough to make that transition here, he told me, so he opened a shoe repair shop in our New York suburban town, to which he commuted every morning.
One of the reasons I so love my little town — having grown up in the big cities of Toronto and Montreal — are the store and business owners who keep it real. Mrs. Reali’s tailor shop is now (ugh) an art gallery, as is Alma Snape Florist. Who needs that much art? But Gregg still runs the hardware store his grandfather founded in 1904 and Hassan sells amazing cheese and Aqeel is a helpful pharmacist. I still miss Nikos, the gentle, talented jeweler who worked with Donna Karan — and who made to order a ring for the sweetie that I designed.
Of such men, and women, are communities made.
I was thinking of taking in my summer sandals this week. But Mike is gone. He had told me a year ago he wanted to sell his business, but there isn’t a stampede of people with his excellent skills willing to do physical labor. Now the shop is closed, a sign on the door telling us he retired May 29.
I’ll miss his cheerful hellos, his voicemail reminders — “I fix-it your shoes” — and his blaring Russian-language radio.