Monday, November 7, 2011

LOFT LIFE: Weathering the storm

During a crisis, there’s always a lot of talk about how people behave. Some people reach out to help, others tuck in and wait, others get angry, some are depressed. Human nature is a fascinating thing to observe, especially in a crisis.
The recent Nor’easter that hit the Northeast, rare in October, wiped out power for more than 700,000 people in Connecticut alone. Other states were hit hard too.
In our apartment complex of about 800 residents, our old manufacturing buildings have central, boiler-room heat, which also supplies our hot water. There is a generator back up, only for emergency lights and the elevator corridors.
We were lucky. In our building there is a library, powered near the elevator, on the generator. In this library, there was still heat and power for light and electricity to charge phones, computers, IPads, IPods and, as we discovered, coffee pots and electric crock pots and griddles.
It’s quite fascinating, as I said to observe how people behave.
As we first wandered down our hallway, we discovered coffee awaiting us, with two lovely families there, providing three pots of the brew. This evolved, over the four days we spent together in the library, into one pot for regular, one for decaf, and one for hot water.
The first day, the coffee pots shared a table with the electronic gadgets, mentioned above, all plugged into power strips in the only two outlets in the room, the power strips also provided by a couple of the residents who had found themselves party to the library gathering. 

By the end of the day, we decided to pull over a second table from the other side of the room, making room for the electronics to have their own table, away from hot water and spills. This redecoration also provided a bigger play area for the children on the other side of the room. We were learning, adjusting, becoming homey.
One of the men was busy making bacon and eggs, and others provided bagels and sweet rolls, and bread, which one of the coffee families informed us could be toasted in their toaster, also now available to all.

By lunchtime Sunday, about 17 hours after the foot of heavy, wet snow had knocked down so many power lines, the clever people in our library had decided their food would spoil if electricity was going to be out for a week, as predicted, so they might as well share.
Dinnertime was a feast. One woman brought in about $50 worth of chicken and steak, and began cooking them on her electric skillet, while she chopped goodies and dished out salsa, sour cream and other ingredients for fajitas. She had thought ahead. Her generosity was dispensed without fanfare or need for applause. She was just being herself. Others brought bacon, brats, hot dogs, and various other meal-hearty foods, with no expectation for return, just sharing.
As new people came in and gathered that Sunday, there were at least a dozen people huddled together, at any given time, enjoying that strangers were becoming friends.

We kind of feared seeing management arrive, because we weren’t sure our electric skillets and coffee pots were allowed. But, we had no worries. Head of maintenance laughed, telling us he knew what was happening because he could see the generator output at his command center. Our general manager and his staff stopped by, actually to encourage us, and to say how pleased he was at our camaraderie. We offered them coffee, sweet rolls and other goodies, and began to realize how blessed we were that they understood and approved.
Families with young children kept them under watch, while they described friends with infants and other family members who didn’t have the luxury of our respite warmth.
By Monday morning, our cold, unlit apartment offered nothing. Coffee was on our minds, and we gathered what food items we could contribute, took our flashlights to the storage room to pick up plates and cups, and our cooler, and headed back down the hallway to the library. There was plenty of snow and ice for the cooler without having to open a freezer.
It was a similar crowd with a few more people, but still amazingly uncrowded, considering that in our building alone, there must be more than 100 people.
Monday was Halloween, and the students in the crowd rigged up a projector and a white board screen for a spooky, family-friendly, DVD. Others brought in bags of candy they had ready, and encouraged the three families present to get their children costumed and ready for tricks or treats, assuring that treats would not be missing, even if power was. The children were ecstatic. The adults felt empowered. Even these little gestures were very important to keep ourselves mentally stable during the long wait for our own places.

 By Tuesday, we had made friends, had begun to network, had shared all of the foodstuff in our refrigerators.
It is curious that others were invited, but were shy, or reluctant, or not willing to be thrown together in a roomful of strangers.
But for those of us who ventured out, we really did establish relationships. I met an entrepreneur who was thrilled to find a writer in her building. We exchanged business cards and promised future work together. 

The generous fajita cook has a home-based business we are sure to patronize.
Another woman promised to drive me to the Italian market in Springfield, since you all know I don’t do Interstates. I have wanted to go there for two years. 
One of the women who didn’t respond to the invitation, confessed to me the day after we got power, that she was intrigued by the big hearts of those who shared so much. And after the power came on, we didn’t all go back to our apartments and forget. We now see each other in the hallway and say hi. We know names. There’s a special place in our hearts for these people we shared a room with for almost four days.
And, a week later, while about 60,000 Connecticut people still have no power, our people, mostly the ones who had met in the library, responded to the flyer on the doors for a chili cook-off and football game in the Community Room. We gathered again for a meal, strangely again with our crock pots. It just seemed like a tradition. And, we got to talking about what our next Community Room activity would be. We’re friends now. 
They say that crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. Our new friends in Building 2 library certainly were a tribute to human nature at its best.