Stan Grossel, my downstairs neighbor, is one of the Good Samaritans who enable well-off white New Yorkers to pat themselves on the backs when they heard frightening news of widespread looting and arson in poor neighborhoods on the day of the power blackout.
As the temperature climbed into the 90s on the morning of July 14, Grossed stood at the corner of 86th Street and York Avenue - located near the East River in one of the most expensive sections of the city - and directed traffic. He worked for hours, and his presence was sorely needed by pedestrians and drivers alike.
Many other local residents, clucking disapprovingly at the news of looting on transistor radios, were no help to Grossel.
"Who told that bastard to give me orders?" one man shouted as he started to cross the street against Grossel's hand signal; another man yelled an obscenity at a woman he had nearly knocked down with a bicyle because he ignored Grossel's gesture and turned a corner.
That's the way it was the day of the blackout on East 86th Street. If the poor who looted were saying they felt no sense of responsibilty to their own communities - much less to the city as a whole - the rich in my neighborhood were saying the same thing in a manner too subtle for the evening news.
Let it be said that there were more people like Stan Grossel than there were people who cursed him from the curb, just as there were more terrified poor people who barricaded themselves in their appartments than there were looters in the streets.
That didn't make it any less disturbing to watch the behavior of some of the best-educated, best-housed, best-fed people in the city.
Most of the people on my block aren't millionaires, but they do make three or four or five times as much money as the average resident of New York City. In my building, a one-bedroom apartment costs $400 to $500 and a two-bedroom apartment $500 to $700, depending on the floor.
One woman stuffed a large bag of ice into her Louis Vuitton satchel. A man spotted her and informed her that he would be delighted to call not only the store manager but the nearest policeman if she did not return the ice immediately. Needless to say, the woman was not arrested for looting.
The manager found that ice was not the only project of an attempted ripoff by upper-class looters. Canned pork and beans and soup were popular purse-stuffers. In each instance, the manager quietly asked the would-be thief to return the cans to the shelf. "Go figure it out, " he said, "Why anyone in a neighborhood this rich would try to steal a can of soup."
On the morning of the next day, owners of small stores were bleary-eyed from having been up all night. Many had returned to their shops as soon as the power was restored to clean up the spoiled food and prepare to open in the morning.
At 11 a.m. on July 15, I stopped by a store that sells fresh pasta. Everyone was busy making new pasta because most of the stock had been wiped out. A woman walked in and asked for some Mozzarella cheese.
"We don't have any right now," a clerk explained. "We haven't had all our deliveries, we lost a lot of our stuff in the blackout."
"I'll scream if I have to take any more of this," the woman said, turning and walking out in a huff.
Sitting in the candlelight on the second evening of the blackout, I thought about what it all meant with a growing unease. Maybe, I told myself, it didn't mean much of anything apart from the well-known fact that there are people who behave badly under stress.
But I couldn't really swallow that explanation. In spite of the fact that my neighbors and I went without light longer than the rest of the city, we were actually under less stress. Most of our refrigerators were working so well before the power went off that we ahd ice all night and ice water the next morning. Enough stores were open to give us easy access to canned food, candles and flashlights at normal prices - in contrast to neighborhoods with fewer shops.
In short, we ahd endured nothing more than 25 hours of inconvenience by the time the lights went back on. Why, then, were so many fortunate people unable to display a bit more good humor and concern for their neighbors, not to mention the rest of the city?
The lack of concern for one's neighbors and, by extension, for the rest of the community is particularly ironic because the rich pay dearly for the privilege of living in New York. Affluent New Yorkers could live in any suburb - especially in New Jersey or Connecticut - and pay lower taxes. When asked why they remain in the city, most reply, "We LOVE New York."
How can this love of the city be reconciled with the lack of civic consciousness during the blackout? I have a sad suspicion that many of the rich who say they love New York are saying they love New York as long as their money can isolate them from the city's real problems. What they love about New York is its cultural institutions, its entertainment, its restaurants, its stores. New York's attractions are undeniably the greatest, they are all located in the city and they keep people here who would be suburbanites in Los Angeles or Washington or Chicago.
But many of the rich who "love" New York form a class that is, in some respects, as alienated from the city's real life as the class of poor people who live in Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant.They don't care about the imposition of tuition at the once-proud, free City University because their children go to Harvard and Radcliffe. They don't care about the 25 per cent cut in subway and bus service imposed by the city's fiscal crisis because they can always afford a cab. They don't care about most the daily hassles endured by ordinary New Yorkers Living on ordinary incomes.
They care about themselves. Like the looters, the ill-behaved rich proved during the blackout that they are only concerned about themselves.
None of this was pleasant to contemplate by candlelight as darkness came to East 86th Street for the second straight night.
The behavior of many tenants during the blackout was reminiscent of their behavior during a strike of building maintenace men last year. In both instances, people displayed a bewildering inability to understand why high rents cannot always buy insulation from trouble.
On the day of the blackout, some tenants fumbled with their mailbox keys in the pitch-black lobby. They refused to accept the doorman's statement that no mail would be delivered, even though it would have seemed obvious that it was impossible to deliver mail in the dark.
I asked one woman why she expected to receive mail when there was no light to allow sorting - either in the postal distribution centers or in the apartment buildings. "I can't answer that," she snapped. "I'm not a mail-man."
Then there were the people who threw open brown paper bags of garbage down the chute in spite of the fact that the basement, like the hallways, was completely dark. This meant the building maintenance men could not perform their usual task of stuffing the garbage into plastic bags for street pickup by the Sanitation Department.
Tenants had done the same thing with the garbage during the building maintenace strike last summer. Once, when I suggested to a woman that it was easy enough to buy plastic bags and put the garbage on the street herself, she replied, "At these rents, I'm entitled to service."
In the heat on the day of the blackout, the garbage rotted quickly. The next morning, after the power was restored, the putrid smell pervaded the building until maintenance men were able to clear away the mess. The situation was the same in other high-rise buildings on 86th Street.
"The tenants just don't care," sighed a doorman in a more expensive building than mine. "They'd scream if they saw a rat in their apartment, but they don't care that dumping garbage gives other people rats."
THERE WAS endless grumbling about fact that our area, known as Yorkville, was the last in the city to have its power restored. Power was restored to many sections of Manhattan in the early afternoon of the 14th, but 86th Street was without light and water until 10:40 p.m. The complaints were understandable: it was unpleasant and scary to light the candles at 8:30 in anticipation of a second night of darkness. Less understandable was the frequent implications what we should have received preferential treatment because we lived in a "nice nieghborhood."
"What should Con Ed do?" one woman asked a man on the street. "Turn on the power according to who pays the the highest rent?"
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," her companion replied.
The grumbling about the injustice of having no power in a high-rent district brought back a memory of a similar comment made in a more horrifying context. A young man had killed himself by jumping out a 10th floor window in my building and the body lay on the pavement in the courtyard for several hours while the police completed their investigation.
When I walked through the lobby that morning, a man was complaining because the body had not been removed. "At these rents," he said, "we shouldn't have to look at that." His comment might have been the theme of the ill-behaved rich on the day of the blackout.
Local merchants also encountered the ire of customers who refused to make allowances for the unusual circumstances. In my neighborhood, Gristede's was the only chain supermarket that managed to open July 14. The manager lined the aisles with candles and customers were able to buy canned food at more reasonable prices than the ones charged by small delicatessens.
The Gristede's management had imported bags of ice from New Jersey to place among the perishable foods that had not already spoiled. Many people who had assumed the ice was for sale politely returned the bags when the manager explained they were there to retard food spoilage. But there were some who tried to grab the ice and run.