Energy-depleted NYers swarm uptown in search of a phone charge

A solitary cell phone user finds reception Oct.

A solitary cell phone user finds reception Oct. 31 in Grand Central Terminal (Credit: Getty Images )


They were like energy vampires roaming the city in search of the vital, indispensable force to keep them in the world.

Hordes of New Yorkers left without wi-fi or cell phone service took to the streets during and after Hurricane Sandy, searching for outlets to charge their phones and working wifi connections.

Sophie Gilden, a French teacher, trekked from her dead-zone SoHo home all the way to the West 50s to "sneak on" to the wi-fi in a mobbed midtown hotel lobby that looked like a laptop and cellphone expo. “But you can’t get on,” Gilden said. “It keeps saying ‘dismissed.’ Too many people are using it.”

“Zillions,” of tech refugees who lacked not just electricity, but cell phone service, tromped uptown from zapped downtown, seeking digital connection, Gilden noted. Her husband, photographer Bruce Gilden, stood watch over his cell phone, which he had surreptitiously plugged into a nearby wall, guarding it as a nurse might an urgently needed IV line flowing into a critical patient even though “my cell phone doesn’t work in my house.” Many people living below 30th St. reported little or no cell service in addition other vexations, such as a lack of power and water.

Clusters of users collected outside “hot spots” such as Starbucks and McDonald's, frantically trying to call, text or email. NPR reported that the main post office was full of people who had plugged their personal electronic devices into a nearby wall. Power-hungry storm refugees unplugged decorative lighting strips on wind-stripped trees in mid town and plugged in power strips to share the information-bestowing juice with others who felt dead without digital connections.

The mad search for electricity and connectivity evoked the new hit NBC TV show, “Revolution,” which depicts a post-blackout world in which all the power goes out, rearranging hierarchies of the survivors who go to sometimes extreme measures to obtain it.

Jose Rosado, 40, a voice and data technician who lives in the West Village, was crouched Wednesday morning outside a pizza place on the corner of 36th and Broadway, a jumble of wires spilling from his man-bag that led, ultimately to an Apple device plugged into an outer wall’s outlet. “I’m charging my mom’s phone, my phone and my laptop,” he said, acknowledging he looked a bit like the homeless men who jerry rig electrical hook ups from street lights.

“Pizza places are really good places for hookups because they usually have an outdoor outlet for an ice truck,” selling treats in the summer, Rosado explained. The day before, he noted, “this one was blocked: One guy was using it and another one was waiting for it, so I had to go to another place on 33rd and Seventh.”

Rosado was anxious to see if his superiors were trying to reach him (“I get my work orders by email,”) but after he got charged up on Tuesday, saw none had come in. It took him a second to realize why. “My boss is on 13th Street: He had no power either,” and was unable to either receive or pass on job assignments.

Establishments differed in the mercy they showed to the juice-less, as a lifeboat situation was in effect with many wifi networks. (Too many people jumping  on slowed or even destroyed the system for others.)  A bell captain at a Hell’s Kitchen hotel confessed he “cheated the system,” on behalf of those in need, allowing them to charge their phones in the lobby, and giving them the hotel wifi password to help victims of the storm. “Everyone needs to help each other out as much as we can,” he said. Still, he questioned the urgency some had to log on.

“Why do you need to put pictures of your storm damage on Facebook? Take those pictures and send them to your insurance company!” he said. It seemed to him that some people were more eager to get on their “bragging platforms,” such as Facebook and Twitter than to ascertain the safety of loved ones and figure out how to get back to work.

The drive to connect was understandable, given that disasters naturally compel people to reach out not only for tangible help, but reassurance and comfort from those they love. Deprived of electricity, transportation and water, many felt like hostages, unable to access information as to how long their troubling conditions would last or any of the coping mechanisms they used to fight stress. Deprived of information, entertainment and exercise (gyms were closed) they were left alone with their impotent phones and festering anxieties.

“The people who have embraced (technology) find they have an almost physical reaction when they can’t get on to the grid,” noted Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “It is such an intimate part of their existence that accompanies them on all their waking hours,” he noted. “The Internet and electricity – you take these out of the equation and the foundation of our American lifestyle is pulled out from under us,” he added.

The stress is magnified by uncertain, and, for some, dire, economic conditions. “A lot of people are holding on to their jobs by a thread,” and the Internet is the infrastructure upon which they do their work, continued Thompson. Take that away and the situation is “enormously stressful.”

The attachment disorders prompted some to contemplate afresh the joys of real face time and life off the digital grid. Rosado’s parents had flown in from Puerto Rico right before the storm and were staying with him when the power went out. “We were all in the living room reading books by candlelight. I had a small generator I used for my car. We were joking and laughing. I played poker with my super and a couple of neighbors by flashlight. Poker by flashlight! Human companionship,” Rosado said dreamily, “is so much better than sitting on your laptop.”

Tags: News , Sheila Anne Feeney , coping , cell phones , Sandy

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