Heading east in Loisaida towards one of Manhattan’s several FEMA supply distribution centers on East Tenth Street between Avenues C and D, about an hour after the power had returned to the East Village on Friday evening, the unmistakable polka beats and piercing clamor of a wind and percussion band playing at a short distance from the intersection impelled a curious cyclist—this reporter-- to make a sharp right turn south on Avenue C.
That neighborhood is within close proximity of Con Edison’s !4th Street and Avenue D substation, which exploded at around 10pm on October 29, a couple of hours after super storm Sandy made landfall on the Jersey Shore at high tide during a full moon, having been sucked landwards by the westward flow of a low pressure system from the mid-west. The convergence of all these elements sent a surge reaching unprecedented heights of up to 14.5 feet along the Hudson and East Rivers and spilling over the banks. Being only a few blocks from the East River Avenue C therefore suffered copious flooding.
At this time, on the sidewalk in front of the still-shuttered pizza store in the middle of the block between 9th and 10th Streets, the band was immediately recognizable as The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a frequent accompaniment to protest marches and events both before Occupy and during its heyday.
Folding tables, half-empty containers of salsa and hummus dips and stacks of clean dishes and utensils awaiting the next course were set up next to the band; just off the kerb, Vicki, a resident from the building next to the pizza store, expertly turned brisket of beef and plump hamburgers over a roaring fire in a barbecue grill set up on the pavement. A crowd of about fifty people milled around tasting stuffed clam shells being circulated on a tray and watching two scantily clad young fire dancers twirling lit batons in the street while traffic raced by, paying no heed. The diverse crowd of mostly building residents from the block or neighbors also included people from farther afield, such as Ali, a photographer from Crown Heights, Brooklyn and James and Alison, two photographers from Hudson, NY, who had come to the city as volunteers to help those impacted by the storm.
Next to the barbecue were at least four large clear plastic bags stuffed with baguettes and other types of bread.
A man with a ponytail and a woollen cap who waved people away from the leaping flames said, “We have too much bread.”
A little later, the owner of the pizza store drove up. Hopefully, he rolled up his shutters to open for business and the provisional encampment had to relocate a few feet south.
Jerry the Peddler, wearing a long beard over a grey and red plaid shirt hanging open over another dark red shirt, handed out bottled water from a stack. With his other hand he pointed to a tall can of lager he was drinking.
“ This is made in the oldest brewery in America, “ he said. “It’s a recipe and a brand name owned by Budweiser.”
Reminiscing, he continued, “ During a tour sponsored by Budweiser, Santana got busted for two joints. Guess what. Budweiser cancelled the whole tour over that . . .Not only do they make bad-tasting beer, they’re just assholes.”
In front of Jerry were cardboard boxes filled with FEMA high calorie, high salt and high fat content emergency rations normally destined for soldiers in Afghanistan. Each pack contains three 1200 calorie meals and material with which to heat them.
In recognition of the local community effort, Jerry said, “FEMA gave us 15 cases of the emergency rations. And about three stacks four feet high of bottled water and five crates of seltzer and soda-type drinks. Everything else has been donated by the community, and this has all been going on for 4 days.”
He looked up to the roof of one of the buildings.
“After the flood, we took our barbecue grills off the roof, and we took the meat and the food out of our refrigerators and brought them down here to the street and started feeding people, “ he said. “All of this [tonight] has grown from that. Our neighbors started coming down donating their stuff and so did the whole freaking community.”
The brisket of beef had been consumed but a huge rump roast was being prepared over the grill.
“We fed a couple of hundred people a day for the last four days,” said Jerry. “Today, the last day of the power outage, the government finally got to 10th Street with food. Interestingly enough, over here you’ll find music and fun and interesting forms of technology, but at the government places you’ll find soldiers and cops.”
Which is why people are here. In fact, this neighborhood has a long history of feeding itself. Several women arrived with three large pots of delicious-looking vegan couscous they had prepared in a friend’s apartment.
“There was a time,” Jerry explained, “ when things like this happened all the time right around here. In the mid-80s we had five tepees where this garden [down the street[ is right now. We built an open campfire and started with rice and beans.
It took a couple of days and then people were doing this for the next two and a half years.”
Jerry quotes his favorite line.
“Once again, it’s hippies and punks and beatniks and bums to the rescue.”