Photos: Jordan Dean

The mission: Eat lunch downtown and find out what—and where—people are eating below 30th Street.
The day: Four days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power throughout lower Manhattan.
Starting point: Upper West Side

I’ve spent the last four days sitting pretty on the Upper West Side. As Sandy whipped around outside, we had power, water, Internet, booze, and rainbow cookies (an impulse-buy at Fairway, where on Saturday people were elbowing each other to claw literally anything off the shelves—I saw one guy leave with a cart full of Mountain Dew). A waterless, powerless straggler from downtown (my boyfriend’s sister) came to stay with us on Tuesday, but otherwise, things were, well, kinda normal. And super boring.

And so this morning I decided to see how the other half has been living. Twitter had reported that most restaurants were closed, but it had also reported that there were sharks swimming in the subway system. I wanted to check it out for myself. So, fortified with the last of the emergency bagels I’d bought on Saturday, I put on my walking shoes and headed to the subway.

Before I begin to relate what I saw on my trek, I should say this: Where I ventured felt very far away from the awful devastation that has hit the outer boroughs, as well as the severe damage that news cameras have relayed from waterfront areas further downtown. There are many New Yorks right now: Some where life has gone on largely interrupted, and others that have been completely decimated. The one I went to see is somewhere in between: A place where people still appear to be relatively safe, but where life has become surreal and ghostly in the wake of four days without power.

Okay, back to the subway. As soon as I got on at 72nd Street, shit immediately got weird. First, I walked through the emergency exit without paying. Then, the subway operator announced that I was on a “34th Street-bound 2 train,” and—strangest of all—my fellow passengers were smiling at me. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Thankfully, a guy started strumming “Hallelujah” on his guitar and everyone ignored him and immediately looked just as pissed as they would during a normal commute.

Joe “Restaurant Man” Bastianich is one tough fuck. But in his own words: Sandy totally fucked him. Eataly closed; no steak sandwich.

Whenever I’m south of 34th Street, I get a Pavlovian craving for an Eataly steak sandwich, so after surfacing at Penn Station, I wended my way past the impromptu cell-phone charging stations, on a mission.

When cooped up in the house a few days earlier, I’d idly picked up Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich, a co-owner of Eataly with Mario Batali. It is a book in which everyone is trying to screw the coat-check girl and skim off the top, the word “fuck” is used liberally, and the language is “real.” (On friends: “If you’re counting on your friends when opening a restaurant, you’re fucked.” On his dad: “He taught me at an early age the enigma of the business—you have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap fuck.” On the job of a Maitre D’: “The skills of a Maitre D’ are the same skills a hooker has—to please clients. Make them come. Make them feel like they’re the only one. Extract as much money as you can.” Badabing.)

Joe “Restaurant Man” Bastianich is one tough fuck. But in his own words: Sandy totally fucked him. Eataly closed; no steak sandwich.

I worked the line at Gramercy Tavern a while back, so I decided to see how everyone over there was holding up. As I rounded 20th street, I came across managing partner Kevin Mahan unloading enormous packs of ice into the basement. Doors shuttered, dark inside, and a note on the window that I saw, in various incarnations, posted at many downtown establishments: “Due to Hurricane Sandy, Gramercy Tavern will be closed on Monday October 29th for the entire day and tentatively reopen for lunch and dinner on Tuesday October 30th. Be safe and stay dry!!! We will see you soon!!!.”  The final line, scrawled beneath, simply said “until we get power back on.”

No smoked trout with cippollini puree for me.

Across the street, though, some momentary hope: a stack of cardboard boxes with “Unopened donated food products” written on the side. Inside: wrapped baloney. Which had been sitting there for… how long? Bleh. Needless to say, it would have been heartless for me, an uptown interloper, to tuck into these snacks anyway. But I wondered how desperate neighborhood folks would have to be to ransack a pile of random lunch meats.

Next page: Murray’s Cheese, Tertulia, and the dry-ice black market…

I continued on downtown, past the workers sawing Union Square trees apart. At 12th and University, I came upon a coffee cart. Thank God. The coffee man had been there since 5:40 a.m., dispensing hot caffeine to village stragglers. The coffee still tasted as horrific as usual, which was comforting.

I’d heard Murray’s Cheese was open, so headed down through a deserted Washington Square Park, to an eerily quiet Village, and past the IFC (where “Loneliest Planet” was being advertised). I turned onto Bleecker and strolled to Murray’s. I found it completely dark, so I kept on moving. Then a dim bell clanged in my head and I realized: during a blackout, dark does not mean not open. Duh. I went to Murray’s and opened the door.

“Welcome!” said a cheery staffer. After my confused look: “It’s old world preservation, man. People in the 14th century? They weren’t thinking about electricity.” True dat. I contemplated pairing my watery coffee with a fine aged gouda, but sensed rustling from down the street. Amy’s bread, also open! So I had a cookie and a bread stick. They were heating up coffee on a propane tank near the register in a big pot. (For some reason it reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, when Laura goes into town with Pa on her horse and the big highlight of the trip is when she’s allowed to scoop out snacks from the cracker barrel.)

I’d heard that Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia was open, due largely to a black-market ice hookup.

Generators were humming everywhere, and as I made my way down to Canal Street, I passed a few open places, all deserted except for some intrepid workers inside holding flashlights. I’d heard that Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia was open, due largely to a black-market ice hookup. The lights were off, but working by candlelight, the staff has been able to put out high-quality food for hungry locals the past few days. This, I thought a bit emotionally, was the power of New York: Workers who had traveled from far away, braving the horrific public transportation options, to show up to work in the dark and provide sustenance for the downtown hold-outs.

My phone had horrific service, and though I knew other restaurants were open, I had no way of finding out which ones. What I really needed then was a soup dumpling, but by the time I got to Canal Street, I was so exhausted from walking that the prospect of being soup dumpling-less for more blocks was too much to bear. I had to conserve energy. So I started the trek back uptown.

As I got close to Union Square, I started seeing people heading south, clutching takeout bags. On further inspection, they looked like Chinese takeout bags. I started salivating, my energy renewed. When I reached Union Square, I encountered the weirdest site I’d ever seen in Manhattan. There were food trucks—hallelujah—but right across the street was an impossibly long line of what appeared to be refugees, carrying pillows, rolling luggage, etc. At the head of the line, people were receiving their Chinese takeout bag. Weird, I thought, but genius. Bloomberg has issued a free Chinese takeout service center. I finally asked someone what was going on.

“Dry ice,” he muttered. Of course.

I managed to crawl to the subway station in Herald Square, and found myself 15 minutes later on the Upper West Side, eating a sandwich.