What I Learned in Hurricane Sandy

When, on the eve of Sandy, I, somewhat prematurely in restrospect, announced in TIME that comfy New Yorkers like myself, snug in our soundproof apartments, were far too sheltered for our own good. “New Yorkers [aren’t] interested so much in stocking up against disaster,” I blithely wrote, “as having a staycation. Kitchen libertines all, they wanted nothing so much as an excuse to lock the door, turn on the TV (until the power went out) and eat Heath bars until they ran out.” I accused myself, and everybody like me, of seeing the storm as mere spectacle, and pigging out, oblivious to the plight of the less fortunate.

Which was funny, given what happened right after that.

As I noted last week, my wife and I live in an evacuation zone, and we really did plan on riding out the storm in high style. But when chest deep water started rushing down our street, and the giant Con Ed power plant a few hundred feet away blew up in a giant flash of white light, the plan no longer seemed that great. We were, in fact, driven out of the house and made to couch-surf separately for nearly a week. And all of a sudden, the way I felt about food changed. “More than what we say,” I had written, “more than what we think, more, I think, even than what we feel, our true attitude toward the storm is told by the way we eat.”

What I didn’t realize was that the reverse was true as well. Once I was living in other people’s homes, eating furtive take out meals so as not to impact their kitchens, and sleeping in all my clothes every night – because, really, who wants to run into an unclothed Ozersky in the middle of the night? – I found that I was feeling very differently about food. For one thing, I wasn’t hungry; at least not in a good way. A healthy, conscious hunger is a kind of culinary aphrodisiac; it makes anything three times better than it is. I was run-down, stressed-out, lonely, and nervous. I was too dirty to go into real restaurants, and so I took all my meals from take-out Chinese joints and delis. But I rarely finished anything, and eating over garbage cans or at fast-food Manhattan fast food restaurants. (There is nothing more cramped, dirty, or vile than a Manhattan fast food restaurant. They make the ones in rest stops look luxurious.)

As a result of eating sporadically, poorly, and in a stressed state, I found myself without much energy – which, of course, only depressed me, and my appetite, more. The thought of how blithely I had opined about my immunity to the storm was vaguely amusing to me, but only in the way that you remember what your wrote in your high-school yearbook. Which is to say, with a black embarrassment redeemed only by unalloyed self-loathing. Still, I was only being honest. Like so many other New Yorkers, I never really believed that I was in any personal danger. And my attitude toward food, which quickly veered from recreational addiction to neglibible inconvenience, demonstrated that.

Here’s another thing I learned about having irregular eating habits. When you eat badly, and in weird ways, it makes you fat. The one thing I thought would be a consolation from this displacement and dejection was, at least, losing a few pounds. After all, I was taking a break from the round-the-clock hamburger research that my vocation requires of me. Plus I was spending a lot of time walking around aimlessly, so as not to inflict myself on my hosts during the day. And my reward was gaining weight.

It’s funny, or rather not so funny, that I needed to go through this myself to find out about it. Like so many of the confident assertions made about obesity, poverty, “food deserts,” and the like by ideologues on both sides of the food debate, I had only a passing knowledge of what these things actually meant. Scratch that. I now have only a passing knowledge; a week ago I had no direct knowledge at all. I have new respect for people like Barbara Ehrenreich or Tracie McMillan

Mike Stobe, Getty Images

, writers who actually left their apartments and went out into the world, and who only wrote about it when they got back. Like them, the best I can do is to represent what vague awakenings came my way during what was, let’s face it, a very minor disruption in the big scheme of things. I still think we all lived altogether too much in a bubble before Sandy. And I’m sure we will again. But now, I’m less sure of everything, including my own attitudes toward the thing I thought I know best, my own feelings toward food. The weird thing was that Sandy to flood my own bubble with reality.

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