“If that new gym only charges twenty bucks a month, I’m going over there. I’m tired of Bally’s,” the girl with dark hair said. It was the Tuesday night after Hurricane Sandy and we were sitting in the lobby of our condo building; all fifteen or sixteen of us. A couple of women charged their phones and chatted quietly in the corner. A little boy played with an Iphone as his tired looking father read a book. A small circle of older tenants sat near a lamp and played a card game while listening to a CD of the Phantom of the Opera on someone’s battery powered stereo. The dark haired girl and her father were talking with my wife and me about the new gym opening up in the old Borders Books building but had never spoken with them until tonight.
“There’s some sort of fee you have to pay when you sign up though,” I told her.
“That’s ridiculous. If they’re new in town and want people to join their gym, they shouldn’t be charging a fee on top of the monthly fee,” she said. Her father nodded in agreement.
“At Bally’s it’s too crowded sometimes,” he joined in. “Sometimes you have to wait in line for a cycle and the steam room has too many people in it.” He motioned with his hands to show how little space there was in the steam room.
“I used to go to Fitness Factory in Palisades Park, but it gets crowded over there too,” my wife said. The man shook his head and made that disappointed clicking noise with his tongue that parents do so well.
“It’s a good thing that a new gym is coming to Fort Lee. Then people can choose and maybe Bally’s will get better because of the competition,” he said.
“Yeah, but I’m not paying that sign up fee. I’m going to go talk to them as soon as we get our power back,” his daughter countered. “I’ll sign up if they waive that fee. It is convenient to have a gym in that building. I’ll give them that.”
Outside the windows, I couldn’t see even one light breaking through the darkness. Inside the building, the few lights we had in our lobby and the working electrical outlets kept drawing people from their cold condos (the generator only powered the lobby and the hall lights) and into our growing group.
“Any of you folks want to join?” a man from the group of card players called out to the room. “We got room for one more.”
“So, how long have you been living here?” my wife asked the girl.
“Dad, how long have we been here?” she asked, turning to her father.
“About thirteen years,” he said. “How about you two?”
“Two years,” I responded. He chuckled.
“I guess it takes a hurricane for us to meet our neighbors huh?”
By Thursday evening, my wife and I were bored, tired, and grouchy. I started to feel as though cabin fever was taking hold of us. We decided that we needed to go out for dinner.
At Miller’s Ale House in Paramus, as we waited at the entrance of the restaurant for a table to open up (there was quite a wait on Thursday night since many restaurants in the area were closed) I watched the football game on one of the overhead TVs. As I stood there, a man came up and began talking with me about the game and the NFL season.
“Those Chiefs are pretty terrible, aren’t they?” he asked and laughed. I agreed and laughed with him.
I’m Brian, by the way,” he said and stuck out his hand. I introduced myself as well and he asked me how things were and where I was from. During our pleasant conversation, I realized something that I’d been noticing throughout the week. Although the hurricane was devastating and stressful, complete strangers were being nicer and friendlier to each other than they usually are. I was definitely more likely to ask someone how they were doing than I usually am.
By Friday, many of the businesses on Main Street had opened up as power started to return to Fort Lee and I decided to use some of my precious gas to drive to the bank.
As I stood in line at the Capital One Bank, the tall man behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, how’s your power situation?” he asked. “Hope you didn’t get hit too hard.”
“We still don’t have electricity at my building yet. But I guess that’s about the same as everyone else around here. At least we didn’t lose anything in the storm and we’re okay,” I replied. He nodded.
“Yeah we were definitely lucky around here. It was just power mostly. A buddy of mine lives near Seaside Heights. His house is pretty much ruined. Part of it got washed away.” At that point the woman at the teller window finished her business and the teller motioned for me to go forward.
“Hope you get your power back soon. Good luck,” the man said as I walked to the teller window. The teller greeted me with a cheerful “good morning” and also asked how I was coping with the power outage and whether I’d made it through the storm ok. I smiled and asked her the same.
Often, when I have guests visiting from out of the area, they mention that people in New Jersey and New York seem to always be in a rush and don’t even have time to say hello. I, unfortunately, have to agree with them. As someone who lives here, I’m often guilty of not saying hello to my neighbors, not saying thank you at the grocery store, getting annoyed when the car in front of me at the traffic light doesn’t move as soon as the light turns green, and I’m sometimes quicker to grumble than I am to exchange pleasantries. Although I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, I know I’m not alone in this department.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, as we were forced to slow down a little and deal with things we don’t normally have to deal with, I noticed people being more gentle and friendlier here in town and in the area. Of course we also saw people becoming a little more desperate and snapping in certain instances. However, for the most part, it seemed that people responded to, and continue to respond to, the disaster by reaching out to those around them with a kind word, a friendly conversation, or something more. As people continue to recover from the storm and try to put it behind them, hopefully, the positive side effects it had on us will stick around for a while.