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From left: Robyn Taragan, Shalini Vora and Robbie Tran, roommates in an apartment building that lost power, recharged their cellphones in the lobby of a Chase Bank in New York last week. Sites that had power offered free phone charging to the powerless. For many, even cellular networks were unavailable.

Karsten Moran, New York Times

Phones charging in the Coney Island neighborhood. For some in New York City, the lack of connectivity led to a lot of missed connections.

Robert Stolarik, New York Times

Smartphone withdrawal

  • Article by: JENNA WORTHAM
  • New York Times
  • November 6, 2012 - 4:26 PM

While Hurricane Sandy left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers without electricity or heat, the loss of one utility left some especially bewildered: cellphone service.

"Not having hot water is one thing," said Kartik Sankar, 29, a technology consultant who lives in the East Village. "But not having a phone? Forget about it."

With only sporadic access to text messaging, Facebook or even landline phone calls, Sankar and others like him in Manhattan's no-power zone quickly cobbled together more primitive systems for passing along information and arranging when and where to meet, so they could take comfort in each other's company in the dark.

On the scale of hardships suffered in the storm and its aftermath, these were more like minor annoyances. But the experience of being suddenly smartphoneless caused some to realize just how dependent on the technology they had become.

"The lack of information was unnerving," said Tay McEvers, 27, a television producer, who was celebrating the return of power with Sankar and other friends at Niagara Bar in the East Village on Friday night. "You would hear that the water wasn't safe to drink or that the lights were going to come back at 4 and have no way to verify it."

Another friend, Christy Claxton, 30, who lives on the Bowery and works in digital marketing, talked about adjusting to a life that was like something out of a time before cellphones made connections far more fluid.

"You had to make plans and stick to them," Claxton said. "It felt so old-school, like we were back in 1998."

With the power out, people gathered in the few bars that were still serving beer, albeit warm and occasionally flat. These became more than watering holes; they were crucial spots where neighborhood residents could exchange bits of news and information gleaned from others and picked up on trips beyond the dark zone.

The lack of connectivity led to a lot of missed connections.

"On Halloween night, we thought everyone was going to be at one bar, but when we showed up no one was there," said Steve Juh, 32, who lives on the Lower East Side and works in finance. "They left a note with the bartender telling us where they were, but we didn't get it."

On a stretch of Bleecker Street in the West Village that was still draped in darkness on Friday night, local residents -- and a few disaster tourists -- gathered at Wicked Willy's, a sports bar that siphoned power from a generator and offered free charging stations and landline phone calls to patrons.

Joshua Diem, 21, a student at New York University who was at the bar, said that during the storm he left the city to take care of his ailing grandmother in Connecticut. They were without power for most of the week. He said he felt as if he had missed nothing in his time offline.

"I've been texting with my ex all night," Diem said. "I kind of regret that, to be honest."

For some, regaining cell service as the power came back on was bittersweet. Although they were relieved to be reconnected with their families and friends and to begin edging toward normalcy, they said that the brief break from their hyperconnected lives turned out to be welcome.

Amelia Erwitt, 32, and her husband, Kamil Kaluza, 36, who live in the West Village, said they enjoyed life offline -- waking up with the sun, exploring their neighborhood, checking in on friends, cooking by flashlight and going to bed soon after sundown. They got their news from a battery-powered radio and checked e-mail by walking two blocks to a spot in front of a nearby deli that somehow offered a cellular connection. They would wave their phones in the air until they felt them buzzing with messages and alerts.

Sometimes news updates came from unusual sources. "I stood on line for a payphone for 30 minutes to call my dad," Erwitt said. "And the man in front of me was a tourist from France, and after calling home to check in, he hung up, turned around and said, 'I just heard, from Paris, that we're getting power back in three days.'"

"We haven't left each other in five days because we're afraid of not being able to find each other again," she added. "Without cell service, who knows if we would?"

Both were not terribly eager for the return of electricity. Their block, as of late Friday, was still one of the ones without power, although all around were streets humming with bright lights and boisterous people.

"It feels like the light is closing in on us," Kaluza said.

Juh also admitted to mixed feelings. "It's strange, how in the end you feel like a prisoner to your device," he said. "It's the one thing you wanted to work, more than anything."

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