Hippies and punks beat FEMA to the punch on Avenue C
By Liza Béar | Heading east in Loisaida toward one of Manhattan’s several FEMA supply distribution centers — on E. 10th St. between Avenues C and D — about an hour after the power had returned to the East Village on Friday evening Nov. 2, 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.
The area is within close proximity of Con Edison’s 14th St. and Avenue D substation, which exploded at around 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, after Superstorm Sandy 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 suffered copious flooding.
At this time, on the sidewalk in front of the still-shuttered pizzeria in the middle of the block between Ninth and 10th Sts., the band was immediately recognizable as The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a frequent accompaniment to protest marches and events both long before Occupy Wall Street and during that movement’s 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 curb, Vicki, a resident from C-Squat, the former squat 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 50 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 residents from the block or nearby also included people from farther afield, such as Ali, a photographer from Crown Heights, and James and Alison, two photographers from Hudson, N.Y., 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.
Jerry the Peddler, with his bushy beard fanning out over a gray-and-red plaid shirt, handed out bottled water from a stack of bottles. In his other hand he held 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 canceled the whole tour over that. Not only do they make bad-tasting beer, they’re just a——-.”
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 1,200-calorie meals and material with which to heat them.
Jerry said that, in recognition of the local community effort, “FEMA gave us 15 cases of the emergency rations. And about three stacks 4 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 four days.”
He looked up to the roof of C-Squat, in which he lives.
“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. These were just the final course of what had been a multiday feast. Providing ingredients for the elaborate meals cooked by the C-Squat residents, during the blackout a convoy of cars had pulled up and dropped off massive loads of bread, pastries, burgers, fruits, vegetables, drinks, soup and more.
“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 St. 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 were there. In fact, the East Village 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 is right now,” he said, gesturing down the street. “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 summed it up by quoting his favorite line:
“Once again, it’s hippies and punks and beatniks and bums to the rescue.”