Yes, a crisis does bring out the best, and the worst, in people. I consider myself amongst the lucky in New Jersey. Millions of homes were affected by Hurricane Sandy, including damage by severe flooding and fallen trees as well as loss of power and heat. Our home was not damaged, our family was safe, and we endured (only?) seven days and seven long dark nights without power, heat or hot water. Our area in Union County was virtually shut down for a week. Suddenly gas and food became scarce commodities. This dark time inspired many volunteer groups, including our own University students living in homes with no power or heat, who traveled to Ocean Beach to help families begin to put their lives in order after losing their homes altogether.
But then there were the dirty, rotten scoundrels. One day after the hurricane, a local gas station suddenly raised their price from $3.79 to $5.59 per gallon, a shameless violation of New Jersey’s anti-gouging law prohibiting price hikes of more than 10 percent during emergencies. That same station had lines of desperate drivers waiting well beyond two hours.
After several days of no power, our laundry piled up and I was lucky to find a laundromat, jam packed with weary neighbors waiting for their turn, happy to be in a place with heat, light and electrical outlets. Like everyone else, I zoned in on an unused outlet for my near-dead cell phone. The manager at first seemed to be smiling, pleased with an opportunity to provide a much needed service for the storm-ridden.
This perception turned out to be wrong, when I saw a hand written sign nearby each outlet — “$2 per device.” An argument broke out between the manager and one of the customers refusing to pay the extra fee because his cell phone had died and he had no way to contact his wife in the hospital.
Manager (with a smirk): “What’s the problem? This is capitalism as its finest. I have the supply, you have the demand.” (These were his exact words; you can’t make this stuff up.)
Flummoxed customer: “Are you kidding me? I’ll never come back here again.”
Manager: “Good luck with finding another place. You’re not paying an electric bill, are you? I am. You don’t like $2 per device? Come back tomorrow, and it just may be $5 each.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but was too weary to care — I needed clean laundry for my family. Stories like these were no doubt common amongst the millions of families like us. People like this manager deserve any number of labels, but dirty rotten scoundrel is a good one, if not too generous. Now that things are returning to pre-Sandy normalcy, I am not only grateful for what had been taken for granted, but would rather focus on those selfless, wingless angels capable of thinking beyond themselves to help those in circumstances worse than their own. Could Sandy teach us to be better neighbors with a deeper appreciation of our riches? Probably not, but a man can dream.