Downtown Manhattan was not recognizable on Tuesday. SoHo, usually full of students and tourists, was practically a ghost town after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York leaving more than 200,000 people without electricity. In apocalyptic style, the city was demarcated with full power to the north of 39th Street, and complete darkness below it. The damage was evident; block after block littered with tree limbs and other debris blown to the ground by storm winds.
Yet on Spring Street, between Mott and Mulberry, flickers of candlelight and the murmur of gathering people echoed down the street. Lombardi’s Pizza, the oldest pizzeria in America – and now a lighthouse in the desolation – was still open for business.
“Lombardi’s has been an institution since 1897. Before that there was a bakery here and we’re using the same coal oven. It never gets turned off,” waiter Jesus Dios, 21, said with pride.
Dios, along with with 12 other waiters, decided earlier in the afternoon to keep the establishment open. They bustled around each other at the makeshift counter in cheerful spirits, distributing take out menus. Dios kept tabs with a calculator before hurrying back to the kitchen, returning with stacks of pizza boxes six or seven deep. Several orders of Italian sausage and mushroom were shouted back.
The red checker-covered dining tables in the restaurant’s small side parlor were rearranged to form a counter and all the chairs now lined the walls. With nearly 25 customers crowded into the small space, every chair was taken.
Alexis Henderson and her boyfriend Dylan Birdsong, both 20, were perched on the wall outside the restaurant with four other friends. They chewed large cheese slices from paper plates in silence.“We’re both stressed, we’re not in the best mood,” Birdsong said. “And we’ve been bickering because we hadn’t eaten anything today.”
With no power in her dorm at Pace University and no contact with family, a slice of pizza was a welcome relief.“We’re so happy Lombardi’s is open. We only knew by word of mouth because our friends told us,” Henderson said. “This is the best meal I’ve had in days.”
Inside, bowls full of burned out tea lights provided evidence of how long Dios and his colleagues had been working. Despite the difficult conditions, he and the rest of the staff cracked jokes with each other and their patient customers.
“You can pay us in pennies, quarters, or food stamps! It doesn’t matter!” he said.
Three New York University students stood nearby, audibly expressing their frustration with the inconveniences brought on by the storm. “I was here during Irene so I thought I knew what to expect but this is so different,” one of the three, Sarah Skirmont, said. “There’s no power in the NYU dorms, and we heard it won’t be back on for another three or four days. Thank God for brick oven pizza.”
Jesus Dios, also an NYU student, said Lombardi’s would stay open until 7:30 p.m., but with a healthy line out the door and no sense of time, it could be later. Keeping busy was the best way to cope.
Prepping to take another order with a resilient smile on his face, he said, “We are stressed, but we’re doing okay. We’re managing.”