As I law awake the night before the election, tossing and turning with Fox News-induced fears that Mitt Romney might actually have a chance at winning the election, I thought about the principles for which I was voting in the morning, the idea that America was not founded just for rich people and that the least among us deserves help when the odds are stacked against him. I believe in government helping its people, and don’t think entitlement is a dirty word when it comes to healthcare or basic human needs like food and shelter.
And yet, there I lay, 25 stories up in my warm dry, all-the-power-working apartment in midtown Manhattan, from which Hurricane Sandy had felt like not much more than a typical summer rainstorm, I thought about the people, people I don’t know, who lost their homes, or most of their possessions, sitting in the dark in unheated rooms, awaiting the dawn, when they could start cleaning up, now that the waters had receded.
I’d heard about some buses leaving from downtown at 9:30 a.m., but it was already almost 2:00 in the morning, and I was tired. I’d have to get up at 7:00, eat breakfast (as there would be no food out there), vote (in case the buses didn’t get back in time, and there were supposed to be long lines at the polls) and buy work gloves (as they said to wear old clothes and be sure to wear boots and work gloves), all in an hour or so. Did I really want to get up and set my alarm, only to rush around in the morning and miss the bus? Maybe I could help out another day…
I woke up with a start before 7:00 (which is unusual for me), looked at the clock, and decided that, if I didn’t at least try to do this, I was a hypocritical, lazy parasite and deserved a President Mitt Romney. The line for voting was hairy and a little disorganized, but, even with that, I was out of there in half an hour. I grabbed a bagel and tea, went to the hardware store and bought three pairs of heavy-duty gloves in case someone else forget, and made it downtown before 9:15. There, I met up with a rag-tag band of people (white, black, Asian, male, female, gay, straight, tall, short, fat, thin, young and middle-aged) who had one thing in common. We wanted to help those less fortunate than us because it was the right thing to do.
We loaded onto a Gray Line tour bus on Murray Street after taking an inventory of supplies (I had bought three pair of heavy-duty work gloves at my local hardware store on the way). As it was a double-decker tour bus, they needed to staff it with more than just the driver, so we actually had an official tour guide giving us little tidbits as we drove further downtown, across the Manhattan Bridge, through Brooklyn, and then over the Verrazano Bridge into Staten Island. Apparently, there’s a new neighborhood emerging in Brooklyn: Right Above the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, or RAMBO…
As the residents of Staten Island had no way of knowing who we were, or why we were on the bus, we got a lot of funny looks, particularly as we rode into some of the harder-hit areas. We made a 20-minute stop at an outdoor, makeshift collection center while one of the organizers asked around to find out where we were most needed, and in what capacity.
The volunteer coordination was organized by the New York City Council and, although one or two of the people with us had volunteered once before, there was no real blueprint to follow. We were dropped off in the Ocean Breeze section of Staten Island, at the head of a small street called Quincy Ave. that was among the hardest hit areas and that has received very little outside help thus far. We were told to just march up and down the streets asking people if the needed help.
Houses were boarded up, some with red stickers, which meant that there were condemned, and others with orange ones, meaning that they had been inspected and deemed salvageable. Many of the houses had spray-painted signs in front, bearing words like “No Trespass Will Be Shot”” or “Whers Rudy 3 Days No Help Thanks Bloomberg.” It was heartbreaking, but at the same time, intimidating.
Many people were not yet ready for help. They were sorting through their personal possessions, or waiting to take pictures of the damage, or for their insurance companies to come make an adjustment. Others had already cleared out their homes. So it was hard, at first, to figure out where to start.
The neighborhood was very ethnically and culturally diverse – Italians, Polish people, Indian and Pakistani people, Koreans, Ghanans and others. A wonderful blend that is one reason I love this city so much.
My little group and I decided to head to the far end of Quincy “beyond the swamp” as it was described, and finally came to a townhouse, shared by a Polish couple and what appeared to be a Korean family. The latter said that they didn’t need any help at the moment, but the Polish couple was very happy to see us and welcome us into their party demolished home through the garage.
In the back yard, we found Lydia, a warm woman, probably in her late 50s, struggling to clean up her beloved garden. “It was SO beautiful…” she lamented. The flood waters in this area were probably eight or ten feet high, items flooded in and out of homes, redistributing themselves throughout the neighborhood, not letting things like windows or fences get in their way, and Lydia’s garden had fallen victim to this phenomenon.
Dolls, weeds, wood, shingles, records albums, photos and assorted other items filled the back yard in jumbled piles that probably would have taken Lydia two days to clean up on her own. Instead, four of us dove in with rakes and garbage bags and cleaned up the entire thing in about an hour. She mourned the loss of her clothes, which were drying all up and down the railing of the outside of the house and the fence of the yard, but was pretty philosophical about the rest of the things, many of which were not, after all, hers in the first place. “I found a passport yesterday!” she announced to us animatedly.
In the back, tangled in a bush, I found a white statue of the Virgin Mary, coated in mud – all throughout the area, things were coated in mud that had dried into beautiful patterns, reminiscent of reptile scales. “Is this yours?” I asked Lydia.
“Yes! Yes! It is the Virgin! She was supposed to protect my house. But you know, she DID protect my house. It is still here…”
Moving on, we found George and Shirley, an Italian American couple, towards the end of a dead end street.
“Hey Shirl,” George called out, “The team is here!”
We crossed over Shirley’s garden, bursting with hundreds of bright and ripe red cherry peppers rendered inedible by the ten feet of filthy salt water under which they had been submerged a few days earlier. Less plentiful, were red and orange peppers, one of which I mistook for a persimmon on first glance.
“We’re tryin’ a get all the big power tools outta the shed so we can hose ’em off,” Shirley told us, as she showed us to a large storage shed, probably eight feet by twenty feet, sitting a foot off the ground in the back corner of the yard. Although there was under a centimeter of water and mud sloshing around the bottom of it now, glass jars, sitting eight feet up on high shelves, still filled with seawater, told us that this entire shed had previously been underwater. Unlike the larger, empty shed from next door though, it hadn’t floated away and turned over on its side.
Over the course of an hour or so, our merry band of four managed to drag a huge snow blower and four or five other machines, Christmas lights, license plates, buckets, tupperware tubs of household goods tools, and 20 flats of canned cat food out onto the yard. “Are you an extreme couponer Shirl?” I asked, pointed at the car food.
“No, a friend a mine works for an animal rescue and gave me that.”
Shirley remained upbeat and was willing to part with damaged goods, but I still didn’t have the heart to ask her whether she would let me have the Wilfred Beauty Schools kit, covered in blue faux alligator skin and filled with scrunch curlers, that I coveted.
Bags and bags of trash, sat among a big pile of other damaged goods at the curb and, across the street, clothing and toys, swept off by the storm, sat in the branches of bare trees, six feet off the ground.
As we left, Shirley told me that she had been planning to give notice that she was retiring in a couple of months “But I think this is it now. I think I’m retired. I ain’t goin’ back.”
At our third stop, we met a guy named Dario and his girlfriend who was cleaning out the side yard. Closer to the water, it was more covered with dense mud and small garbage than Lydia’s had been. Dario found us a rake, but it was having very little effect on the heavy mud.
“What’s this?” I asked, tugging on the edge of what appeared to be a rug, buried in silt.
“Oh, that’s the turf. We gonna keep that?” Kath to her boyfriend Dario.
“Nah, I don;t think so.” Dario responded.
“Do you have a scissors or a straight-edge?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah. Here.” Dario answered, handing me a sturdy razor knife.
“What a great idea!” they both responded, as I began to lift up the astroturf that covered the whole yard, slicing pieces away as I went, and consolidating the silt and muck in a tenth of the time it would have taken to rake it.”
“I went to Montessori School,” I explained. I don;t look for the normal solutions to problems.
“My kids go to Montessori!” Kath exclaimed. Over in Brooklyn. I love it!”
My mother found the first Montessori training program in the country.” I told Kath.
What looked to be a three hour project was done in an hour and I used the time to speak to a couple of the neighbors, single women whose houses had been decimated. The first a salty character, had already been visited by FEMA, who declared her house unsalvageable without even stepping inside.
Almost my height, she was outside when she heard someone scream “There’s a wave coming!”
Unsure of what to do, and with no time to get out, she ran inside her house and put the five feral cats she looks after on top of the bed as the water started to enter her house. The water rose quickly, and before she knew it, it was up to her neck and the mattress with the cats was floating around the room.
She had been trying to save her electronics, but as they were already ruined and she feared for her life, she dropped everything and swam out the door and over to a tree, that she held onto with ‘all fours.” From above, she heard someone yelling “You get get outta that tree!” He threw her a rope from a high attic window (his house was taller than hers), where she waited out the storm with 20 or so people who had also taken refuge there.
When morning came, she saw that there had been a house stuck in the tree above her. When she was able to get back into her house, which was so badly damaged that FEMA deemed it a complete loss without even stepping inside. she found all five cats who looked at her as if to say (her words) “Where the fuck have YOU been?”
Another woman, probably in her sixties, told me that FEMA told her that she wouldn’t qualify for relief because she makes more than $22,000 a year. She tried calling the number the FEMA agent told her to call in case she hadn’t heard anything in a few days, and was connected to the mortgage department.
“Do you wanna see inside?” she asked me, untying the cord that held her screen door closed. Her front door itself was not closed all the way, as it had swelled up from the flooding. Inside, stunk of seawater and mud and mold and God knows what else.
The paneling was buckling away form the walls everywhere I looked and her couches and tables and chairs were all overturned and her built in shelves had come away from the walls. We crawled over the couch towards the kitchen where her brand new washing machine had also turned over, along with her oven.
Coming back into the living room, there was a pedestal table that had once had a marble top that had been carried away elsewhere in the house by the rising waters. Inside, undisturbed, sat ten or twelve photo albums, stuck together and soaked through.
“All my pictures are in there. Everybody, my mother, my grandmother. And my figurines, they was all over the house. I had it so beautiful, and they’re probably all broke.”
“Maybe when they fell down through the water, they landed softly. Here, look at this one, I said. Wash it off and it;ll be as good as new.”
“I hope so. Look, look what survived. My blessed Virgin Marys. They had their back to the storm.”
Walking along the road nearest the beachfront park, we came across an impossibly large pile of ruined office chairs, two high and four or five deep, that stretched on for half the block. Looking around, it was not immediately apparent where they came from, but they represented thousands of dollars of loss, just on their own.
I rounded the corner and went down a gentle slope to find a large group of my fellow volunteers who had all descended on a single house to help clear out the basement/garage level for a couple who seemed to be from somewhere in Africa. Close to the water and well-below sea level, they hadn’t stood a chance when the surge came in.
Indistinguishable piles of slop, that had once been papers, clothing, keepsakes, toys and household items, were being shoveled into heavy-weight garbage bags, while large appliances, couches, tables and chairs, dripping foul water, were being dragged up the hill to the curb.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” The man muttered, not once, but every time someone passed by with another item or bag. Each of us thanked dozens of times as we made the trip back and forth to the curb.
His wife stayed by the street, delicately separating photos and papers and hand-made awards and mementos created by her daughter, hoping to dry them out in the cold, bright sunlight. She smiled as I passed, but it was hard to tell whether the single tear that ran down her cheek was from grief or the wind.
Thankfully, there was a two car garage door open onto the street, which kept us from choking on the stench, but it was still disgusting sloshing around in the muck, freeing bigger piles of soggy swill from the corners while brown water that had been trapped inside escaped around our feet. Even with 10 of us working, it still took an hour to complete the task, and I think that some of the others may have arrived at the scene hours before I did.
We stopped before emptying the closet in the back room because it contained “important papers,” sparking an argument between the couple in a combination of English and their own language. On the way out of the room, I had to duck under a sock dangling from the ceiling fan, a reminder of how high the water had risen.
I walked past the huge pile of the couple’s ruined belongings and made my way slowly back to the bus. Along the way, I noticed things I had missed before, huge 20 foot street signs laying in ditches, cars crushed by trees, an entire house lifted off its mooring and carried down the street, more spray-painted signs appealing for help, offering help, or expressing outrage, American flags laid out to dry or knotted by the wind and water fifteen feet above the street, a giant steam shovel grabbing huge piles of ruined stuff from a never-decreasing pile of junk and dumping it into a garbage truck, and finally a dozen wild turkeys, running along the side of the road and scavenging around the filth.
I couldn’t help but think that this will be one Thanksgiving the people of this neighborhood would rather forget. But as I watched the results come in that night, staying up until the bitter end, when President Obama made his acceptance speech, I knew it was an Election Day I will never forget.