They say that you have to pay your dues for 10 years in this city before you can call yourself a New Yorker. Having been here for seven or so, I was willing to accept that I have another three years on my docket. I’ve never quite thought of myself as a true New Yorker anyway. Until Hurricane Sandy.
I’m not a girl who shies away from a storm. Once my Dad decided that it was perfectly fine to spend the night in our pop-up camper during a nor’easter. (Probably not his best decision.) Last year during Hurricane Irene, I scoffed when Mayor Bloomberg shut down the subways. When the warnings started to roll in about Sandy, I bought some non-perishables, but I rolled my eyes the entire time.
The weather paid my kindness in turn. It ripped my little corner of the world apart.
My neighborhood in Brooklyn made it through just fine, but all our subways were flooded. A lot of friends and family were without power. My great uncle’s house in New Jersey is now unlivable. One of my best friends still has a pine tree sitting in the kitchen of her new house.
I walked around feeling like an idiot as I was barely inconvenienced. I felt like such a fool for daring to believe that New York was untouchable, especially as it worked out for me personally. None of it was fair.
My friend Stef has been pulling overnight shifts at the makeshift shelter in Park Slope since the storm hit. Normally a YMCA, it currently holds the patients from two assisted living facilities in the Rockaways, an area in Queens that Sandy ravaged. When she mentioned that she’d actually be heading out there, I asked if there was a spare seat in the car.
On one side of the Rockaways sits the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side is Jamaica Bay. During Sandy, the ocean and the bay came together in the middle of the peninsula without regard for the homes that stood in their way. Over a hundred of these homes burned to the ground when power lines exploded in Breezy Point. As we drove by, I could see one lone chimney in the midst of blackened rubble; nothing more than a pile of bricks left to represent the entire structure that once stood.
Last weekend I was in basements flooded with two to three feet of water, hauling up debris. I watched a woman scoop all her family photos, all the remnants of her albums and memories, into a trash bag. I met a woman named Fannie who was 95 years old. Her living room was so cold that you could see your breath in the beam of the flashlight. I watched a man named Jerry try to bargain about what he could keep. Some of his possessions had been sitting in dirty water, which had likely mingled with sewage, for about two weeks. As soon as it dried, it was going to be covered with mold. I didn’t argue with him. When he asked to keep an object, I put it aside.
But these moments were not my sum total of experience in the Rockaways. There was the look on Jerry’s face when he thanked the group. There was the lady who served me a meatball sub out of the back of her car because she wanted to bring a hot meal for the residents and the volunteers. There was the homeowner who gave me an extra pair of rubber gloves and some old-fashioned, good-natured teasing about being from Connecticut.
The truth about volunteering is that it’s not an unselfish act. You give some time and you get about a thousand fold back. For every hour that I shoved aside the need to run errands or stick to my own schedule, there was someone there to thank me or remind me of the possibilities that can arise with a little kindness. If I can forget my own needs for a while, I might have a shot at being a halfway decent person one day. The people in the Rockaways certainly helped me along.
The next day I went to the shelter in Park Slope and sat outside with the patients, chatting and keeping an eye out to make sure that they didn’t wander off. Some tried, but who can blame them for wanting to escape? They’ve been sleeping inside a gymnasium for two weeks with no privacy whatsoever. I’d make a run for it too. Still, they all wanted to talk. One gave me marriage advice. (I’m not married.) One took a look at my nametag and asked me if I was Lindsey Buckingham. (I said probably not since Buckingham was a man.) We had a few laughs together.
If you can make it to the Rockaways, please go. What the people out there really need is manpower. Arrange a clean up with your church, or any group that you’ve got. Take your kickball league. If you can’t make it to the Rockaways, maybe you can sign up for a shift at the shelter. If you can’t sign up for a shift at the shelter, maybe you can make a donation to Occupy Sandy. Prioritize blankets, basic medical and clean-up supplies, and diapers. Maybe if you do one thing, you’ll want to do a little bit more. And then a little bit more again. Change happens in small steps. Before you know it, you will probably end up a better person. It’ll happen without you noticing.
At the end of the day, I’d put in those last three years to be considered a New Yorker if that’s what this city requires. But I’m pretty sure this place is stuck with me for a while. And I’ll continue to try and help its people as much as I can.
– Lindsay Hood, Babble Blog Coordinator