People don’t associate New York with the beach. I grew up in Brooklyn, but I also grew up in a family of beach bums. We spent a majority of summer days there. Rockaway beach, in Queens, was a short drive, and is also accessible by public transportation. My dad had grown up there, working at the snack bar since age fourteen, his older brother trying to bring surfing to the city. (That same uncle also tried to grow corn in the front yard, with similar success.) Growing up in the boroughs comes with secrets like this. People assume we’re all high rises and cement, but we have nature if you know where to look.
Years ago, my parents moved back to Rockaway from Brooklyn, a few blocks from where my father grew up. It’s a peninsula in Queens, four blocks wide, beach on one side, bay on the other. Just about everyone seems to be originally from Brooklyn, and it’s a neighborhood heavy with cops, fire fighters, and other proud Irish American stereotypes.
It’s been great. Until that bitch Sandy rolled into town.
My parents evacuated, but neighbors who stayed behind told us about five foot waves at our front door. Others talked about fleeing fires and finding their homes burned to the ground.
The neighborhood is an unimaginable disaster. It’s hard to describe if you’re not there. Friends have told me that they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t come themselves. The boardwalk was picked up and moved. Houses were knocked off their foundations, walls coming down. People’s entire lives are out on the curb, waiting to be whisked away by the overworked sanitation department. Cars were washed away, beat up, flipped over, and for some reason, many exploded. Fun fact? Saltwater destroys everything. Walls, floors, ceilings, wiring, appliances, teddy bears…and apparently things still catch fire when that water is rushing through.
At first it’s overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start. How do you get new walls? How do you file for assistance without Internet, cell service, or power? Do we turn the gas off? How do we get gasoline to run the generator to pump out the basement? Who the hell is in charge here?
I’m a social worker, in case you didn’t know. I volunteered constantly in college, and full time for a year afterwards. I’m used to helping (or at least trying.)
I’m not used to getting help. But lately, that’s what’s been happening. My mom spent a good long while on the phone with FEMA. We’ve had family, old friends, and random volunteers show up in the house to help with donations, hauling out, demolition, and preserving whatever could be saved. I’ve gone to the nearby church to pick up donated supplies.
This has been a learning experience, to say the least.
1. Laugh or die.
I’m quite serious about laughter. If my family and I weren’t laughing we’d be crying, or awaiting evaluation. My father admonishes everyone who walks in to talk off their shoes so they don’t ruin his good floors. (Which are filthy and about to be ripped out.) We have lovely photos of my brother and me stepping into garbage bags in order to wade through the basement. Going through all the crap your parents save because they couldn’t bear to throw it away, or so they could mock you later in life, has also been great. There was no card that I could not improve with an acrostic.
As my brother pointed out, our dad is quite daring, and once risked missing an episode of Jeopardy to finish dinner. (Side note: joking about how the hurricane didn’t affect you will not be so appreciated.)
2. People are mostly good.
This whole nightmare marks the most times in my life that I have been accused of optimism. I can’t help it. Looking around, things are bleak. But talking to people, they just aren’t. People have replaced, “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” with “I’m showing up at your house, use me as you will.” My friends gave up their weekends to do disgusting, backbreaking work, volunteers came from all over the country to cook us lunch, and a crew of Mormons helped me to bleach the basement for mold and didn’t try to convert me once. People we haven’t seen in years turned up with generators and power tools, ready to tear down anything in sight. In a good way. Police officers showed up with a van to allow people to charge their phones. The sanitation department has worked around the clock, because trust me, watching everything you own piling up at the curb isn’t fun. They even brought us breakfast. I am no longer too good for a garbage truck bagel. It means so much to know you aren’t forgotten at times like these. Even if it’s just a family from Manhattan going door to door with a Box of Joe.
The people who have given the most, though, are the ones who lost almost everything. Everyone on my block has donated extra supplies to people who need them. We pop into each others’s houses without knocking like this is Mayberry. A neighbor’s brother-in-law showed up with a truck and an industrial pump and got the water out of half the basements on our block, refusing to take any money. Because we all know what’s it’s like, and what a relief it can be.
3. Get angry.
Because some people aren’t so great. Anger is fueling. It can keep you going. We all love those “well behaved women rarely make history” bumper stickers, and getting angry is a part of living that. So yes, I anthropomorphize LIPA and curse them when drywall falls on my head. I told off a college classmate who got a lot of support on Facebook when she explained that she, a frustrated marathoner, was the true victim in all of this. And, while swinging a sledgehammer, I talked about a group of do-gooders who announced that people shouldn’t help in our neighborhood, as we have money and all hired contractors. (As I said, cops and firefighters. Impoverished, no. Rockefellers with a spare house fund? Also no.) We enjoy scapegoating the neighbor who suffered the least damage, does little work, but is always available for a photo op and somehow gets the most volunteers. This also provides a laugh, as my mother accused him of bogarting the Mormons. Of course these things don’t really matter, but if it gets you going for a minute and takes your mind off what’s really terrible, do it.
4. Be grateful if you’re in it, don’t tell people what they should be grateful for if you’re not.
Even saying “be grateful,” feels unnecessary. Everyone I know is grateful. Grateful that their house didn’t burn down. Grateful that, although their house burned down, they survived. Grateful for a FEMA check, grateful they had flood insurance, grateful they had so much to lose. Everyone is always saying how lucky we are. It could have been much worse. We’re fortunate to have someplace to go, to not be living in a housing project with no heat or electricity, that becomes a war zone after dark. Other people lost their jobs, don’t have family or friends to put them up, or didn’t make it through the storm alive. We are so, so lucky.
Reminding each other of this is great. But hearing it from other people can be a bit harsh. I know things can be replaced. Ok, the stuffed cat my grandma got me for my second birthday can’t be replaced, but most things can. If I’m saying, “woe is me, I am the unluckiest, just call me Job, no one has ever survived such trials,” then put me in my place. Aside from that, telling someone how to feel just makes them defensive.
5. Accept the help.
People want to help. They want to do something. Let them. I understand being embarrassed. Oh no, go help someone who really needs it. I can’t let me friends come over to wade through shitty water and chainsaw the couch! But we can and we did, and we all should. There is nothing lonelier than doing this work alone. It’s amazing how much faster things get done when you have a few extra hands. People aren’t going to be so eager forever, and we need to let it happen now.
6. You can surprise yourself with your own strength.
Emotionally, yes, we are more than the sum of our parts, what doesn’t kill you makes you Kelly Clarkson, blah blah blah. Aside from that–wet drywall is heavy, especially when packed in a contractor bag. I helped to carry a washer and dryer up the stairs, and only got stuck under one of them. I learned to use firefighter tools, pick out load-bearing beams (don’t make that mistake twice!) run a generator, and use a sump pump.
We are all much more capable than we think.
And now, because words can’t do it justice:
This is how high the water came up on our house.
A surfboard washed up in the backyard. I told those kids, if yous don’t keep it off my lawn, I’m keeping it!
Life floating by in the basement after the water started draining away.
It’s just stuff…
The Atlantic Ocean in the china cabinet. Cars were swept away, these glasses stayed neatly stacked.
FDNY beginning door to door inspections.
Our beloved beach.
The beach block, covered in a few feet of sand, getting shoveled out.
I don’t like to complain, but I’ve been waiting for my next Netflix delivery for days. I am right in the middle of True Blood season three, come on!
Mountains of sand being plowed away.
This restaurant used to be called the Newport Inn when my dad was a kid. The owner lost his son in 9/11. It was where the fires started.
Sign at church. “Wear coats. Bring flashlights. Pray together.” Life changes quickly.
The sun setting down on the Rockaway ground…
Please visit RockawayHelp for ways to help. Or take a trip to Gerritsen Beach, Red Hook, Staten Island, Fairfield Beach, the Jersey Shore…I promise we’ll be happy to see you.