Do the Rockaway

15 11 2012

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.

Daring
And
Dependable

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:

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This is how high the water came up on our house.

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A surfboard washed up in the backyard. I told those kids, if yous don’t keep it off my lawn, I’m keeping it!

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Life floating by in the basement after the water started draining away.

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It’s just stuff…

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The Atlantic Ocean in the china cabinet. Cars were swept away, these glasses stayed neatly stacked.

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FDNY beginning door to door inspections.

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Our beloved beach.

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The beach block, covered in a few feet of sand, getting shoveled out.

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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!

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Mountains of sand being plowed away.

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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.

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Sign at church. “Wear coats. Bring flashlights. Pray together.” Life changes quickly.

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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.





I’m Ms. Brightside

19 01 2012

Yesterday was a rough day. Like, the kind your mom warned you about. Or maybe she didn’t. But still, they happen. I had to listen to an awesome twelve year old girl cry about how she wants to go live with her dad, because her mom blames everything on this kid and just can’t be nice. Mom doesn’t beat this child. Her physical needs are taken care of. The mom just has a unique ability to make this kid feel like crap. Dad probably can’t take her, and mom would never allow it anyway, but it was all she could think of.

I am trying to help this kid. Really, really trying. But with a parent who isn’t willing to even think about change, and a situation that doesn’t warrant removal (and really, would removal solve this? Would this child suddenly be in the warm, loving environment she deserves? Maybe. Probably not.) I’m limited in what I can do. A mentor and an afterschool program to get her out of the house, counseling at school, and support from me are kind of all I can do. It happens. There are situations you can’t fix, because the people in charge of them don’t want you to help.

Let’s focus on the good. For a moment

1.) I have been working with a mother and her thirteen year old daughter for close to a year now. They were barely speaking when they started coming in, and it is ridiculously heartwarming to see how much they’ve grown. They do things together and talk to each other. Soon, their case will be closed, which is depressing and thrilling all at the same time.

Anyway, this girl is super smart, and loves school. She just got accepted to the Catholic school of her choice, the one she’s been dreaming of, complete with a full scholarship. As if that weren’t enough (it totally was) she ran to the office to tell me. (After crying with her mom over it.)

2.) The other morning, there was a parenting group meeting at the office for the first time. They assured the clients that child care would be provided, but neglected to tell the workers who provide the child care. As a result, there was a lot of, “Well, I have other work to do. They didn’t tell me. I can’t watch these kids rabble rabble rabble.”

One of the kids in question was from one of my families, so I told the parents to leave their kids with me and go ahead to group. I don’t know how many of you have had the surprise experience of reading “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of toddlers who are extremely rarely read to, but it’s a delight. Trust me.

3.) Recently, we had a holiday celebration for participants that didn’t go exactly as planned. Supervision was lacking, there was a lot of petty infighting, we didn’t have time or money…the usual. But my homemade mancala boards? Were a HUGE hit. Families asked to take them home, so they could play together. Video game addict kids wanted to teach their friends to play. Victory!

Egg carton + beads = no money fun!

4.) In social work, a case being ready to close (not closing because time is up, or because they’re moving on to other services, or the kids are being removed) is a great success. I’ve got a family with an eight year old who is in just that position. They’re doing well. The mother just told me, “Things are still stressful, but I have ways to manage it now.” Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the best part. Here is a pic of me and her eight year old daughter.

See how we get our hair done at the same place?

5.) Another mother just told me that her son had been acting up lately, so she made an appointment with his psychiatrist to see if his ADHD meds needed to be adjusted. This was a woman who remembered to give this child his meds only about half the time last year. As a result, this was a child who spent half the time last year throwing chairs.

6.) My girls’ group ended this week.¬†(Speaking of crying. Oh, we weren’t? I was.) One of our traditions is to have all of the girls write a card to each girl in the group, saying something positive about their participation. Two of the girls decided to write notes to me, and insisted, under pain of death, that I display them in my cubicle.

Yeah. You don't get that often.

We can’t help everyone. There are situations that we work our best on, and then have to admit that there’s nothing else we can do. It’s just reality. The reminders, especially visual reminders,¬†that there are, in fact, people we help, and changes we help bring about, can make quite the difference.