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.





You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope, Jr.

17 05 2012

A groundbreaking article was recently released on the subject of teen pregnancy and parenting, that is apparently based on new research. I say “apparently” because it’s possible that it was actually based on one of my rants from when I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, and began my relationship with pregnant and parenting teens. The article states that getting pregnant and raising a child is not typically the thing forcing young women into poverty. They start off in poverty, and this makes them more likely to become pregnant and choose to parent, for a variety of reasons.

And everyone who works with these young women kind of knew that already.

We talk about how likely it is for young parents and their children to live in poverty, for the parents to not finish school, and to work in menial jobs. For a lot of the girls I work with, that’s not all that different from the future they see for themselves without a child. It’s what their experience and examples dictate. While I certainly believe that young people who work really hard and have the right support, opportunities, and talents can create a different life for themselves, it’s incredibly difficult. We ask a lot of these kids, much more than we ask of those who were lucky enough not to be born poor.

If I had a child at seventeen, it would have meant giving up the scholarship I had to go away to college. It would have meant no study abroad. It would have meant not getting to do the things that most of my friends were doing. For my girls, this isn’t the case.

I recently went a high school to visit a sixteen year old girl I’ve been work with for the past year. She was in quite a mood, saying she was exhausted and nauseated. My mind started racing. “Weren’t you exhausted and nauseated two weeks ago?” “Yeah…”

Oh boy.

Now, I’m very positive when it comes to teen mothers. I have worked with many wonderful young moms. (Sorry I don’t write about teen dads, but I don’t have any!) I have written about it extensively, as I adore them and their kids, and feel that they can do a wonderful job, provided they have some chances and support.

This girl does not want to be a mother, teen or otherwise. She has said this for as long as I’ve known her. Her own family is, in her words, a disaster. She’s never felt taken care of, and has experienced all too frequently the many ways in which this world can suck. The kid wants an abortion.

But she’s being pressured, by her mother, by her boyfriend, not to take that route. So she’s considering what life would be like as a mother. I worked with her on taking some time to consider her options, as it’s still very early. What would be good about having a baby and raising it? What would be good about having an abortion? Can we even talk about adoption?

The answer to the third question is no, we can’t. Why you so crazy, SJ?

The answer to the second question is that she doesn’t want a child. No one is taking care of her, and she’s trying to focus on taking care of herself.

The answer to the first question was, essentially, meh? Why not? Things aren’t going to get any worse, and maybe it would motivate her to get up and get things done. The rationale that most people utilize to decide to chug a Five Hour Energy.

I was once informed that, because I expressed the hope that my teen girls would focus on developing interests and goals for furthering their education and careers, I did not have the necessary respect for motherhood, which is rooted in sexism. I would take a moment to address that point, but it’s so obviously stupid.

I have tons of respect for motherhood parenthood. I also have tons of respect for dismantling bombs. I don’t think either of these activities should be entered into lightly, or without preparation. At age 28, the idea of being responsible for another human (they don’t stay babies for long, do they?) blows my mind and terrifies me. Most parents I know say the same thing. It’s not that I don’t respect having children. It’s that I respect it too much.

Sometimes a pregnancy is a welcome surprise. I get that. I saw “Knocked Up” I also know actual humans who got pregnant before they intended to, but decided to go with it, because they realized it was what they wanted, and the time might never be exactly right, but they could do it. Mazel tov.

The idea of going into having a child the same way I go into having edamame for dinner four nights in a row is what’s troublesome to me. “Eh, why not? There are really no other options, and it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.” It’s also sad. Profoundly sad. Because this girl honestly believes what she’s saying. That there’s no hope for her. Taking care of herself is not enough of a motivation. A child might be worthy of that, but she’s not.

This is a rare instance in which I wish I could take a child home.

I have faith that this girl could be a wonderful mother if that’s what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. I have faith that she could be amazing at whatever she chooses to do. Chef, rocket scientist, sanitation worker, poet, kickboxer, literally anything. She is smart, capable, and has proven over and over again that she is crafty as hell, and has essentially been responsible for herself and her siblings since adolescence. But she doesn’t have hope.

I have hope for her, and faith in her. Getting her to have that for herself is much more difficult. That is the hardest part, for me, about working with teen pregnancy.

Much harder than talking to a roomful of teenagers about condoms.





You gotta give ’em hope

22 09 2011

I hate people.

I know a lot of my sarcastic contemporaries who hide behind internet anonymity (see you all at the next meeting, guys) revel in their misanthropy, but I try not to. I really do.

On some days, it’s hard.

I had to walk a few blocks out of my way in order to get to the office the other morning. This was because there was a shootout on the street in the middle of the night, and the block was still roped off by the police.

Apparently, this is what it takes to have a meaningful police presence in the neighborhood.

Often, because of where these types of things take place, they get ignored. If it was Midtown Manhattan, it would be a big deal, but it’s the Bronx. It’s the ghetto. A bunch of gang members want to kill each other? Let them.

Except that in this city, in the past month, we’ve had three children under five (that I’ve heard about) accidentally shot on the street. What the hell kind of human thinks that their ridiculous beef with some other dude in the neighborhood is worth the accidental death of a child?

Earlier, I noticed a candlelight memorial outside a client’s building. Apparently it was for a three year old girl. The parents claimed her death was accidental, but upon further examination, she had been horribly abused for some time. The mother of the family I was visiting showed me pictures of her daughter and this poor girl together at a recent birthday party, while she asked what kind of person could do that to a child? She was just glad that her daughter was young enough to not really understand.

We didn’t discuss the fact that, though we were quite a bit older, we certainly didn’t understand either.

Then I got a call about one of my families. A big, chaotic family, with lots of kids who fight like cats and dogs, and who make me laugh on every visit. Apparently they’ve been removed with no warning, and, as far as I can tell, no real reason. The children’s lawyer called me, mystified, saying she thought everything was improving. That’s what I had thought as well. They were waiting for placement in a domestic violence shelter, because the dad is now out of jail and has been coming by to beat the shit out of mom as often as he can.

By all means, traumatize everyone further. That’ll show them.

There’s a lot of disgust to go around in this case. The city, for refusing to move the family to a new location before the father was released from prison, and again for having an underfunded shelter system, and again for punishing a family for having been victimized. Of course, the “father,” who feels justified in beating the mother of his children in front of those children, pulling a knife, trying to set mother and children on fire.  (Fun fact–you only get a year in jail for that!) An ACS worker, who seems to be primarily focused on how inconvenient this all is for her.

These are the people we’re sharing a planet with.

People are always asking how I manage to do my job, how it doesn’t get me down, how I work with people who do terrible things.

Barely, it does, and I don’t know.

All I know is that if I don’t believe in the people I work with, I can’t do my job. And while my job might not be changing the world, it’s something. If I write everyone off as “bad parents” and “juvenile delinquents” things don’t get better. They stay the same if we’re lucky, they get worse if we’re realistic.

Days like this I can’t do it. Bureacracy, disappointment, inconsiderate people, I can deal with. I have to. On a daily basis. I can get snarky, use my impressive vocabulary and quick wit to get a one-liner in that will make me feel better, and move on. I’ll be annoyed, but I move on.

Today I have to half lie to myself, and say that, despite the tragedy and the people we can’t help, things do get better. As much as I want to quit right now, I can’t imagine doing or being anything else.

Because there are those moments. Moments that make you feel good, like a teen telling you she likes that you listen to her, or a grandma bringing you cough drops because your voice sounded scratchy on the phone. And moments that actually make a difference, like a kid walking away from a fight for the first time, or a parent recognizing that a child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate, and not worthy of punishment.

It really beats the alternative.