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.


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.

I’m trying to come up with a witty Tennessee reference

15 12 2011

Look it up.

Plenty of people don’t opt to work in the helping professions. Personally, I don’t get it, as we know that I think social work is the most fun. (No, really.) But people are called to all different careers. There are many jobs to be done. My stocks aren’t going to trade themselves.

Stop laughing. I could have stocks.

Many people who aren’t in the business of helping others still like to make time for it. Giving money is great, and Flying Spaghetti Monster knows we need it. But there is nothing like actually seeing what you’re supporting, and interacting with the people.

Volunteers (there’s the Tennessee connection) are great. They’re necessary. They help us to get things done that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Of course, there are those times when they’re…not the best.

You never want to let that out there. We always appreciate people that want to help. Sometimes it just seems like they don’t know the best way to go about it.

In my days at Anonymous Youth Center, we had a few Saturdays per year when we would have to come in, to do projects with corporate or college volunteers.

If there’s one thing someone working fifty hours per week for $21,000 a year wants to do, it’s work on Saturdays.

Honestly, I didn’t mind. Much. We needed to get things done. But it’s remarkable how getting things done can create more work for us.

There were meetings, of course.

“Well, we need to clear out the garage.”
“No, we can’t ask them to do that. There are spiders in the garage. You guys will have to do that another day.”

We found other projects. Painting rooms, clearing tree branches from the playground–the things that always need to be done, but you never have time for when there are seventy kids climbing on everything and you’re primarily trying to keep them from setting one another on fire.

Of course, the volunteers there on the weekend were a little disappointed to not interact with the kids. In this case, that meant that they took it upon themselves to invite some neighborhood kids over for pizza.

This is my one day to not interact with children. Especially those children. You know the ones. The neighborhood kids who never seem to be in their houses, who don’t come to program but are always hanging out outside, trying to start fights with the kids who are enrolled.

And they’re getting my free pizza. But I can’t say anything, because–volunteers.

Sometimes the volunteers show up when the kids, or other participants, are there. Which is also great. We had some at Anonymous Youth Center. Some were great. Some clearly thought that because our children lives in a poor neighborhood, and had difficult home lives, they should be indulged. I’m not 100% against this, but you can’t bring your favorite kid ice cream and leave the other forty out. Unless you’re an asshole. You also can’t cover for a child who I put on time out for breaking the rules, saying it was actually your fault. 1. The kids don’t need to be protected from discipline. 2. I don’t want to, but I will yell at you in front of the children.

For the past couple of years, we had some corporate group (is it racist to say they all seem the same to me?) provide our teens with an evening of ice skating. Yay! I love ice skating! And somehow it’s never as fun as it is when you have three usually tough, cool, put-together adolescents, clinging to you and shrieking that they’re going to fall. (Then they fall.)

But they have their standards, this group. They want a list of who is coming a month in advance. At least fifteen kids. And they want us to the skating rink, an hour away, by 3:30 pm. Did I mention that we had one day to get this done?

A lot of my clients don’t have working phones. This means running around the Bronx, like more of a maniac than usual, in order to find out who will commit to allowing their children to go ice skating. Ice skating isn’t something a lot of our kids do regularly. Their parents are reluctant to say yes. Especially when I pull out those forms that absolve us of legal responsibility if their kids die. Rudimentary reading skills, language barriers, and parental protectiveness often combine to make parents see those as, “If your child is bleeding to death, we’re just going to ignore her.”

It’s also not easy to get to this place at the time they’re asking. Most of our kids don’t have school days that end at three pm. My readers will be shocked to hear that Anonymous Agency is not located in the shadow of Central Park. As I’ve mentioned, clients, particularly the teens, are not noted for their punctuality. I can promise to have some kids there at 3:30, or a lot of kids there by five, but I can’t promise everything.

I want to appease the people offering this trip. It’s a great opportunity, and a really nice thing for the kids. But isn’t the most important thing that I the children get to enjoy this trip?

Similar issues come up with donors. A few times now, we’re gotten some really nice clothing donations from stores. It’s a great thing for them to do, and it’s a lot of fun to go through bags of new, legitimately fashionable (I hear) stuff with participants.

But of  course, we need to keep the donors happy. Which, apparently, involves drilling into the recipients’ heads that they were to wear these clothes, not sell them. If the stores find out that these items are being resold, they will cut a bitch terminate our relationship. I was told that I should be suspicious if someone took something that was clearly the wrong size for them.

Sure. “Hey, fatty! Are you kidding yourself with that size two? Get outta here.”

I was also forbidden from throwing out a NordicTrack that was donated to us by a longtime financial supporter, back at the youth center. I realize that some of our kids need exercise (five year olds shouldn’t be circular, right?) but have you ever tried a NordicTrack? It’s impossible. Stationary cross country skiing is just not the best for children ages five to thirteen. Neither was that Thigh Master that we weren’t allowed to get rid of. And it was creepy.

So often, we’re torn. We want people to care, but we don’t want their desire to help to put us out. Sometimes I feel like we put volunteers and donors in a damned-if-you-do type situation. “Ugh, people don’t care enough to get involved! Oh, you’re going to come play with the kids one day, well what we need is money! You’re writing a check? Well anyone with enough cash can do that!”

You have to make the volunteers feel good. Like I said, we need them. We need their money, their time, their support.  And it is a good thing to be doing, no question. This is what we want from people, right? We want them to care, and to try to understand the people we’re working with and the very real needs that they have. So we need to be understanding when it comes to accommodating volunteers. Understanding their schedules and restrictions, and acknowledging that their intentions are good, even when they don’t entirely understand what they’re getting into.

And they need to understand us. Yes, it’s more fun to volunteer by holding babies, or reading aloud to well-behaved children, but that might not be where the need is. Sometimes we need people to go through the garage and clear out the spiders, or help supervise the ill-behaved teen boys basketball team.

Ultimately, all of us (on both sides) need to remember that it’s about the participants, and what they need, rather than us. As simple as it is, that one thought has kept me from tearing my hair out on countless Saturdays and late night ice skating trips.

But if we could get some volunteers in to address the office mouse situation, that would be great.