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.

The Fall of Social Work

14 09 2012

It would seem that autumn is upon us. I prefer “autumn” to “fall,” because it’s a bit more poetically melancholy, and talking about “the fall of the Bronx” just makes me nervous.”

Fall seems to be everyone’s favorite time of year, all of a sudden. Everywhere I turn, someone is happily inhaling a pumpkin spice latte or talking about how delighted they are to be wearing a skirt with boots again. I can drink beer watch football all day! Maybe we’ll even go apple picking! I love pretending to be a migrant farm worker! Leaves!

Perhaps people are just trying to console themselves now that summer is over, or are trying to sound intellectual by acting like they never liked summer at all. (Beach books? Margaritas? Quell suburban.) But autumn is a pretty rad time of year in social work land.

Except when it’s not.

Back to School

They’re going back! I don’t have kids,so I don’t get the relief of finally getting the little jerks out of the house or no longer having to pay for expensive camp programs. (Though I do think the “yay they’re gone” cocktail parties thrown by some suburban stay at home moms go a bit far.) But I do get to go visit them in school again. That’s right, hide all you want, as long as you’re not 100% truant, I will find you. Everyone has to pop in once in a while. And there I shall be.

Not only that, I get to give out school supplies. Ugh, the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil. New, unmarred notebooks that let us know that anything is possible!

But then, there’s the flip side, as always. Are they going back, really? Often they’re not. Meaning we get calls demanding that we work our magic. “Your child hasn’t been in school this week!” Yes, that is alarming. Did you call his mom? Because he’s not actually my child. And me dragging a teenage boy out of bed in the morning would be rather controversial. Also, it’s the second week of September, how is this possibly starting already?

If they are in school, school visits aren’t always a total treat. For some reason, school secretaries hate me. I’ve tried everything short of bringing them muffins (that will be next) but we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot. I suppose they have a top secret Do Not Serve list. They seem really inconvenienced when I call and ask if a child is in. They’re even more horrified when I then show up. I realize you’re typing, but there’s no way you don’t see me here.

But most importantly, whatever you do, do not get caught in the halls during passing! People have died.

Cooler weather

For the first time in months, I’m not showing up to a home visit sweating like Paul Ryan at a NOW convention. I can throw on one of my beloved cardigans, as the good lord Jane Addams intended! The risk of showing up to a meeting following a run-in with an open fire hydrant or kids on a roof with water balloons is greatly diminished.

But then it gets cold. I’m that sort of annoying girl, I’m cold all the time. Battling a coworker over the thermostat, especially when your agency has no money and errs on the side of “wear a wool hat to type your notes,” is troublesome.


This is now a very hip favorite holiday to have. (Autumn is so in this fall.) And for good reason. It’s two tons of fun. Every year, without fail, I get stuck walking behind the elementary school parade of five to ten year olds, wandering in ameba-like formations around the block. It’s simply the best way to start the day. We also always have some extra candy lying around the office. You might say that’s because I steal some of what we’re supposed to give out to the kids, but I really don’t see how that’s relevant.

I get to plan the Halloween party. As much as I do love a good party, office politics make planning difficult. As do the idle concerns of those who worry that we’re encouraging devil worship. I mean, so what if we are?

Each season brings something a little different, with new challenges and benefits that you become more accustomed to as each year goes by. Autumn has the potential to be a good one.

And seriously, you can get pumpkin flavored everything.

Summertime, and the living is…meh.

29 05 2012

This past week, most of us Americans enjoyed a long Memorial Day weekend. This is a time meant to honor our fallen military. Typically, that means barbecues with red, white, and blue paper plates, and perhaps a furniture sale. For me, it meant a day out on the roof with an Asian American hip hop crew.

I mean, obviously.

The other significance that most people attach to Memorial Day is that it kicks off summer. As a social worker, I can’t wait for summer. However, as a social worker, I’m dreading summer.

Yeah, you read that right. It’s my blog and I don’t have to make up my mind if I don’t want to.

Pro: The weather! It’s glorious!
Con: How sweaty can I be before it interferes with my work?

I like hot weather and, by extension, wearing little clothing. My preferred way to go running is in 90% humidity, 95 degree (Farenheit, don’t worry, foreigners) heat. I know that I’m in the minority, but I love muggy, New York summers.

I don’t like showing up at people’s homes like a deranged sweat lodge escapee.

Pro: School is out!
Con: School is out! (Yeah, I do that a lot.)

This is what I waited eagerly for as a kid, of course. Now, though, I can’t stand it.

It’s not because I don’t think kids should get to have the same fun I did. I would love for them to be able to enjoy Girl Scout camp (where they become lesbians and do abortions) and complete their mother’s educational assignments. (Draw a map of the colonial United States? Sweet!) But a majority of my kids do nothing. They try to work, but it’s not easy to get a job. Some of them scramble to make up credits in summer school. The rest lounge. Then they get back to school, and their teachers work until November to get them back to where they were in June.

Yes, kids need a break. But two to three months off every year is insane and irresponsible. These kids aren’t harvesting crops, so what’s the deal? They’re so far behind as it is, usually. A majority of my kids have been held back at least once. Summer learning loss is real, and it doesn’t help.

Pro: Camp is the best! Better than the rest! THIS IS A REPEAT AFTER ME SONG!
Con: They’re not repeating after me.

Like I said, I loved camp as a child. I loved swimming, learning to set fires, stupid songs, checking for ticks after a long hike…the Girl Scouts were good for this city girl. But getting kids to have this awesome experience? It’s an uphill battle. Day camps fill up incredibly fast. So fast that a many of my kids who attend are usually in more of a voluntary summer school kind of thing. (Meaning not many of them attend.) You pretty much have to be a psychic, or show up to every free day camp program in the borough every day starting in February, asking for an application, child’s current physical in hand.

The Fresh Air Fund is a wonderful option. If anyone if unfamiliar, it’s a free program that pairs low income NYC children up with either a host family, or a sleepaway camp, for a couple of weeks, to give them an outdoorsy swimming-hole type of summer experience. Awesome, except so few are willing to do it. The parents are nervous. They are convinced, often through experience, that child molesters are all around us and they shouldn’t let their kids out of their sight. (Never mind the dangers in their own homes and neighborhoods.) Well, maybe the hyperactive little boys can go, but definitely not the girls. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they at least want their sons to be gone for a couple of weeks, it’s often August, and therefore too late. Did I mention that this is somehow my fault?

Pro: No more teachers! No more books!
Con: Where the hell did everyone go?

I love hearing that my kids are enjoying themselves. That they’re gotten to visit family down south (fun fact: 90% of my families do not know if their relatives are in North or South Carolina. I don’t know how they get there.) or in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. I love if they have the opportunity to participate in the Fresh Air Fund. I hate roaming the streets aimlessly, poking my head over the fence at public swimming pools like a decidedly creepy adult, desperately seeking an MIA child. Normally I can track them down at school.

Stupid summer.

Parents very often forget to tell me that they or their children will be away. It’s not until I call their emergency contact and hear, “What? They’re in Santo Domingo until next month!” that I piece it together. If Anonymous Agency were willing to send me to the resort to get those contacts, instead of expecting me to intercept my clients’ passports to prevent them from leaving, I wouldn’t mind so much.

Pro: People are outside. Yay community!
Con: People are hot and on top of each other out there. Boo violence!

Wonderful things happen when people are outside in beautiful weather, combatting their boredom. Work together to open that fire hydrant. Share an icee with a neighbor. Play ManHunt (hide and seek in the dark, pervs) until your mom calls you to come home. Take a trip to Coney Island and eat hot dogs and go on rides until you throw up.

But bad things also happen. People are a bit more on edge, because they’re hot, don’t have air conditioning, the kids are running wild, and they don’t have the money to do all those things they want. Things are magical over the summer, but they also get a bit sinister. The street harassment gets more aggressive, and fights erupt more easily. Fights lead to shootings, and we have enough of those in the winter.

There are ups and downs, pros and cons, peaks and valleys, vanilla and chocolate, to everything in life. This is a phenomenon on steroids in social work. We have to take the good with the bad, reveling in good moments, and sarcastically lamenting the bad ones on Twitter.

I hope you’ve all got a well-deserved vacation coming. Or at least a neighbor to open the fire hydrant.

I don’t know whether the weather will improve.

21 03 2011

Friday was a magical day here in New York. No, the Mets didn’t do something good (I said magical, not miracle). But we did have borderline record-setting beautiful weather. 78 degrees and sunny. For those outside the US, that would be around 25 degrees. Doesn’t sound quite as impressive, but there you go.

I had the foresight to request the day off (did I mention that it was also the day after St. Pat’s?) so I got to spend the day roaming the city. In New York, those first gorgeous days send everyone the same message–get half naked and get to the park!

Clients aren’t exempt from these urges. When it’s finally beautiful out, who wants to spend the day cooped up in a counseling office? Kids want to hit up the playground, parents take their frighteningly untrained pit bull for a walk, teens want to walk around in packs of ten for some reason.

So we blame it one the lovely weather, and chase our clients down.

Then it gets to be July and August. 100 degrees, hot and muggy. Well, who wants to come see their social worker then? It’s time to try to catch the shuttle bus to the pool, drink a 40 on the stoop, run through an open fire hydrant.

Still, it’s the weather’s fault. So we keep on chasing.

Sometimes it rains. Who wants to go out in that? Little known fact: a majority of my clients are made up of a combination of sugar and salt. They melt in the rain. Also, umbrellas do not exist in the Bronx, so that simply isn’t an option. The same goes for snow. And who wants to go outside when it’s so damn cold?

I’ve gotten all of these excuses from my clients, generally all in the interest of the kids. “It’s too cold to take the baby out.” “I don’t want to take the kids out in the rain, you know my oldest has asthma.” “My mother’s going to take them to the pool, it’s so hot outside.” “I don’t take my kids out in the rain.”

That last one is a direct quote. I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to ridiculous.

The weather is one of those many variables that hugely impacts out work. I can’t help getting a little cranky when someone calls to say, “Oh, I don’t think I can bring the kids, it’s so nasty out. Would you mind coming to the house instead?” Certainly. Upon obtaining my license, I was also made weather-proof. It’s one more thing that social workers and boots have in common.

As much as I try not to let such things impact how I feel about my clients, walking to someone’s house in freezing rain, or sweltering heat, and finding that they’re not there and didn’t have the courtesy to call…well, I’m only human.

“The courtesy to call” is something I wish people had a little more of. I don’t know exactly what the problem is. We make an appointment, you come to it. I think that’s a pretty basic part of being a person and living in society. It’s weird. If I had an appointment as a kid, I was going. If I broke a bone on the way over, one of my parents was calling. Just not showing up wasn’t an option. It simply was not done.

Of course things come up. Kids get sick, babysitters cancel, and I have had more than one person call to tell me that they have diarrhea (hint: excuses don’t necessarily have to be specific.) A phone call goes a really long way.

Just the other day, a fairly new client did have the courtesy to call. Unfortunately, his appointment was at 4 pm, and he called around 6. His mother told me this, and also explained that it was pretty much my fault for not having been there. I explained that my work day ended at 5, but I was there until 5:45. “Well he tried to call.” If a woman has not learned by age 42 that calling two hours after a missed appointment is not sufficient effort, then I don’t think there’s anything I can do.

I try to work with people. I explain that I have other families I need to see, and I can use a cancelled appointment for one of them, if I know said appointment is going to be cancelled. I try to make people understand that if they show up hours or days late for their scheduled sessions, I might be unavailable, and that it’s nothing personal.

I also put forth the notion that we live in New York, not San Diego. Hibernating when it is too hot, cold, or wet only leaves us with about twelve days in which we can leave our homes. Sorry, but I’ve got things to do.

Except, I’m not sorry. I really do have things to do. And even though the NYC weather seems to be working on a bipolar diagnosis (yeah, it’s kind of snowing now) life goes on.

Even though I’m freezing.