Thursday, November 22, 2012

Strength in What Remains

            I met a woman named Fiorella last weekend. She lives in a one-story house less than half a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, close enough to hear and smell the sea. The siding of Fiorella’s house remains, as do the beams and hardwood floor inside. Everything else is gone.

            Fiorella is an elementary-school teacher on Staten Island, and she lives in Midland Beach – an area of New York City decimated by Hurricane Sandy, sometimes with fatal results. Like so many others around her, Fiorella has nothing left but the framework of a home. On Saturday afternoon, she looked at the piles on her curb – of garbage bags, wooden posts, damp drywall and waterlogged sandbags – and spoke to the people standing outside with her.

            “I know it’s hard to believe, but it really was a nice house,” she said. “I had a little fence around the outside, and it looked pretty.”

            Fiorella was taking photos of everything, presumably for whatever insurance or FEMA purposes she could, and she was looking through the bins of soaked belongings outside her home. While she did so, a team of volunteers – some of them teachers like myself, others Mormon disaster-relief workers, others friends or concerned neighbors – worked to unload the contents of Fiorella’s basement. Wood, drywall, tools, Christmas decorations, books – all of them were lugged out. The most efficient means of cleaning ended up being a snow shovel – scoop up the stuff, then dump it into a trash bag. We carried it all out, from the complete works of Shakespeare to the little desk decoration reading “World’s Greatest Teacher.”

            When all but the washing machine had been carried out of Fiorella’s basement, she asked that we take photos with her. I asked how she was doing, nearly two weeks after this monster of a storm had changed her life so dramatically. She said that at first, it seemed unbearable. But then, each day, helping hands have come to her home. Each day, something has been done – a wall taken out, or furniture removed, or a basement cleared out.

            Fiorella has a mortgage on this house, so it’s not as if she can just pack up tomorrow and move farther away from the ocean. There are four neighborhoods worth of homeowners dealing with this dilemma on Staten Island, areas that look more like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina than anything you’d recognize in New York. As the city posts red, yellow and green stickers on homes to identify the level of damage, homeowners like Fiorella wonder what they can do, and how they can recover from this massive punch to the gut.

            And yet, they are here. They survived this storm, and their gratitude is so clear when you speak with them. There’s Anton, who lost his basement in Oakwood Beach but fed the volunteers who helped him with donuts, water and coffee. There’s Kevin, who has nothing left in his bungalow on Midland Beach yet thanked volunteers when they brought him food and toiletries. There’s Chelsea, whose house in South Beach was spared but spends all the time she can helping her neighbors. There are Staten Islanders up and down that borough’s east shore working to make the best of what has happened to them.

            Fiorella said it’s hard not to feel your spirits lifted when so many people show up to help you. I told her I was amazed at the amount of hope she exuded – she talked about putting the photos of volunteers on her Facebook page, of all things. But then, as I celebrate Thanksgiving today, I guess Fiorella’s loss has led her to do something that some of us only do occasionally – she’s looked around her and taken stock not of what she’s lost, but of what she has. And those Facebook photos reveal more than just social-networking cool – they show a sense of community and fellowship that can’t be replaced. You can get another copy of Shakespeare, and there are plenty more Christmas ornaments to be had. You might even be able to rebuild your house, with a little help from your friends and certain bureaucratic procedures.

            But you can’t replace life or love, and Fiorella’s got an abundance of those. So for that reason, I think she’ll be OK. As for me, I’m just incredibly thankful I met her. And you know, it still is a beautiful house. Because a house is only as lovely as the people inside it.

            Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Carrying the Fire

            A tree has fallen through the fence and into our yard. Our power is long gone. And we are lucky.

            We saw, clip and carry bundles of limbs and branches to the curb. We set up the generator that Amy’s parents gave us and get it running. We share power and conversation with neighbors. We watch as workers remove a tree from a roof down the block.

            The skies are gray. There is a giant wall of wood in front of our house. The branches are gone from the back, leaving empty holes where wooden fence used to be. The homeowners behind us can’t even think about fixing those holes because there’s another tree on their front lawn, having fallen across the street amid a tangle of wires.

            Amy and I feed the girls, read with them, and do a puzzle. We watch old episodes of The Cosby Show on Amy’s laptop. As we go to sleep, the rest of the gas runs out of the generator.

            Day two begins post-Sandy, and we spend hours searching for gasoline. We come up empty. I reach out to friends and learn about the tree that fell through this one’s roof, and the tree that fell on that one’s car. But my wife and I also hear that both of our parents have power. Amy packs the girls into the car and heads up to her parents and sister in Connecticut. I stay behind, working with a neighbor to siphon gas from his car. While the gasoline trickles into our gas cans, I rake an elderly neighbor’s leaves and branches. Eventually, I get the generator going again. People walk the streets in search of wood for their fireplaces. They take some of mine. The skies are gray.  

This is all beginning to look like a scene out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. In that book, a father and son trudge through the desolate streets of a land that will never return to normal, searching for a way to survive. The dad keeps telling his son, “We’re the good guys” and “We carry the fire.” The son listens, and they hold onto hope. The book asks us to consider whether life is more about hope or more about despair. In this post-Sandy world, as tempers flare at gas stations and the power remains out, McCarthy’s question seems more and more relevant.

            But on Wednesday night, shortly before bed, the power springs back to life in my house. It stays on, and it seems to be just a few blocks that have it. I turn off the generator, go to sleep, and wake up to a home still powered and heated. With the wireless router now working, I turn on my laptop and begin to learn more about what’s been happening outside of my small world. As I do this, I begin to wish I didn’t know. The stories, the photos, the videos, the Facebook postings – they all feel like a high-tech recreation of McCarthy’s story. I clean up my house, return it to normal, and think about how I can help.

            The friends with the tree on the house and on the car don’t need help yet, as they need insurance adjusters and utility workers to arrive first. The neighbors down the block with no power, though – they’re happy to sleep over. Their thermostat had been down to 55, so they’re thrilled with 70 degrees and a warm bed. We chat for a while, and they go off to sleep.

            I return to my laptop and begin to realize how much despair there is on the east coast of my hometown, Staten Island, N.Y. On Friday, I pack up the car with clothes, towels, blanket and dog beds, and drive to the parking lot of a bowling alley in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island. Burly men greet me at the car and unload the contents. I stand for a moment and look out at hundreds of bags of donated items, with makeshift signs indicating “Men’s Clothing” or “Blankets.” I see families walking around in search of items to sustain their lives, now that everything they have is gone. I feel a lot less concerned about that tree in my yard. The desperation I see here reminds me of my trip to New Orleans’ Seventh Ward this past summer.

            I decide against driving around to witness the destruction – I don’t want to be a natural-disaster tourist. I drive home, go food-shopping, and meet our neighbors back at the house. They stay over again, and we watch Bruce Springsteen sing for the suffering. We talk some baseball, too, which feels nice.

            The sun shines on the first Saturday morning in November. My neighbors get their power back. They thank me and leave with smiles on their faces. The friends with the tree on their car got it off, and it’s still driving. The friends with the tree on the roof have decided to go ahead with their plans to have their daughter christened today. My brother and I are the co-godfathers. Amy and the girls will meet me there.

There will be no party at the house after the ceremony; it’s not that kind of week. But we will be there, and we will stand beside our friends and their infant girl, and we’ll witness a different kind of water than the one that fell and flooded on Monday.

Another family of powerless friends may come by tonight, and if they do we’ll eat dinner together and talk and perhaps they’ll stay over and be warm. As for Staten Island, there are plans in the works for more drives and fund-raisers. Here in Jersey, the utility workers remain on the job, around the clock, restoring the grid one town at a time.

It’s beginning to feel, little by little, like the good guys might win this one after all. It’s beginning to feel like some hope remains after this truly terrible storm. In The Road, it’s never easy for McCarthy’s fictional father and son to “carry the fire.” In the real-life world of New York and New Jersey this week, it hasn’t been easy for us, either. But even in those gray, desperate days of our lives, it’s really the only way.