November 10 2012
We just got back from a day of volunteering in the Far Rockaways. For those of you unfamiliar with the five boroughs that make up New York City, this area is the furthest eastern shore of Queens. It, like Lower Manhattan, Red Hook and Staten Island, took the full brunt of Hurricane Sandy, but unlike lower Manhattan it still, after nearly 2 weeks, does not have electricity, therefore no water, heat or light. No TV. No reading. No fridge. No toilet flushing and, from what we saw today, not a lot of hope for recovery anytime soon.
It’s not just the thousands of downed trees, the smashed cars or the boats that ended up in backyards of those unable to afford a boat. It’s not just the caved in roofs, the torn siding, the closed storefronts or the long lines of people waiting for gas; some in cars and some on foot with plastic containers. It’s the sense of futility, of fear, of how close we all are any given moment to total chaos and breakdown. The infrastructure ain’t what we think it is. In fact, there isn’t a true infrastructure. We live in a domino game and eventually it won’t matter what color you are, it’ll all come tumbling down.
The volunteer center today was an enormous parking lot filled with racks of clothing and tables of supplies waiting to be sorted and distributed. A line of people in need went round the block. They waited a long time. It seemed incredibly disorganized and we wouldn’t realize for hours why. It turns out this was a “political” event. Some local councilman, I believe, got some people to donate, got John Legend to show up for a photo op and then the two of them left, leaving a few real organizers to make sense of everything. And we call this a super power?
It’s not that the day was a waste of time, it wasn’t. The people who lined up eventually received clothing, toiletries, food, water and other much needed supplies. When the food trucks finally arrived those of us who were volunteering to go door-to-door, formed a human chain, passing boxes of sandwiches, juice, fruit and energy bars down the line. Then we filled plastic shopping bags with 2 of everything, piled the loaded bags back into the boxes and then into the trunks of cars and vans and, along with those of us who were without vehicles, drove to the projects on the edge of the sea.
It was like driving through post-apocalypse. No traffic lights. Lots of intersections, no traffic lights. People dragging trolleys of supplies. People lining up outside decrepit churches. The thing is, these people were already on their knees before Sandy came and kicked them in the teeth. The atmosphere of desolation and chaos was overwhelming, ambulances and fire engines on every other street and even with truckloads of National Guards and utility trucks there was the sense that nothing was ever going to be enough to fix this.
And then we arrived at the Projects. I don’t know how that name came about, but let me tell you these projects are unfinished. They rise up into the sky without a trace of spiritual uplift.
This is the building we went door to door in
The first building we had been assigned was swarming with National Guards who told us the building had already been checked and food delivered. So we carried all the boxes of food to the next building. There were about 20 of us assigned to this area and Joel and I were the oldest by at least 30 to 40 years. The building had 17 floors. The stairways and labyrinthine hallways were pitch dark even though it was mid-day. The smell of urine and feces was powerful. We worked our way down long, never-ending corridors, knocking on doors, calling out to let people know we were volunteers, not looters. Most of the lower floors were deserted, the residents having fled to god-knows where. A few doors would crack open on their chains, the tenant trying to figure out if we were friend or foe. There were more people on the higher floors, many of them unable to walk that many flights. In the lobby, an elderly man was catching his breath before making his way back up to his 10th floor home.
The whole thing was totally disorganized and as a result immensely frustrating. People needed flashlights and batteries. We had none. We all wanted to do more. So many young people had turned out to be of help, they felt like a ray of hope. I guess what we all learned today is that you can never help everyone. Ever.
It reminds me of the story of the little boy walking along a beach littered with thousands of stranded starfish. He starts picking them up and putting them back in the sea. An old man coming toward him says, basically, what a waste of time, he’ll never save them all and the little boy says, but even if I save one…
A terrible thing has happened to New York. And like the 2004 Tsunami and last year in Japan, these natural disasters not only will continue, but increase. Sooner or later we will all suffer. But what’s heartbreaking now is that it is the poor who are taking the worst of it.
As the afternoon started to darken we headed back to the parking lot where buses would take us into Manhattan. It’s always been a depressing ride coming in from JFK, but now it’s frightening. You look at the seedy buildings and cemeteries, the crumbling overpasses and the garbage and as you near Manhattan you see its wealthy thrust is an illusion. The wealthy got lucky this time and are carrying on as though because nothing happened to them, nothing happened. They might not be so lucky next time.
I tell you, if you spend a day out in Far Rockaway the whole city will look different to you. You will not be able to look at it without conjuring a picture of the absolute pandemonium of 8 million people trying to flee disaster.
Yet, as a friend of mine wrote me today: “There is so little time left to still enjoy life on earth why not make the best of it even if sometimes our hearts are so heavy.”
I’m with her. I have a pot of homemade soup on the stove. Joel is napping beside me. We have a fresh baguette for tomorrow’s breakfast. So yes, let’s enjoy. But please, let’s also spare a little time to be of help to others. And can we all, please, try to be a little more conscious of taking care of this precious planet?