I didn't visit this area of Far Rockaway when I was here two weeks ago. In such a hurry to get to the wooded tranquility of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and to the peaceful shores of the Far Rockaway Beaches, when I sat on the crowded bus that Saturday, I scarcely noticed this town.
The subway is deserted.
The train is empty. It's eerie, ominous, to be venturing out when the hurricane just hit and minimal services are being offered. It feeks apolcalyptic. I've used this word before, but if fits.
Now, I sit on the bus, returning to this town that I scarcely noticed, only heard about on the news. Each stop fills the bus until all of the seats are taken and there is no more standing room. Our faces are pressed cheek to cheek to one another and our breath mingles as we pass by our stops but don't stop, strangers on the street, waiting for the next bus to claim them and shuttle them home.
My stop is called and I gingerly push through the mass and step out in to the fresh air and on to a muddy sidewalk. The driver reminds me that there's a curfew out here and that the last bus leaves at 5pm. This isn't apocalypse, this is tragedy.
"Miss, would you like to buy some candy?" a young voice emerges from behind me. "What is it for?" I ask the two young friends, maybe ten years old at the most, holding a basket of skittles and m&m's. "We're selling our halloween candy to give our parents the money 'cause we lost everything in the flood".
At two packets for a dollar and those big brown eyes looking up at me, my pockets overflow with the sweetness of the sugar and my heart overflows with their thoughtful industriousness.
Today, I have come here to witness the destruction that I've seen and heard on news broadcasts. There is so much tragedy and yet so much "neighbor" in this neighborhood. I am moved to tears as I wander up and down the muddy streets, the piles of lives and livelihoods scattered every few feet.
This area took the full force of the flooding. Boats from the harbor can be seen now resting on the main street, businesses and homes are without water and electricity. Building after building, house after house sits in the dark.
I'm so stricken by the incredible destruction of this area, that I weep. The air is thick with the smell of oil and gas, mud and garbage and everywhere I walk, the loud hum and squeal of pumps are dredging water from basements. Piles of these people's lives litter every sidewalk and front end loaders scoop up the memories, the dreams, the lives and dump them in to large bins.
I'm weeping when I turn a corner and walk in to a small group of locals. A shopkeeper has brought all of his canned goods out and is placing them on to a table on the sidewalk. A small sign, handwritten on a piece of cardboard says "Everything, 2 for $1". There are tins of soup, tins of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit.
"Please, a kind old man whispers, bent and leaning on his cane he takes my arm, "Please, have some pizza. It is for everyone". I'm touched by his generosity and I'm embarrassed because he has mistaken me for a local.
"Oh, thank you," I mutter back to him, "But I don't live here. I just came to see for myself what happened to your community. I heard it on the news but I wanted to see it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all that you have lost," and I motion my desire to walk on.
But he holds tight to my arm and smiles, revealing crooked teeth and large dimples, "It is good for you to be here. People have to know what has happened and that we need help. We think that we have been forgotten. You are here. You can see it all. So we are not forgotten after all". His kindness touches me deeply and now I'm standing on the disheveled sidewalk, being comforted by a stranger who has lost his house, his dog and his car.
He walks me in to the dark store and pours me a cup of water from the bottles and bottles lining the now-empty shelves. This water has been donated by people across the bridge, along with the pizza and bananas.
"What can I do to help?" I ask. He smiles again and winks "Can you make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?" Now we are both smiling. My tears dry, we hug, I buy all the soup, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables that I can fit in to my backpack.
He waves and walks over to the owner of the store who has lost his livelihood, who was without insurance, and who will likely leave it all behind and move to Florida to stay with his brother while he rebuilds his life. He keeps waving as he wobbles unsteadily on his turquoise-inlaid cane and he tells his friend in a hushed voice, not meant for me to hear, "She's going to bring us all peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tomorrow. I hope it's crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jelly".
It's 4:55pm and I have five minutes to catch a bus or I'll be stranded here. With dark clouds rolling in and no traffic seen up or down the streets, I feel my chest tightening and my heart beats faster. I quicken my pace and walk past burned out cars, piles of oil-soaked stuffed toys, a wedding dress streaked with grease and mud.
The front end loaders continue to scrape up and down the streets, scooping to gather the piles and taking them to dumpsters, then starting again. Behind the loaders, sanitation trucks sweep the streets. Over and over they sweep the remaining mud and debris, each time is a bit cleaner, but a hurricane's devastation is not so easily removed.
A horn honks and I turn to see the last bus leaving Far Rockaway roll to a stop towards me. The bus is crowded and there is no room for me, but without the driver saying a word, the riders who are already so crammed together, squish even harder in to one another, and I whisper thank you as the door closes against my back.
In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I leave the train and go straight to the grocery store, my bags overflowing with loaves of bread, crunchy peanut butter, strawberry jelly and a bouquet of pink and white roses.
There are angels among us, and today, mine was a bent old man with huge dimples, crooked teeth and a heart bigger than the waves from Hurricane Sandy.
Here's a video of the area during clean up.