The day after Hurricane Sandy departed and left us with the mess, a close friend invited me to go “trick or treating” in the Carroll Gardens. Now, you don’t have to twist my arm to ask strangers for chocolate; but this pre-Halloween expedition had a twist. They were collecting provisions – flashlights, batteries, candles, canned goods – for people in the neighboring Red Hook, which had no electricity and was suffering pretty badly in Sandy’s wake.
I couldn’t join them, but a couple of days later I stole the idea and took students from a class I teach at Pratt Institute “trick or treating” in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. If we started off rather timidly, two hours later we were boldly knocking on doors and could barely carry everything we’d collected. Our laden arms made for lighter steps: after days of being worried, sad, frightened, frustrated, cut off, and/or inconvenienced there was something alleviating and just plain fun about talking to people we didn’t know and witnessing their impulse to give…something. There was a British man who didn’t think he had anything that fit our list. He asked us to wait while he checked and returned a few minutes later with an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels. “That’s non-perishable,” he said. Much to my students’ chagrin I gave it back.
As people opened their doors we caught a glimpse into well-lit homes that seemed largely unaffected by the storm but for those minor inconveniences that make you realize how lucky you usually have it. Then every so often, one of us would point to something, like a car pancaked under a fallen tree, and we’d remember even life here wasn’t exactly “like normal.” What I could load on to my back and bike rack I took to Red Hook the following day; the rest we dropped off at the nearby Brooklyn Tech, which was being used as an emergency shelter for evacuees whose lives had been uprooted. Opening the doors of the school was a glimpse into a starkly different world – with mounds of donations and people stationed near the entrance to check you in, a depressing feeling in the air, and some of the 500 evacuees wandering in and out looking worn down, bored, anxious, displaced. Right before we left, a young woman who saw me holding a sketchbook exclaimed: “Can I have that? I’m going to make art!!” She seemed the kind of person you could picture smiling through the apocalypse and I hope she’s somewhere around me when that shit goes down. I gave her the pad.
Over the next two days I went to Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Rockaways, Queens. Most of what I did in both places was to deliver food and provisions to the homes of the elderly or infirmed who couldn’t collect it and had no heat or light in their public housing buildings. I met people who were just so grateful for a warm meal, a mother and adult son who were living with a leaking roof and gusts of cold air blowing through their broken window, children desperate for a flashlight. On the way to these sites, I passed a standstill line of cars over twenty blocks long waiting for gas, kids playing on fallen trees instead of jungle gyms, and streets along the coast where houses had been completely decimated. Returning to my warm apartment where everything was fine except for the cell phone service had the same strange contrast of “trick or treating.” Just like there is something eerie about comparing photos of lower Manhattan where folks were groping around in the dark for days and people living in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side still have no running water or flushing toilets to images of upper Manhattan, where as a friend aptly put it, women could still shop at Bergdorf’s and don their high heels.
But then this is New York. Just walk down Madison Avenue from 120th to 80th Street sometime, think about the controversy over Stop and Frisk policing, or consider the city’s growing chasm between rich and poor and the effects of “city renewal” on the latter. With Sandy, it was the very blatant division of have and have nots across new lines at a moment of collective uncertainty and crisis that had a visceral effect and appealed to an underlying ethic of compassion and justice most of us share.
Over the past days, I saw a lot of people coming together to help each other and themselves. Many are people I know from CUNY who have been working morning to night since the storm to make sure their fellow New Yorkers have at least their very basic needs met. Many are people who’ve been working on issues related to housing, debt, education, policing, labor, income disparity, environmental justice, you name it long before this storm hit. I hope the important work of repairing and rebuilding the physical and social infrastructure of our city doesn’t stop with the obvious, but addresses some of the divisions that go back further and deeper so we can come out of this stronger than we’ve ever been.