A tale of teamwork, compassion and some annoying contracts
Our band of North Brooklyn Runners was carried down to the Far Rockaway disaster zone by chartered bus, courtesy of Council Member Stephen T. Levin. I arrived a tad late, five minutes past the nine o’clock hour at the Church of the Ascension on 122 Java Street and found Meg, Masha, and Logan on the curb. As they waved me over, I noticed that each was sporting a different colored NBR t-shirt. Meg was in Irish green; Masha, in cool blue, and Logan,- black. My NBR shirt was a sort of bruised-purple color (to best sympathize with the Rockaway’s situation). We quickly dubbed our-selves The Rainbow Coalition, and agreed that we needed to get going–as we were late. It was already 9:45 and our hearts and minds were mulling over what was to come. We imagined ourselves in some unknown location, hauling mud-caked, molded debris from the depths of some dark basement. Soon, fellow NBR-ers Kim and Dite joined us, along with, a cluster of other good-willed volunteers. We all boarded a bus, stupid with giddiness and thrilled by the camaraderie. Later, the bus made a second pickup, where petite Peruvian speedster Taeya and honorary NBR affiliate Matt joined our group.
While in transit, Masha (having some Industrial experience), broke out some proper gear that she knew we would need – heavy-duty 3M dust masks, sturdy all-purpose leather and latex gloves. She told us to wear both the leather and latex gloves together in order to protect from sharp objects and contaminated water. The idea of our temporary vulnerability in relation to the hardships that the good people of the Rockaways would continue to endure in the months ahead weighed heavily upon us. We turned to our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and protein bars for comfort.
Upon arrival, we hoped to meet with Monday night run leader Anna and her “punch-you-in-the-face” recovery team but we would be bound by our 4PM exit plan, and did not stray very far from the bus. Council Member Levin had us assisting Team Rubicon, a Minnesota-based disaster response service organization. Its legitimacy was proven in the contract we had to sign in order to participate. I believe no one read the contract in its entirety, unwilling to let legalese deter from the mission. Only bits and pieces of interest were read. When someone mentioned that a certain Rubicon medic was cute, our friend Dite told us that, unfortunately, we had just signed away our rights to pursue sexual activities for the day.
Almost instantly after disembarking the bus, we were assigned a team leader, and then whisked a few blocks away to a large white house that overlooked a deceptively calm Atlantic Ocean. We were optimistic that we still had enough time to contribute – especially with Team Rubicon increasing our efficiency. So, we anxiously waited for directions. As time stretched on, minuets started to seem like hours. People became impatient. We even entertained the idea of trekking 70 blocks away to join with Anna’s team,. Just then a Rubicon coordinator yelled out for a team of eight volunteers. We quickly called out in chorus – WE ARE EIGHT!.
The coordinator sent us to the Beach at 137th Street. The commute there only underscored the Sand’s destruction. There was an eerie hum of generators as we trekked to our destination. The noise just hung in the air, ever-present. Then there was sounds of large sanitation beeping vehicles, whirling down desolate roads. Aside from the sand-choked lawns, some houses looked almost untouched. Others were in total ruin…like the once sprawling Harbor Light Bar. It was burnt down to its foundation, with a rusted metal staircase leading up to a second floor that no longer existed.
Our site was a house owned by a man named Terrance. He was retired football player type and seemed in relatively good (perhaps tempered) spirits. Our focus was to make clear the basement and garage. We made quick work of these rooms, thanks to the aid of a second Team Rubicon unit that arrived moments after us. We salvaged pieces of Terrance’s history – golf clubs, a banana board skateboard, Christmas ornaments, etc. Other less personal objects were consigned to garbage—sheets of glass, yellowed lamps, collapsible steel bed frames, a car seat. All piled along the curb. In about an hour, the street was cleared of the debris. Meanwhile, Matt and Logan had reclaimed Terrance’s lawn from the sand, revealing a swatch of green grass, some concrete steps, and a few exhausted looking shrubs. With the completion of these projects, we considered what our next assignment might be. Soon after which, we received a text from a Team Rubicon coordinator – we were to head further down on Beach 137th Street.
The next house had a very different owner. Where homeowner Terrance was hale and robust with purpose, Bernice was petite, frail, and draped in black. Circled by concerned (visiting) family, she turned her back to us to further survey her home. They will take her away for a few weeks to Florida– said her next door neighbor. Matt Murphy. Matt was a firearms instructor, who wore his gun prominently on his hip. He had called Team Rubicon on Bernice’s behalf. She was a teacher of French literature in years past and with family far a field, lived a mostly solitary lifestyle. He added that she was greatly affected by the storm.
Just like before — we started to glean glimpses of Bernice’s life from items unearthed from her tiny basement. She was nostalgic. There were a numerous hardbound French novels, all with copious penciled notes in the margins. All were bloated, and subjected to spattering mold. There were photos in a beautifully organized album. Their were sodden handwritten letters—once thoughtfully kept in an upright mail sorter. A1950s portable projector with slides—all painstakingly organized. The obvious care with which Beatrice collected her personal effects told a story of a woman who had taken measures to review and catalogue her life. Everything felt handpicked, and most of all, treasured.
Masha rescued the photo album. Bent over, she carefully peeled apart wet pages of black-and-white and sepia-toned images, and then laid them in the back yard to dry. Meg, the professional archivist, jumped in to help keep things organized. Taeya, having discovered the slides and letters, took a similar approach. With the basement emptied, our focus shifted to saving the photos. The books had been tossed. The slides were corroded. The letters were put aside and would most likely become trash. But there was promise in the photos. They laid like a checkerboard in the grass, before we decided to relocate them to the cleared living room. After lining the floor with plastic, everyone collected the wet photos and carefully rearranged them. Amazingly, Meg also found Bernice’s wedding dress. It was tiny, adorn lace, and had a matching cap with a veil. Meg attentive placed it all on a narrow walnut table to dry.
Matt Murphy (the pistol packing neighbor) thanked us then plied us with wine and beer. He also had a warm pasta salad waiting for us and a large bowl of cut fruit. We skirted the dozen magazine clips of ammo that were drying on the patio and surrounded the table where we blearily and gratefully, drank and ate. Even Taeya, known to pass on booze and liquor, helped us finish the red wine. Following a conversation about all the work that the Rockaway’s will need, we quickly snapped a few pictures of our own–and then it was time to go. Generously, Matt offered us a ride. We squeezed onto the back of his white Chevy and were driven to Council Member Levin’s idling bus where we traded farewells and good-wishes. Then our attention turned to a rumor that a brisket was being served a block away, and we realized we were still hungry for more.The drive back was an hour and fifteen minutes of sleepy contemplation. It was dark. I kept thinking about Bernice’s photos, and all the energy that the group spent on salvaging them. I thought – there was something profound about this, as tried to find a way to articulate it all.
As for myself, I lived a very nomadic lifestyle in my twenties. I believed that everything of value was in my heart and mind, and that possessions were unnecessary weight. I believed that too many of them would result in some kind of sentimental idiocy. Now older, I am finding that there are items I’d be distressed to part with- The photo of me at six–fearless–with a raised hand gripping a Dixie cup of apple juice. A toast to my own birthday! The photo of my parents on their first date, by the shore of the Han River. He is in a blue suit. She in the latest fashion trend–a mini skirt. Both looking extremely nervous as they stare down the camera. Then their are my books–tales of fiction that have shaped my unflagging interests and (perhaps) helped shaped my identity. Though limited, these things–my curated collection–will surely grow with time. In another 30 years (when I am Bernice’s age), I expect my collection to be replete with all the details of how I managed in this topsy-turvy world. Perhaps then it will be thirty times harder to entertain the idea of losing these artifacts. Which is to say–though memories may live on in your heart and mind, sometimes it’s as vital to have an item actually in hand as proof that a life was lived.
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