On Friday November 30th at the Magnet Theater in Chelsea I was part of a group of writers, performers and musicians helping raise money for families at PS 261 affected by the recent hurricane. A huge thanks to Melanie Hoopes and Abby Sher who organized the night and raised $1000 for 261Gives, and to Ed Herbstman who emceed the night so brilliantly, offering us along the way his Hurricane Sandy Jeopardy Quiz. (Q: In 1972, this left-handed pitcher became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame….)*
THERE’S The Barry White fan. The muffled thump of bass fills the corridor as we approach and knock. A pause. No answer, but someone is singing along lustily inside. We knock again and suddenly the door is thrown open and a waft of pot smoke billows out, together with a blast of gravelly vocals. Dressed in an oversize Obama sweatshirt a young man stands beaming at us, bleary eyed. We offer him sandwiches, water. I’m fine, he says. Feeling good. Does he need any medicines? He’s got all he needs, he says. We admire the sweatshirt. His cousin made it in California, he says. Designed it himself. It’s cool, right? Suddenly he’s talking a mile a minute, swaying slightly to the music behind him. He’s already checked on the old lady upstairs and she’s good, and so is her friend next door with diabetes. Twice a day every day since Sandy cut power to the building, over ten days ago now, he’s checked up on them. Gotta be good neighbors right? Gotta take care of each other. We thank him and pull away. The door closes and then reopens again. Maybe he’ll take a sandwich.
There’s the thin lady in a nightgown on the landing, staring forlornly out at the snow-covered rooftops far below. She must be freezing dressed so lightly. We ask if she’s okay, if she’d like a hot meal and some water. She stares at us, alien visitors from another planet. Perhaps she doesn’t speak English. We gesture at the bag of food we are carrying and suddenly she answers clearly and precisely. I’m fine, but perhaps my daughter would like something. We turn, and see a young girl, fifteen at most, has materialized behind us silent as a ghost. She’s wearing exactly the same outfit as her mother, a pale white nightgown and flip-flops in the middle of the day. We hand her some scrambled eggs and sausage in a plastic container and a bottle of water, and smiling faintly she slides back into the apartment. Her mother remains staring at the rooftops below.
The next few floors are all babies. Stickers on the doors proclaim different ethnicities—THIS IS A MUSLIM HOME; MILLION MAN MARCH; JESUS ES EL AMOR—but babies are babies and their needs are the same: diapers, wipes, formula. Mothers are more cautious than other residents, and the doors open a suspicious crack at first, older siblings sidling up delightedly and peering around and between maternal legs to glimpse the unexpected visitors, before being shooed back. One beautiful young woman, who seems too young to be a mother at all—a babysitter, perhaps? an elder sister?—holds a crying infant while the sounds of two more can be heard bawling from the back of the darkened apartment. Her sense of loneliness is palpable, and a couple of hot meals and some diapers seems almost an insult to the vastness of her need.
There’s the church lady. Tall and erect with a cardigan gathered around her bony shoulders and her hair in gleaming curls, she greets us gravely but politely. Funnily enough, she doesn’t say what so many other older residents tell us, that we’re doing God’s work, that we are blessed. She is calm, practical, concentrated, and wants to know if we can help her church in Cypruss Hills organize food drives in the Rockaways. Her God is a rational one, who may have allowed His children to suffer but who will also help put them back on their feet. Like every resident we meet, there is not an ounce of self-pity in her, which is perhaps the most astonishing thing we encounter all week.
There are also the broken ones, the ones that pierce the heart: the wizened old lady, tiny as a child, who peers around the door only to slam it in our face, and who refuses all cajoling to come out again. She is half blind and deaf, her neighbor informs us, and lives on her own, with only a visit every few days from her family. Worst of all there’s the middle-aged woman who opens the door and stares at us in her housecoat, slack-jawed with incomprehension. Her eyes are glazed, she can barely speak, and a stifling heat emanates from her apartment. Where is the heat coming from, we ask? She gestures to the back, towards the kitchen. She has the oven on with the door wide open. We persuade her to switch it off and one of us wades through the mounds of plastic bags and cushions covering the floor to the kitchen. We leave her in her chemical haze, promising to return, though her expression makes it unclear if she has understood.
Then there’s Ms. Herrera and her daughter. Ms. Herrera is a foul-mouthed breath of fresh air. We’re all right, she says brightly. But it’s getting fucking boring. Ten days and we’re over the candlelight thing, I can fucking tell you. She laughs happily and runs her hand through her hair. There’s a shadowy movement in the back of the apartment. That’s my daughter, Leigh, says Ms. Herrera. She’s smart that girl. Smart as a fucking whip. Goes to John Jay College in Manhattan—well, she hasn’t been able to for the last week because there’s no subways. Been driving her crazy. We’re not all stupid in the projects, you know… She laughs again and appraises us with amused eyes as we stand there holding our bags of pre-wrapped food and water bottles like traveling salesmen.
Back outside, legs weary from climbing so many stairs, the cold air filling our lungs, we turn and stare at the buildings around us. Their blank facades stare back, as though conspiring to reveal as little as possible. Is there a lesson to be learned from what we’ve just experienced? It would be nice to feel that way, to think that some neat affirmation of the human spirit has been presented to us. The fact is, the people of the Gowanus Houses are exactly like their wealthy counterparts surrounding them; some are sinking and some are swimming, and that is a lesson in itself. But, thanks to Sandy, it will not be possible for people like myself to walk past those daunting brick buildings again without being aware of the diverse human cargo they contain: Barry White fan, sad night-gowned mother and daughter, church lady, college girl—I know you’re in there and I can’t forget you.
*A: Who was “Hurrrrricaaaaaaaaaane” Sandy Koufax…?