Night has fallen here in New York.
Normally, it would be a welcome sight. I’d look out the window at the Jersey skyline reflecting on the Hudson River, and find a comfort in the simple beauty of it.
Tonight, it brings me pause and even haunts me.
Seven nights ago, the lights went out in the midst of what would end up being the most devastating natural disaster to hit the city that I can recall as a native New Yorker. Even as it was happening, I was still somewhat sheltered from its impact; the initial terror of moving around in pitch blackness was replaced with sitting in a hotel bar dripping in candlelight, drinking a “dark and stormy”. The serenade of the wind against the windows was briefly usurped by one of the servers crooning “Hey Jude” on the piano as a respite from our guests reality.
By the next afternoon when my journey back home to Harlem began, it was still unknown to me the severity of the damage the city had sustained. We listened to the radio, but couldn’t fathom anything beyond closed airports. Sure, I’d seen a building with no facade just a block from my workplace… and a hanging crane as I made my way midtown. But it wasn’t until the pictures and video footage started surfacing on news channels and websites that Sandy had truly been recognized as a monster.
Despite the images and personal stories inundating the media, it still never hit home to me. Upon returning, my neighborhood was bustling and filled with people going on their way and blissfully resuming their local routines. My relatives in Staten Island were untouched. A friend sent me a video of the damage his friend’s house sustained. On Facebook, friends posted about losing power and finding refuge with other friends and family. Others lost their cars. One former colleague actually did suffer major damage to her home of only two weeks. While bothered by their misfortune, I was mostly distracted by sickness and the unexpected restlessness that overcame me in place of sleep. Donating money to the Red Cross was a quick and easy way to alleviate the guilt I felt for spending my days in the comfort of my own home medicating my troubles away and having the audacity to be stressed.
It wasn’t until I finally left my neighborhood this weekend that it hit me. Strolling the Upper West Side, I came across children having bake sales to raise money for Sandy relief and countless food and supply drives around restaurants and churches.
Today, I spent the day in Chelsea at the Fulton Houses going door-to-door asking residents if they needed blankets and supplies, making sure the elderly and disabled had their medical needs in order, and informing everyone about the warming center being provided by the New York State Housing Authority.
And this is when it truly became real…
When you encounter something akin to a post-apocalyptic scenario — where people are lined up for basic necessities such as food and water — it wakes you up. That it is happening mere doors away from high-end real estate and eateries is all the more sobering.
I take for granted that I grew up in a house in the suburbs of Queens and had my own room. That I’ve had my own apartments and lived for the most part in buildings that have had very little problems with heat and hot water. During the brief time that I lived with several family members, I was a toddler in Georgia and too young to understand any other way. While life has dealt me its share of hardscrabble situations, for the most part it has been charmed in comparison to what I encountered today.
Steps away from some of the poshest addresses in Manhattan, there are people who live about eight to ten deep in buildings with staircases that smell of urine. They reluctantly open doors and look at you skeptically because they don’t want you to know how many people live there. It’s only because you have a kind face and look somewhat like them that they eventually trust that you are genuinely there to help them, but still give you a ballpark figure of how many blankets they need. They refuse the offer for a warming center, but one particularly desperate looking man with two sick children and family uptown starts to reconsider his options after you and your fellow volunteers insist that he does what’s best for the kids. Those that speak very little English need younger relatives to translate that the power they’ve only had for two days is going to be cut off at night to preserve energy, and they should expect it to be fully restored in a week.
It isn’t until you are right there… in that moment… that you can truly see what a person is going through. All the empathy in the world doesn’t make you an expert on what anyone is experiencing until you really see life through their eyes and hear it from their mouths. Everything else is bullshit that allows you to be self-righteous and judgmental… much like political talking heads. We can watch people stand in rubble that used to be their homes, but unless we’re standing there with them, we can’t possibly say “I know what it’s like”.
Looking out my window, a swath of Jersey has vanished from the picturesque skyline. The sight and sounds of military helicopters has become disturbingly normal. Once again, New Yorkers find themselves adapting to a new reality that is both unpalatable and yet necessary for the greater good — like drinking cod liver oil straight.
In this, our darkest hour, one can only hope and pray that as we embark on what has chillingly become a close election, the people will ultimately choose the best man who will lead us all toward the light…