The Year without a New York Marathon – Act IV (for my Roman speaking followers)

If there was a narrator to my New York Adventure this is the time where they’d remind you of what has all happened and give you a tease at what’s yet to come. 

So taking a quick look back:  The week leading up to the marathon had me waiting on pin and needles to find out if the marathon would be canceled.  It was not canceled, so I made my way to New York only to find out they would eventually cancel the marathon as I was standing on the Expo floor.  I knew the only way to salvage the trip was to volunteer and to pitch in with the relief efforts on Staten Island.  We tried to volunteer with the Red Cross but that didn’t turn out well for us so we decided to call an audible and just wing it.  We decided to head out on our own and make our way to Staten Island.  We felt all alone and quite lost both figuratively and literally. 

But it turns out we weren’t alone after all.

We obviously weren’t the only people on the Ferry but we didn’t realize that we were with kindred spirits until we really started to look around.  Glancing around the Ferry we spotted an orange shirt (orange shirts = marathoners that were going to help) here and an orange shirt there.  Here an orange shirt, there an orange shirt, everywhere an orange shirt (bonus points if you can name that nursery rhyme reference).  And if we didn’t spot orange peeking out under someone’s jacket we saw cleaning supplies, work gloves, brand new shovels and buckets. We knew that almost everyone on that ferry was headed over to Staten Island for one reason and one reason only — to help.

This was very reassuring – well it was reassuring to a point. We still didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going.  And as we were sitting there looking at everyone that had their own shovels or buckets, and we had nothing, we still felt a bit unable to really pitch in and help.  In my head I was envisioning unloading heavy supplies from a truck via a human assembly line or moving downed tree limbs or carrying out water-logged furniture from destroyed homes and, in all honesty, if that was the work we’d be doing – and as much as I would have manned-up, Brian would have been the one truly representing in our trio.  He would have had to bust his ass just so our group didn’t look like slackers because Jolene and I would have tried, we’d have gotten an A for effort, but that’s about it.  Our ability to heave heavy logs over our shoulders (even though I do a kick ass amount of push ups and I have to say my push up form is stellar, I still have an amazingly disproportionate lack of upper body strength) and carry them out-of-the-way weren’t going to be up to par with the guys.  Little did Brian know that while he was unsuspectingly enjoying his Ferry ride, I was secretly offering him up as the physical go-to guy for the entire relief efforts.  He was going to be “the man”!

But before Brian could single-handedly change the entire relief efforts with his physical prowess, we had to get there and get to the area that needed help.  So, what’s a girl with an unstoppable determination (and a lack of upper-body strength) to help left to do?  Well, this introvert had to make a decision.  Do I overcome my desire not to speak to strangers and ask someone on the Ferry for directions and guidance or do I sit quietly and risk not being able to act on my need to help once we arrived on Staten Island?

I sucked it up, and decided to talk to strangers (kids don’t try this at home).  The couple sitting next to us happened to be carrying 2 shovels as well as some other supplies so they made a pretty good target for me.  I leaned over and said, “I see your shovels and obviously you’re going to help the relief efforts, can I ask where you’re going and what you’re doing?”  And to my surprise, they didn’t know either.  They were like us and just decided to board the ferry and figure it out once the got to Staten Island.  They didn’t know what they were going to do or where they were going.  They did have one thing we didn’t have, however.  They had an email that contained a general location and they were going to try to find that location and see what it held for them.  They were nice enough to share their email with me so we now too had a general location and a street name.  A street name – this was progress!!

As I was talking to the couple a woman who was seated behind us overheard us talking and she chimed in and said she too was heading to Staten Island to help and was also doing it blindly.  She was a fellow marathoner from California and was all alone and soon joined our little party.  There was more sharing of information at the rail station (which we had to take once we got off of the ferry) and a lot more camaraderie.  For lack of a better way to say it – there was already a “movement” of people helping people that had started – just among the us volunteers.  Strangers weren’t strangers at this point.  People were sharing information, offering suggestions and in general more accommodating, friendly and giving than ever before.  I realized at this time, that this was bigger than me.  Bigger than me, Brian and Jolene and bigger than all of us on that train.  We were about to be part of something big.  And when I say big, I don’t mean big in quantifiable terms, I mean big in regards to the emotional connection we were forming.  We were creating a bond that no matter if we ever saw any of these people ever again or ever exchanged names, we’d never forget each other.  We were about to be a part of something most people don’t ever experience, it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime moment.  It was a grass-roots, unselfish, impromptu wish to help strangers.  This, wasn’t first responders or law enforcement doing their jobs (which I do thank them for all they do – thank you) but it was students, marketers, accountants and housewives all pitching in to help.

As we departed the train and stood on the platform we were still a bit foggy as what to do next.  When the train pulled away and we saw the platform of people on the other side who were waiting to go back to Manhattan, again I could not help but get chills and think ‘wow, this is big”.  The other platform was filled with people, most who were wearing orange shirts and all were dirty and exhausted.  I knew immediately they had helped in the relief efforts.  One of them asked where we came from and if we were here to help.  I yelled across the platform (again, this introvert was doing a lot of talking to strangers.  I don’t normally talk this much to strangers unless it’s a bartender and there’s a shot at a free round of drinks) and let him know that, yes we were there to help but we had no idea where we were supposed to go.  He then told us what direction to walk and about how far we had to walk until we found the “hub” of the relief efforts.

So me, Brian, Jolene, Fran (the marathoner from Cali) and the rest of us orange-shirted volunteers walked in the direction we were told but yet not really knowing what we’d find once we got to our destination.  During our walk, I looked around at what seemed to be a pretty unaffected area.  I guess I didn’t know what to expect but what I saw looked fine.  I was wondering if this is all the worse it got, a few dark stop lights and an over-abundance of litter?

As we were walking we saw some closed gas stations that were closed because they didn’t have any fuel.  We also saw some that were still open and they all had long lines of cars idling quietly waiting for gas.  Some people in line didn’t have cars, instead they stood in line holding gas cans.  This was something I’d seen in Jersey too as we were leaving the airport.  Before that I had only seen lines outside of gas stations in documentaries from the 70s when there was gas rationing occurring.  I didn’t think I’d see gas rationing in my lifetime.

We walked past the gas stations, through relatively untouched neighborhoods until we came to the relief “hub”, as I’m calling it.  It was located in a large soccer field outside of New Dorp High School.  We were along the shore line and could see the water in the distance, about half a mile away.  As we made our way to the tents we had to walk past police cars, Red Cross vehicles, warming buses, vehicles unloading supplies, vehicles loading up supplies and a handful of others.  While we saw a lot of support, I couldn’t help just looking around and some how expecting it all to be “bigger”.  While there was a lot going on and there were a lot of vehicles and the tents were full, I still expected more.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected but this wasn’t it.  I guess, based on the destruction I saw on TV and the desperate plea for help that I saw some Staten Island residents ask for, I assumed that all available resources from throughout the country would be there to help.  I know you can’t move all emergency vehicles and resources from around the country and jeopardize other areas because something could always happen elsewhere, but I felt as if these people needed more help and resources.

Once we got to the hub, we still didn’t know what to do.  That’s when Fran spotted a woman walking around carrying a megaphone and realized that anyone who is carrying a megaphone must have authority.  And oh – did she.  Lisa, the woman with the megaphone, is who I want to be when I grow up.  I’ve already tried to “channel” her.  Lisa was dealing with everyone at that site, no matter who they were or what type of clout they had.  She talked with people dropping off supplies, volunteers like us who just wondered in off the streets and needed an assignment, she was dealing with the volunteers who were stationed at the Hub as well as the media, police and some extremely well-dressed, albeit extremely inappropriately dressed, man in a suit and overcoat who we could only assume was some sort of government official.  She dealt with the tired, dirty and hungry and did so with 2 cellphones in her hands along with a megaphone and did it with grace and a calmness that I still can’t figure out.  She was level-headed at all times even though she was being pulled in a million directions and was being interrupted and badgered constantly.  She never came across as being annoyed with the million of questions being tossed at her and actually interacted with us with a smile on her face and friendliness I found astonishing.  Again, I want to be Lisa when I grow up.  Only a certain person with a special personality can do what she does and obviously I don’t have that personality type.

And that was clear as we were getting our assignment and directions.  We were told to gather cleaning supplies from inside the tent, go to the surrounding neighborhoods and distribute the supplies as needed.  Sounds easy enough.  However, my slight OCD personality couldn’t handle such vague directions in such a trying time.  These directions seemed as if they fit more with a neighbor sending their kid out to see if someone on the block had an extra cup of sugar to borrow.  I mean, this was a major disaster area, surely we needed a more structured approach and more direction?  Who was going to answer all of my questions?  Like:

  • How do we divide out supplies among all of us?  Do you want one person to carry all the disinfectant wipes and one person to be in charge of all the garbage bags?
  • Which neighborhoods and/or blocks exactly?  You just pointed “to those over there”?
  • And once we find a block, which streets do we go to?
  • And once we find a street that needs supplies, how do we know which homes to go to?
  • Do the people know we are coming?
  • Have they asked for the supplies?
  • Are they in their houses and if so, do we knock on the door?
  • If they aren’t in their houses, do we just randomly walk up to the strangers and offer them a sponge?
  • Should we divide and conquer or do you want all 4 of us (you have to remember we were now a team of 4 because we had adopted Fran into our little posse) going to the same streets/houses?
  • Is there any logic to who gets what?
  • Do we need to keep track of who we give stuff to and what they took?
  • What if no one will talk to us?
  • What if no one is home?
  • What if they don’t want our help?
  • Are we supposed to say that Lisa sent us?
  • Do they know who Lisa is?
  • Do we need to identify ourselves?

These were just some of the questions swirling around in my head.  And when they swirl around in my head they do so a million miles an hour, producing enough anxiety and pent-up energy that I could have run 2 marathons right then.  Brian has been on the receiving end of my barrage of questions in the past and when you are on the receiving end of it – all you see is me gesturing a million miles an hour while talking just as fast in an extremely high-pitched voice, almost losing consciousness because I forget to actually take a breath until I’m completely done with the full line of questioning, yet when I am done with my questioning, not only can I not remember all the questions I asked, but Brian could only understand a fraction of what I said because I have a tendency to talk too fast and when I talk fast he stops listening and it’s really annoying but he says it’s because he can’t understand me anyways and I say I don’t understand why you can’t understand me because we’ve been together for over 18 years and you shouldn’t even need to understand me, you should know what I’m trying to say and hell you should actually know what I’m thinking, so why don’t you anticipate my questions and have the answers ready before I even ask?!?!?  Whew.  (Oh, how I wish I was exaggerating with that last sentence but as Brian is reading this now I’m sure he’s nodding along and thinking to himself, “welcome to my world, people!”)  I really should have been a police interrogator because I can come up with a 2 billion questions in a 30 second time span and the high-pitched voice that I would have asked all the questions to the perp with would have gotten a confession out of the hardest of criminals.  Perhaps a career change is in my future.  But anyway, back to my original story….

But, I felt I couldn’t do that to Lisa.  She had enough going on and didn’t need to play 20 questions with me.  So, I kept my questions and comments inside and decided to follow their advice, which was – we’d know what to do once we got there.

It was with trepidation that I walked into the neighborhood nearby.  I didn’t know how we’d be received and still didn’t know exactly how we were supposed to hand out supplies.  But as soon as we got to some hard hit streets and we met people and we started offering up our supplies that I knew Lisa and her team were right.  We knew what to do once we got there.  Slowly but surely we started encountering people and handing out supplies.  We had to make our way through, in most cases, the middle of the street because most people had already emptied out their homes with all of their damaged and water-logged possessions.  Their entire homes and everything they had owned was now strewn on the lawns, sidewalks and curbs.  And in many cases their stuff piled into the streets too.  It was hard to see people’s cherished possessions lying on the curb like yesterday’s trash.  You could see toys, musical instruments and antiques discarded and tossed aside.  While all the items thrown out were now considered garbage I felt a need to be respectful of their belongings because a week ago it wasn’t garbage, it was something they cared about and chose to have in their homes.  I kept looking at items on the street and wondering what the story was behind each item.  Was it a gift, an heirloom or prize?  Did it have special meaning?  And I couldn’t help but wonder what my house would look like on the curb. How would I handle having my treasured items being lost forever?  And knowing my home is a disaster and all of my belonging are on the curb, how would I deal with strangers coming by offering me garbage bags and sponges?

I’m not sure how I would handle it, but I can tell you how residents of Staten Island handled it – with gratitude, humbleness and genuine sincerity.  Everyone we met we so unbelievably nice and grateful.  These folks were dealing with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy for over 5 days and yet they weren’t bitter or resentful to have people in their neighborhoods.  I thought at least a few people would just be so emotionally drained by this point that they’d be unwelcoming or distant.  But that wasn’t the case.  They appreciated the supplies and our efforts too.  And it wasn’t just us handing out cleaning supplies, there were 2 women pushing about 200 pounds of dog food on a flat cart through the streets and were looking for people with pets.  There were a handful of older women with large tin pans full to the brim of pasta and were dishing that out meals door-to-door as well.  And let’s not forget about the pickup trucks driving around that were handing out water and other food and amenities.

There was something so amazing about what was happening right then and there.  I can’t describe it.  If I was a better writer I may be able to put it into words, but I just can’t.  I can’t truly get across what was happening.  It was, as I mentioned earlier, a “movement” and it wasn’t about any one person or charity  because at this point it was not a charitable organization helping out, it was all random strangers coming together.  It was about human beings helping out other human beings because that’s just the right thing to do.  When people use the phrase “it warms my heart”, I now know what they are talking about.  It was a “warm feeling” coming over me and I can only describe what was happening as something that was “warming my heart”.  (I know what some of you are thinking… you’re thinking it’s about time my icy heart got a dose of warmth. But in reality, I’m not nearly as bad as the Grinch was, I never stole anyone’s Who Hash!)

We made a few trips back and forth from the neighborhoods to the Hub to get more supplies and then made our way back to the streets.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay too long because with daylight savings time it was starting to get dark.  And we had about a mile walk back to the train station and a lot of the area didn’t have electricity and/or lights.  Plus, it was a full 2.5 hours until we could expect to be back to our hotel, so we had to get going.  But we left knowing we’d return on Monday.

And if possible, what happened on Monday was even more… well dare I say it?  Powerful.

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