My last entry took us from the Staten Island Ferry, three random nobodies looking for a way to help, all the way to the streets of Staten Island as a part of the grass-roots movement that traveled right up on to the front lawns of those who’d lost everything. I experienced something incredible on that Sunday afternoon but it was nothing compared to what was awaiting me on Monday.
As I left Staten Island on Sunday I knew I needed to go back. I needed to help out some more. Seeing how much these people needed and yet how little they asked for, made me want to help them that much more. But we wouldn’t be going back empty-handed. Having seen the volunteer Hub and knowing what the residents of Staten Island needed, the three of us decided to go shopping and bring supplies with us on Monday. Sunday evening and Monday morning we did a bit of shopping at the two local CVS stores near our hotel. We pretty much cleaned them out of a few key products such as gloves and disinfectant wipes. Even though we had to lug these heavy supplies 2.5 hours to the Hub, I couldn’t help but sneak more products into the shopping basket every time Brian and Jolene looked away. I just couldn’t bear the thought of not doing all I could for the people of New Dorp, Staten Island.
On our way back to New Dorp, I had a sense of calm that I didn’t have the day before. Knowing where we were going, knowing exactly how we would be helping and knowing that people were receptive to us, made me so much more comfortable. And for a change, instead of being the people looking around desperately for someone to offer us guidance, Monday was our turn to help a few newbies that we met on the train heading to New Dorp, Staten Island. Other than Lisa, the megaphone carrying woman in charge and Fran, the California marathoner who tagged along on Sunday, we never actually got anyone’s name. So the two gentlemen we met on the train on Monday we refer to as “Dutch” and “Manhattan”. Dutch was a reporter from Holland that was in the states to cover the election and then ended up reporting on Superstorm Sandy as well. Manhattan was an older New York native that lived in Manhattan that had the day off so he wanted to come and help too. Both of these gentlemen didn’t have a clue where they were going or what they were going to do, so we invited them to follow us. As we chatted with the two, we found out that Manhattan had lost water and electricity and was without them for 5 days. When he was talking about this, he didn’t complain, he just stated the facts. And he also mentioned how lucky he was. I don’t think I would have been able to be that positive about the situation.
And that brings me to another thing I realized during my time in New York, no one complained about what they’d been through. People who had every reason to complain and bitch – didn’t! Later in the week, I was at a small boutique and I overheard the sales associates talking. It turned out the girl I had spied folding clothes a few minutes earlier was from Staten Island and had lost everything. She had moved into a new apartment 3 months earlier and because she moved into a new place, did what a lot of us did when we moved into a great new place, we spent a lot of money on brand new furnishings. And she lost it all. And yet here she was working retail and straightening racks of clothes and telling her story without bitching or complaining. She was simply stating the facts. Yet another life lesson I learned from the great people of New York… “it is, what it is!”
But back to Staten Island…
Brian, Jolene, and I, along with “Manhattan” and “Dutch” walked from the Staten Island rail stop to the Hub at New Dorp High School. There wasn’t a large outpouring of volunteers on Monday because many marathoners left New York to go back home and the locals had to go back to work. Instead of there being a large group on a mission, it was the five of us just trying to make a difference on a Monday morning. As soon as we arrived, and after Dutch interviewed me for his news story, we found Lisa to confirm our assignment was the same as yesterday – deliver supplies to the ravaged neighborhoods. While that was our job, this time Lisa had an exact street and address she wanted us to go to because she had been given specific information that this street was in need of help. She asked that we go to 339 Seaver Street. It was not a neighboring street and we didn’t know how to get there but thankfully with smartphones and map applications, you know no longer need to be familiar with towns to be able to get around. We pulled up the address on my phone and took a look at where Seaver Street was compared to where the Hub was and it wasn’t too close. Lisa suggested we not walk and instead take our car. Brian, Jolene and I looked at each other, then looked at Lisa and said that we didn’t have a car but we could absolutely walk there and it wouldn’t be a problem. There was no way I was going to let the distance stop me from helping Seaver Street. How bad of volunteers would we be if we said, “nah, that’s a bit too far away and I don’t want to walk there, we’ll pass and find something closer.”? It just wasn’t going to happen. Plus I was supposed to run a marathon yesterday, this “long walk” was a sign that I was in the right place, at the right time and doing the right thing. And in all actuality, it wasn’t that far – about 1.5 miles away once we got to the other side of the Hub and weaved through the other side streets, etc.
Thankfully since we were last at the Hub on Sunday, the Hub had been given some old shopping carts so we loaded up our supplies in our shopping cart and headed off to Seaver Street (For clarification purposes I should note that the proper street name is Seaver Avenue. However, since we first knew it as Seaver Street and not Avenue, it will forever be Seaver Street to me.) Since we were going to be walking for a few miles and we had a lot of heavy supplies, we were grateful for the shopping cart.
As we were making our way to Seaver Street, a completely new direction and area of town than where we were on Sunday, we couldn’t help but think “this area doesn’t look too bad”. I was actually wondering if Lisa had incorrect information because the neighborhoods we were walking through weren’t too bad in fact some homes were absolutely untouched. We saw a few homes that did not have one blade of grass out-of-place and one even had a very lavish flower bed and some lawn decorations on display. The owner of this particular home was actually watering his flowers as we made our way past his house the second time. The irony of him adding water to his property when everyone around him and been devastated due to too much water, was not lost on me but it was apparently on him. For if this was my place, I would have forgotten about trying to keep my flowers fresh and my lawn beautiful when there was so much devastation all around. But then again, maybe that’s why he was doing it – to counter the ugliness around him.
As we were traversing block after block we started noticing that the untouched homes were the minority and very much a fluke. Each next street we walked past on our way to Seaver Street had more destruction than the previous. We started to see things we didn’t even see the day before. Cars piled on top of each other like in movies, homes moved from their foundations and just more overall chaos. I felt my eyes growing larger and larger with each step and I felt myself getting sicker and sicker too. I didn’t think I would be shocked by what I saw because we thought we had seen it all on Sunday. But it was different. This area of town was much worse. Seeing block after block, street after street, home after home all destroyed and damaged just became overwhelming.
These people all needed help so badly. Yet another big difference between Sunday and Monday was that on Sunday, there were so many volunteers doing different tasks, but today the women passing out dog food weren’t there and no one was driving the streets with food or water and supplies were in short supply and so were the people passing them out. It wasn’t a large group of people all part of a movement – it was just 3 people from the Midwest trying to make any bit of difference that we could. It was me, Brian and Jolene walking all alone through unfamiliar streets. The movement had dwindled to the three of us. And that was okay, we were not going to let that stop us. We were on a mission and that was to help Seaver Street because we were told they needed it.
And did they ever.
When we got to the edge of Seaver Street and looked down it and saw it as a whole, I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I felt I was looking into a destruction tunnel and I almost felt as if we shouldn’t enter the tunnel. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we didn’t belong there. I felt as if they wouldn’t want us to be on their street when it was in that condition, that the people who entered the tunnel of destruction needed to live there because they were the only ones who knew how it felt and should see their homes ravished. I wanted to give them their privacy and enough respect to not invade their space in such a delicate time.
But Lisa told us that people on Seaver Street needed us, so we weren’t going to let Lisa or the people of Seaver Street down. Seaver is a dead-end so we decided to go all the way to the end and then make our way back. When we started working our way back up Seaver, it was very similar to what we experienced on Sunday; we offered supplies and people at first said they didn’t need anything until we offered a 2nd time and then they all came around and agreed that they
could use a few things. And just like Sunday, these folks only took what they needed. I was astonished. I’d have hoarded everything in my cart. Apparently I wouldn’t be a very good person in need because I don’t think I’d be nearly as gracious and I would definitely have been much more greedy.
As on Sunday, we were working quickly and efficiently. We gave out our first couple of supplies on Seaver and them moved on to the next house. But then something different happened. We didn’t just give and go. People wanted, almost needed, to talk to us. They needed to thank us while telling their stories. We got a few “God bless yous”, and a “Thank you so much, God has eyes and ears and will remember” from one woman too. I got chills at that point and had to bite my lip to stop myself from tearing. One older woman who was standing outside with her husband was tearing up and it just made me so sad and it made our limited means of helping seem so trivial. Yet she was so grateful. I couldn’t stop myself… I hugged her. I HUGGED A STRANGER! In this world, there are huggers and there are huggees (those who hug back but never start the hug) and I am the latter. I don’t go in for the hug and I don’t hug strangers. But on Seaver Street, I wanted to hug them all.
A few houses down we ran into another couple, who we came to know as Sheri and Tom. They too needed a mental break from their lives and we 3-strangers from the Midwest handing out supplies were just the distraction they needed. They asked us where we were from. And when we told them they quickly replied… “tell us something about Wisconsin, what’s Wisconsin like?” We talked a bit about the Packers and Vince Lombardi. We also heard more about what had happened to them and their story and how they watched the water rise and cover the top of a van. Sheri also asked if she could have the dish soap we had in our shopping cart because it would make Tom’s mom happy. Apparently Tom’s mom had tried to go to the store to buy a few items but had returned very distraught and upset because everything was gone. She didn’t know what she was going to do or how she was going to cope. Her life and routine were in an up hevel and Sheri knew something as simple as giving her mother-in-law dish soap would be enough to help calm her down and let her know things were going to be okay. Can you even imagine? Something as simple as dish soap was going to make a difference in someone’s life? That’s crazy for me to wrap my head around.
Tom and Sheri asked what had brought the 3 of us to New York and I, again, hesitantly said we were supposed to run the marathon. I was hoping they wouldn’t be mad at us for coming because I knew the folks of Staten Island were the most adamant about canceling the marathon and I just hoped they weren’t going to judge us because we came to NY expecting to run. But to my surprise, they weren’t mad at us. In fact, Sheri said how sorry she was that it was canceled on us. What?!?! Unreal!!!! As we talked some more and told them we were glad the marathon was canceled and were grateful that we could help them out, they said they’d be watching the marathon next year and would make a point of cheering us on. Again, I had to bite my lip so I didn’t cry. We told them we were going to hold them to that and got their phone number so we could stay in contact. And we really mean that too.
Besides Tom and Sheri, we talked and listened to more people on Seaver Street. We learned from our Red Cross class (who knew that class would actually have come in handy) that in times like these people needed to tell their stories. So we listened. We listened to Sheri talk about her mother-in-law needing dish soap and we listened to her talk about needing to find bleach so she could disinfect her kids toys. We listened to another mom talk, through her tears, how she hoped they condemn her house because she can’t go back and live in it. We listened to her say she’ll burn it down before he goes back. We listened to her talk about her child who has asthma.
We listened to them all. And with each brief story, thank you or God bless you – I realized that I was forever being changed by this moment. Each time we saw tears in their eyes, I had to fight back the tears in my eyes. I knew I was living a moment.
A moment that most people don’t get to experience and one that I never expected. I, for the first time, had a connection to an event, to people and to a place that I will forever hold in my heart. I can’t shake Seaver Street from my thoughts. And I hope I never do. I’ve gone on Google maps and looked at the street view of their neighborhood prior to Sandy. I’ve wondered what their Thanksgiving and holidays will be like. I’ve already made a point to put Tom and Sheri on my Christmas list and Brian, Jolene and I have all agreed we are going back to Seaver Street next year to visit some unlikely friends. While the people of Seaver Street may not remember us when we return next year, we’ll remember them. And we’ll remember that while they were saying thank you to us… I should really have said thank you to them.
Thank you Seaver Street for giving me perspective, showing me what true humanity is and for changing who I am – for the better.