May 24, 2013
Down and Out at Rockaway Beach
Posted on Nov 6, 2012
Two thoughts struck me as I considered what I saw. First, anyone who says that people who lack money are lazy should be required to make the claim at loud volume amid a relief effort in a low-income community like this one. Second, the disaster movies that dominate Hollywood are written by people who have never had such an experience. They tell stories they know will appeal to audiences of people who delight in imagining themselves as survivors of a worldwide catastrophe. There was no such delight here in Rockaway.
After picking my way through the neighborhood, I found a generator-powered bookmobile outside a Queens Public Library building. My cellphone was nearly dead, so I walked in to get a charge. Inside were half a dozen neighborhood residents. Some were reading; others were just getting out of the cold. One carefully dressed man was reading a biography of Barack Obama. Nearby were two women, a man in his late 20s and a young girl, who sat silently. I introduced myself and asked how she had weathered the storm.
“Everything in my basement” was lost, she said.
When I asked if everything above ground was OK, she explained that her family lived in the basement.
“You from the neighborhood?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Brooklyn.”
“Most of Brooklyn was pretty lucky,” he responded.
“Yeah,” I said. “You lose everything, too?”
“I got my place, but nothing that was in it. It’s cold too, but there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s a night to be under a woman, let me tell you. But me? I don’t even have that.”
He said his name was Jervais. He anticipated waiting a long time for electricity to be restored to the neighborhood and thought city and federal officials didn’t care enough to give the Rockaways the urgent attention it needed. A woman standing at the back of the bookmobile disagreed. She was an employee of the library, dressed in clothes she had bought the day before because everything she owned had been washed away.
“I have my health,” she said. “That’s all I need.”
FEMA, Con Edison and the NYPD were doing everything they could, she declared. But Jervais wasn’t buying it. The conversation eventually turned to the looting that had taken place immediately after the storm.
“There’s lots of kids in the Rockaways with brand new sneakers,” Jervais said.
Most of the storefronts I had seen on the way in and through the Rockaways were smashed in or boarded up. Many bore graffiti that said everything inside had been taken.
It was getting dark outside. One of the women in the bookmobile warned me that buses into town would stop running at 6 p.m. It was already 4:30. A lot of volunteer workers and others would be looking to get back home. I unplugged my phone, thanked the library employee and walked outside.
Two buses showed up within the next hour. I passed on the first one, which was crowded with riders, and boarded the second one. On the long ride home, two men and a woman spoke loudly and endlessly about everything they had lost and the kind of civil disobedience it might take to get the electricity turned back on in a timely manner.
“Anyone who pays rent in the Rockaways is crazy,” one man huffed.
Others stared silently out the windows or tried to sleep. The bus made its way back toward the city center, navigating through the flotsam of battered boats and debris still cluttering the road.
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