Last Tuesday, I went to Coney Island to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I’d received an email from a volunteer group to assist in demolition and cleanup up. But when I got to the rendezvous point on Surf Avenue, I was hijacked by another group that needed volunteers to go door to door, floor to floor, in a housing project to make sure its elderly and disabled tenants had someone to help them get food, medication, etc. I was whisked into a small car with a lot of people and dropped off at a housing project further down Surf Ave. This housing project had a real pretty view of the ocean.
The view may not have been on too many people’s mind, however, in the bona fide disaster zone that Coney Island has become. Power was down in most domestic buildings. Streetlights were blinking irregularly. The storm waters deposited tons of sand all over the community. Bulldozers piled the sand into huge dunes, but sand still scattered about in the wind, burning the eyes. National Guard trucks sped along the streets, kicking up more sand. The smell of fuel and natural gas was in the air, watering the eyes. Trash blue in the wind – collected against fences. At one point a fire erupted out of a manhole in the middle of the street. Not until a fire arrived did me and the other volunteers take our eyes off that. Long lines of Black, Hispanic, Russian and elderly people stood in long lines where the Red Cross or FEMA or churches were handing out clothes and food. Their eyes were set in a blank stare to that place where only the cold, hungry and tired can see. Their eyes burned too, I bet. But I’m sure they were willing to deal with it.
The first floor of the housing project was inhabitable due to the flooding, so we only had to tackle the 2nd thru 24th floors. Lucky us. Yes, lucky us. Because all we had to do was go up and down the stairs and knock on doors, unlike the Black, Hispanic, Russian and Elderly folks who lived there. They had to carry carts of food, water and clothing up the stairs. Many were out of breath, resting in the stairwell, mustering the strength to climb the other 10 or so floors they had left. They would laugh and say something like…
“Dear Lord, please get that elevator a workin’!”
Their positive attitudes were inspiring, but they did look at you funny when you told them…
“Have a great day!”
They held that look on you until you were certain you were an idiot. But they didn’t hold it against you. Not at all.
They didn’t. Really. Because floor after floor, people thanked us so much for simply “caring” enough to check on them. They thanked us in English, Spanish, and I think the Russians thanked us, too. When it was all said and done, we only helped a few people, giving them flashlights, phone numbers to field pharmacies and nurses. But what they needed was heat and we couldn’t give it to them. They needed water, but if they could walk, we couldn’t get it for them. They needed power, and we couldn’t give them that, either. But so many tenants stepped across their doorway and held our hands firmly, and said something like…
“We’s just glad they’s somebody that care ’nuff to come over and check on us…”
That feeling of being an idiot subsided, a little bit. People freezing in a concrete housing project that looks and feels just a little less like a prison have a way of making you feel at home when they smile and thank you. And it’s impossible to refrain from feeling truly grateful for what you have.
On my way to my warm home, I caught this conversation between a twenty something couple. She was a Russian immigrant, he was rough Brooklyn, born and bred.
She: I’m sick of this America shit. If I win the lottery, I’d go to South America – maybe back to Russia. Live in a little house, grow my own vegetables. My little girls can pick cotton. You could come with me.
He: I’m born here. It’s all I know. So, that’s what you’d do if you won the lottery?
She: Yeah. I’m mean I don’t hate it here…but there’s just SO MUCH…it’s TOO MUCH comin’ at you. I want something easier.
He: You know, you can grow vegetables and your girls can pick cotton right now. That’s what poor people do. That may be simpler. But it ain’t easier. It’s just as hard as it is here.
She: The lady runnin’ my shelter spies on us. She snuk up on me when I was going to the the bathroom. I almost hit her with the roll of toilet paper.
He: They don’t turn the lights off where I’m at. It’s just like jail.
When I got home, Super Tuesday was in full swing, all across cyberspace. The Conservative news outlets were confident Mitt Romney would win, and the Liberal news outlets were certain President Obama would be re-elected. The hideous news anchors were explaining what President Obama could do for Americans, what Romney would do for Americans. It all hinged on which way those silly undecided states – Ohio and Florida – would swing. Oh, the tension, the excitement. Facebook posts and tweets on the Twitter were a lightin’ up over the suspense! People were so funny, so happy, the day was finally here. But they were so nervous, too. OMG is their guy gonna win? Stay tuned, America! It was the grandest of reality shows, grander than plastic infused mafia wives, trashy Jersy girls, or drunk housewives, drag queens, ‘gator hunters, Klondike miners, hillbilly hoarders, and even Donald Trump, who was jealous and angry. But he’ll probably cool down, because NBC is still giving him millions of dollars for one hour each week to shit out his false reality.
I tried to keep up as the networks called states in favor of the President or Romney. And I tried to be American and approach the election like a football game, like an episode of Dancing with the Stars, or Glee, but I just kept hearing that conversation I heard on the subway…and I kept seeing all the faces of the people out on Coney Island. They seemed a million miles from the election. So I powered down and went to bed.
When I awoke, democracy had prevailed. President Obama would remain our president. I believe it was a victory for America, not because I think Obama is a savior and will lead us to the promised land, but because he is responsible for the rise in the percentage of voters, over 60% for two elections. I would love to see how America is represented if we can get to 85%…hell, we the people may actually have representation then, and the efforts for coporate/military totality may finally be conquored. Obama’s legacy is that he got people to the polls, and that’s enough to go down in history as an American hero, in this Age of Lethargy, anyway. He’s got the Black, Hispanic and Elderly vote…becuase they feel he is on their side. And I believe he is. He even got more of the evangelical right to come out and vote against him. They gave it the good fight and lost. But everybody wins when more people vote.
But all the American Woopdie-Do was little help to the Black, Hispanic, Russian and Elderly out at Coney Island on Less Than Super Wednesday, because of a massive snow storm that blew through later that evening. The biblical snowstorm hindered the relief efforts in response to the biblical hurricane and I’m sure more than a few of the people I met out there were severely disappointed with The Almighty. And, I’m sure more than a few could give a shit who won the Presidency. It’s hard to really care about such spectacle when you’re digging through a cardboard box of coats and the only thing you can find to fit has flowers on it, is pink, and you’re a black man who has to wear it to his freezing apartment that is not a home so much as the government’s “project.”
But hope has been abundant in New York this week. Inspiration has been abundant. Democracy has been abundant, too, though I’m not talking about Super Tuesday and all the drinking games it spawned from the policy wonks and quatroano politicos. The people have been well represented here in the Big Apple because they’ve been representing themselves. The unfortunate have let groups of goofy white merrymakers into their homes in so called bad neighborhoods to say hello and attempt to offer them relief. The fortunate have come out in droves to attempt that relief. They weren’t waiting for a politician to make the country better, THEY were making it better. Out on the American street, the White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, elderly, disabled and poor, poor, poor have ventured forth from the rubble and looked each other in the eye, and acknowledged themselves as human beings. If a group of humans can do that, they can easily be Americans together. A disaster can wipe away all those “things” that that Russian on the subway was talking about. That Brooklyn boy was right, picking cotton ain’t easy, and nobody’s lives are easy. But a disaster can lift humanity to such a level higher than individual toil, so high it’s easy to see that we are in this big shebang together, that we are one.
Saturday night, my friend Osha took me to a warehouse space in Long Island City to see some Butoh performers. The place was located under the elevated train. As the train roared intermittently, women performed Butoh, a Japenese performance art where the artist moves excruciatingly slowly, yet seamlessly. Their actions are broad, sometimes absurd. They do not speak, but convey tremendous emotion through the expressions of their faces. I love Butoh, though sometimes I paw out in the air for a fast forward button. However, I’m always glad I stuck with it, and followed the emotional arc of the performers. Good Butoh is like watching a moving painting. And, you don’t realize it’s changed you until it’s over. It’s a simple craft, but it ain’t easy. You – the audience – have to put in the time, and in many ways, the performance is about what’s happening within you. Some things are worth commitment, even if they are moving at a painfully slow pace.
Great piece, Todd. I’d love to hear your song(s) on all this.