November 4, 2012

I Left & I Went Back

The air turned cold overnight. Biting wind, raw cheeks, sore fingers, a reminder that my winter jacket hangs in my vacant apartment. Perhaps. Google maps leads me down the avenue and around the block - a farther walk than I would make day to day - the subway still flooded, rails damaged, not strong enough to carry our heavy sorrows. We carry them on our own, we carry each other’s.

I can say that now. I can say that now because I went back. After looking at the craigslist bedroom that turned out not to be a bedroom, I went back. I went west to travel east, stood in the crowded bus aisle, sat on the empty train, walked blocks and blocks and blocks, thanked my regular bus driver, and took deep breaths as I walked down my road, I went back.

Cars scattered along the side of the avenue, facing the wrong direction, clustered on the grassy embankment, sitting in the middle of the lane, they could have been matchbox cars strewn about by a toddler. A group of toddlers, perhaps. Trashbags, couches, end tables, kitchen chairs, clothing and memories, bags and bags of memories, lined every inch of the sidewalked, piled to my shoulders, sometimes higher. The hum of the generators. Too loud, too quiet, too many, not enough, used only to pump water out of basements, out of first floors. It’s too dangerous to have electricity flowing through these homes. My home.

For almost three months it was my home. My neighborhood. My neighbors. Three months is not enough time, I know that. I don’t recognize faces, don’t know any names. I’m too young and too old, a generational neighborhood full of grandparents and parents and grandchildren. Thick Brooklyn accents and neighborhood block parties. I didn’t fit in, I’d never fit in, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. I felt safe there. They gave me the gift of safety. It’s a gift I’ll never know how to return.

They weren’t safe that night. The night the tidal surge rose five to eight feet. The night they swam to safety, rescued out of second story windows by boats, fled into a make-shift shelter in the church a mile down the road. A mile down the road, where the water finally stopped. They were not under a mandatory evacuation, so they didn’t leave until it became apparent they were no longer safe.

There are stories of heroes from that night. Stories of sheer tragedy. Stories of devastation. I can’t tell those stories, because I wasn’t there. I left. I left early. I left and didn’t return for days. The subways were down, the power was out, standing water in my apartment mixed with sewage, I was told it wasn’t safe, reports of looters, house fires, micro-bacteria... a heavy heart. A heart too heavy to carry all that way. Guilt for leaving, for having belongings only on the second floor and out of harm's way. Saturated and drained with sorrow for those who lost everything, for my neighbors who lost everything.

For my neighbors who greeted me with smiles when I rounded the corner to my house. Who offered to move the cars if I needed to throw furniture on the sidewalk for garbage collection. Who kindly said to let them know if I needed anything when I responded that I was just getting my things for a few days. Neighbors who smiled without judgment. The best of the best live in that neighborhood. I know because I went back.

The church down the street has lines of cars donating and streams of people volunteering. The neighborhood is buzzing with people helping one another out, sharing generators, navigating pumping systems, throwing out furniture. The kids still run circles around the tiny blocks and race each other on scooters. There are smiles there. Despite all, in spite of all, there are smiles there. The best of the best live in that neighborhood.

I probably will not live in that neighborhood any longer. My apartment holds the stench of sea water and sewage so badly that it takes effort to take a single breath. The furniture has been put back in its place, but it needs to be thrown out. The heating system, the electrical system, the structure of the home all need to be inspected. It has started to drop below freezing at night and concern for frozen pipes begins to grow. I held my breath and grabbed my winter coat, the books I need for school this week, handfuls of socks and underwear, and the stuffed dog I’ve had forever.

I left again. This time, I left with a lighter heart. My neighborhood is devastated. My neighbors are sleeping in shelters. They have lost everything. But they still have their spirit, kindness, and generosity. Those things cannot be swept away in flood waters.

I’ll be sleeping on the couch at my brother’s place in Midtown for what will be far too many nights in the near future. But my heart will be with my old neighbors, in my old neighborhood. Even if I never call it home again, it will always have my heart.


  1. Oh my love. I am so upset at what has happened to your home, but so proud of you for pushing forward through this tough time. For being tough yourself.

  2. Wow, I'm so sorry you and so many others have had to face this monumental upheaval and tragedy...I still can't believe my eyes when I see footage. It encourages me though when I read stories like yours of people still holding on to hope and facing tomorrow with a resilience due to family, friends and faith. I pray that you find a peaceful and safe new start very soon. Sending you *hugs*...

  3. Oh I'm sorry to hear about this. Still, I'm glad that you have a place to stay but hold everyone else in my heart. Chin up and eyes forward - stay warm my friend!